21 minutes reading time (4281 words)
In conversation with... Toby Barnes and Marcus Brown
As part of Imperica's media partnership with Interesting North, we are running a series of interviews with conference speakers. The first article in this series features Toby Barnes, whose talk is entitled "James Bond: architecture critic"; and Marcus Brown, whose talk is about spending a week in a mental hospital.
The conversation starts with Toby and Marcus telling us about their Interesting North talks in detail.
TB: Russell asked me to speak at last year's Interesting. It was the most nervous that I have ever been. It was the most difficult talk, and I have talked in front of lots of people, mainly because I didn't have an agenda. I did a talk around cheating: why I think cheating is important, and why we should be allowed to cheat. Russell said to me that I shouldn't talk about anything concerning video games, so I stood up and started by saying that I have cheated in games, and I was going to talk about games, but really it was about cheating. I was so nervous, that I did the whole thing in about five minutes flat; Russell told everyone to keep it short. I sat down, and realised that everyone else after me had ignored Russell, and did their talks in about 20 minutes. I wanted to go back on and do it again, so when Greg asked me to do it again for Interesting North, I jumped at the chance - and this time, I'm going to take about 45 minutes to ramble through my talk, whether he likes it or not [!]
I'm doing a talk this time about modernism, and the lack of any real thought around modernism any more. It ties into my thoughts around futurism and futurists, and the common feeling that we don't have much of a confidence about the future, necessarily being driven by any form of fiction. We look at it these days as a nostalgia piece, as science fiction is fun - meals in pills, jet packs - rather than either a horrible JG Ballard world that we have to live in, or a beautiful utopian let's-all-have-sex-with-the-aliens type of thing.
However, the talk will start with architecture, and around the lack of any direction, from trying to develop new buildings, physical places, or anything that feels like this is going to be the future. I am going to use the example of James Bond, blowing up lots of modern buildings. These buildings house the guys who employ thousands of people, but they are working hard to give people a job... and Bond, in his Savile Row suit, is going around blowing up this Barratt Homes architecture.
MB: I am going to talk about something that was difficult, painful, upsetting, and scary. It was about 5 years ago, when I walked out of the front door of our house. I turned left, and woke up 12 days later, on a camping site, with a tent and a bicycle... and I didn't know how I got there. And I hate camping.
That was really very scary for me... I not only scared myself, but my friends, family, acquaintances - who didn't know where I was. I saw a doctor, who suggested that I spend some time in a very special hospital. I'm going to be talking about my time in the mental hospital, and what it's like to discover that I wasn't actually mad. When something like that happens to you, it's very traumatic, and you think that you're losing your mind... and then you go into a hospital with a whole bunch of other people, and discover that you're actually you're pretty close to sane. It's a whole bunch of stories about people that I met. It was a mirror of society. There was a self-imposed segregation; there was a group of Turkish people who didn't really interact, groups of German people, and then you had men who didn't interact with the women. The Turkish guys played cards, and I managed to break down that social barrier. I wanted to play cards, and it took me about half an hour of serious negotiation. Playing a game of pool with someone that suffers from panic attacks, is probably the funniest thing that I have ever done. I had to play badly, just to ensure that the guy didn't have a nervous breakdown in front of me.
When everyone knows everything about you through Twitter or Facebook,
do we have spaces for freedom any more?
A connection between your talks appears to be around the harsh realities of the present - whether at the hospital, or living in the now, rather than in a utopian world. Do you see an optimistic future as being something which we need to get a grip on more and more, given the mundanity of the present?
TB: It's about being able to jump far enough ahead. I don't know who this was, but someone said that 2010 is the last date of the future. Because everything is speeded up, it's very hard to make the leap, and no-one is brave enough to make a leap and for people to go “I think that's probably where we should go to”. One of the things that Marcus was saying, was about the issue of freedom. Waking up and not actually knowing where you have been for the past 12 days actually sounds rather blissful, even though I don't actually know how bad that was. When somebody tells you that you are insane, that you don't have to play by the rules of what somebody tells you to do... it can give that jump of freedom. When everyone knows everything about you through Twitter or Facebook, do we have spaces for freedom any more?
One of the things that we are trying to do with Chromaroma is not to make a game; it's to do something which adds a tiny bit of imagination to people's lives. It's something that I see in your work, Marcus, and it's something that we did with Such Tweet Sorrow. It's about adding little tiny bits - little droplets of magic - but it's antithetical to what Hollywood is trying to do at the moment.
MB: The diagnosis of what I had, revealed disassociative fugue, which means that in my head, I ran away. It had to do with a number of stressful situations in my life, as well as being “middle-30”, which is the blandest of places to be. When you turn 30, you can moan about being 30; when you turn 40, you moan about being old... but the middle-30s is about being bland.
TB: I'm 37, and one of the things that I was talking to Russell about is the belief that you can only introduce yourself as one “thing” when you're at a party: “You're the guy that did that”. If you did something great in your mid-twenties and then don't keep it up, you're the guy that did that thing 10 years ago.
MB: I hate that “What do you do?” kind of stuff. Normally I say that I'm a dentist. I have made a real effort over the last six years to ask “Who are you?” not “What do you do?”
TB: There's a gentleman that works in the studio. Whenever anyone asks “What do you do?”, he says that he is a musician - he has produced a couple of albums, and is in a couple of bands. However, he worries about it, because if anyone Googles him, it turns out that he works at Mudlark... so, was he lying about the music, or was he lying about Mudlark? It's all true, and he works at Mudlark to have the money to do those things. He always says that I am renting his brain. I am paying him money, to rent his brain, to do stuff.
Google would be interesting, if you could Google the future.
MB: My whole stance on this, came out of my experience... in hindsight, it was actually quite frightening. It was extraordinarily painful at the time, but now, I can see that there are some funny parts. All of those responsibilities, and the pressure, triggered the disassociative state. While going through the process of “fixing it”, I realised that anything is possible, and that's the theme of my talk. I was toying with the idea of finishing it with something spectacular, like getting ELO on stage to perform Mr. Blue Sky, just to make the point that anything is possible. That whole thing happened before I started telling stories online. I had given up anything creative that was important to me about twenty years ago. I sold my brain to do paid work... a suit, a consultant, a marketing robot. Now, if you Google me, because of the way that our culture is developing, the future isn't really that important anymore. Our possible pasts are now more important. Google would be interesting, if you could Google the future. But, you can't. You can only Google the past.
You have a talented guy working for you, Toby, and he's concerned that somebody might find out that he crunches numbers... which is very sad.
We've gone through the future. I can distinctly remember when we celebrated 2000, I was really fucked off that there wasn't a Mekon floating in the front room. That was really disappointing. All those Vikings, back in the day... they forgot to keep on writing stuff about 2050.
What if we could Google the future, and it was just a slightly modified version of where we are now? We still have terraced Victorian houses, after all. How are we going to facilitate that change?
TB: We're at this really strange point where the nostalgia for the past is so strong. If I look at my desk, there's an old leather chair, an old leather bag, a notepad made to look like a 1930s field notepad, and pencils. There's a real nostalgia for craft, and at the same time, my bag is filled with an iPod, iPad and iPhone.
We're in this strange transition between the two. It's Russell who talks about the nostalgia of the past and the novelty of the new. It will become interesting when we create networks for buildings, and things start automating. Buildings can change, or will be constructed in such a way that they perform relevant functions; so they can be a library in the daytime, and a club at night. The speed of change in some things has accelerated, but the speed of change in others has decelerated.
In architecture, the structures that are currently in place to enable somebody to think bigger than they would have wanted to, are just not there. Architects are paid to put a building up, and as soon as the front door opens, they bugger off and do something else. That's quite a sad place, as they're not paid to make it live. It's like making babies, then chucking them out of windows. That's one of the things that we need to focus on, in terms of what the future is like: to create systems to enable people to “do stuff”, not just get them out the door.
MB: I live in a completely different country, and I live in a city which is really old. Large chunks of it did survive the war quite well, and they have rules in Munich about how high a building can be. It's not like Frankfurt, where you can put a skyscraper anywhere you want. In Munich, I think that they're not allowed to be higher than the cathedral. You don't really see new buildings. I'm trying to think of new buildings that I have seen here in the past year... and I can't think of any. If any were built, they must have blended into the overall aesthetic of the city, so it doesn't disturb this urban picture.
TB: If that's true and stays being true, it's like that Munich will never get beyond a certain year. The future has been cut off, unless somebody, somewhere, says “Fuck this, it's not going to work”. Either the city gets flattened and starts again, which is unlikely, or someone will say “This year, we really need to put this hotel in, and let's bump up the height”. I know that to be true of some cities in the UK, and especially different parts of the UK, that are the same. They argue about conservation - and about conservation areas. But, conservation is something else. What they're talking about is preservation: preserving the past, which is different to conservation and conserving a certain feel. It feels strange that this is the “right thing to do”.
MB: I'll give you another example. In four-and-a-half days, the Oktoberfest kicks off here, the world's largest beer festival. A couple of years before I moved to Munich, it became fashionable to wear traditional dress when you go. So, all of a sudden, young people would turn up in lederhosen. It's been a real renaissance for tradition. Bavaria, and Munich in particular, clings onto to the past - really quite charmingly, sometimes quite sickeningly. Imagine an 18-year-old hoodie that you see in the supermarket, hurrying to get home as he has to change into his lederhosen and go off to the Oktoberfest. That's what happens.
It's Mr. Benn.
MB: Mr. Benn is very important in what I do. Mr. Benn is the absolute benchmark... emotionally, he is so important to me... the whole “As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared” is just huge.
TB: You alluded to “Clinging onto the past”, and it does seem that people feel threatened. It's like people talking about too much information... that there's too much going on, and they can't keep up, and they want to cling onto the past. It's a physical thing. It's like a hoodie turning into a morris dancer. You wonder why we cling onto the past like that.
MB: We have to be careful here. I was in a beer garden the other day, and there must have been 800 people there, but I was the only person that checked in on Foursquare. I am constantly trying to remind myself that there is a bigger world out there, and this is one of the reasons why I am walking to Hamburg. In general, the present can be so overwhelming. Ben Terrett wrote about the fact that you can't escape news. You walk into a building to go into a meeting, and there's a TV in the lobby, with the BBC News, and there's a ticker on it. You go outside, and there's a ticker on Piccadilly Circus. You're in a pub, and the bloody news is on. If do use Facebook and Twitter, and you're on the tube... by the time that you have come up, you have missed forty minutes.
FB: A friend recently went through some anxiety issues, and she became obsessed about 9/11, amongst other things... and she “escaped the news”. We live in the Peak District, so she doesn't spend time in meetings, in pubs, or on the tube, but she doesn't buy newspapers any more, and doesn't watch the news. So, now, she has “delayed news”: she uses Facebook and Twitter, but only hears about something if it bubbles up from her circle of friends. It is possible to escape, but also not possible.
I have started to take up things that I can't learn by reading. So, I have taken up sailing, because it's physical. You can't read about it. If people were a third as nervous about new things as I was [sailing] at the weekend, it's no wonder that people are trying to escape society. At the end, I had a break, and I was nearly in tears, so shocked by this experience. We take for granted, that people can keep up with this stuff.
MB: ... and there is no space for the future, in all of that. The future for us when we were kids, was a magnificient, big thing, that was so far away, that it didn't seem possible that it would happen. I can remember being 7, when my older sister gave me an A1 calendar for 2001. There were spaceships on it. I used to have it over my bed, and thought that it was so amazing.
2001 was so far away, and that “so-far-away-ness”, and the amount of space that I had in my life... I had a CB radio, and a TV, and mates around the corner, and that was it. Those were the factors in my life, but these days, my kids are so busy. They're so busy telling other people that they're so busy, with so many different ways to tell them, and to read about how busy their friends are, that the future for them is different. Asking them what they want to be when they grow up, results in the answer that they just have homework to do.
TB: There is a really good Ian Brown quote. He fears for culture, because there is no boredom any more. Most good music and film makers, made works because they were bored, and everything was a bit shit, so they started to fiddle with things. Now, because of Twitter, Xbox and so on, they always have something to fill their time with. There's no boredom any more. There's no space for people to create, because they are never bored.
Do you think that this lack of boredom will give rise to less radical thought? If you're never bored, you won't have time to try to change the world.
Have we also replaced tension with subtlety? I remember the nuclear arms race, Two Tribes at number 1, that dystopian view of the future... but now, we may be in an age where things just aren't as radical.
MB: I distinctly remember When the Wind Blows, and being seriously afraid of the future. We're all going to die, just not today. The Iran situation, where everyone started wearing green... nobody really thought about that in terms of the future. It was all about what it means now, and reporting on what is happening now. That is a very Twitter-esque phenomenon. Two years earlier, everyone would have blogged about it. It's all about now.
TB: The media are also still trying to blow everything up into something bigger. Marilyn Manson said that all of society is driven by consumerism and fear. I remember the Swine Flu outbreak; we're all going to die from it, then Pakistan was going to attack India... there's always something which represents “the end of everything”.
And, the Y2K bug, of course.
TB: Yes... and it's still happening. The next disaster will be the one that ends it all. The Daily Mail writes always writes its headlines in cataclysmic form.
As a child, I was always very positive for future, and also watched When the Wind Blows, but I was too much of an optimist, and wanted to grow up, living in space, like 2001.
MB: It didn't happen, did it Toby...!
TB: Perhaps I should just stand up on stage and be really pissed off! I won't have anything interesting to say, and instead exclaim that I'm pissed off because I thought that the future was going to be bright, and we were all going to be in space, but we're not. Whose fault is that? There must be somebody that I can complain to.
Write a letter to a newspaper, telling them how disgusted you are.
MB: “You've stolen my childhood dreams, because I'm not living on the moon. I want my money back.”
TB: Tim Wright won a BAFTA for Online Caroline. When he was a kid, he wanted to play golf on the moon with David Bowie, and nobody would ever stop him doing that. He has set up the British Space Association, and has a space suit from NASA, and has contacted David Bowie on a number of occasions. He still believes that he can do it. If he thought that he could do it at 7, then why can't he do it now? Maybe I should just live in the future.
MB: Blogs are great for that sort of thing. I had started to write a blog in 2009, but managed to trick Wordpress. So, all of the posts were dated 2011. It really fucked up Feedreader.
TB: One of my favourite things is trying to find something in iTunes, only to find that it has been metatagged as being in 1972. I have these drum and bass tracks which are supposedly from 1972.
MB: Writing non-science fiction prose in the future, was really quite interesting. The written word is grossly underrated. At the moment, it has lost a lot of its value. It doesn't move, it doesn't do anything special.
TB: I value it more now. One of the things that I cannot do, is write very well. I have tried 6 times, get three months in, and run out of steam. You're right, the written word is so powerful, and I read people's blogs and they move me and change me, more than any fucking cats jumping off a piano.
Anyone that can write anything that makes sense is a skill that I hold in high regard, and we need to develop that in everyone.
In looking at where the written word is heading, it was something that was not foreseen. Flying cars were predicted, but not necessarily the blog. However, the iPad has been compared to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; the iPad meets Adams' vision.
Science fiction doesn't equate to artistic fiction; if we have the ability to do this from a technical perspective, then it should also give rise to a new flow of creativity. Maybe the ability to publish to anyone has raised accessibility of the written word.
MB: But, they need the framework to do that. Millions can't afford a computer, let alone an iPad. The euphoria which frequently bubbles up over the democratisation of culture, just staggers me. It's not true. Where we were recently, was to have bored, middle management getting their rocks off on telling everyone that they were going to be in a bar, telling everyone to pop by and have a drink, and it becoming a Tweetup. That's not the democratisation of culture, that's just boring marketing gurus showing off.
TB: I had an argument last week with a film director. She was saying that the Internet has produced the 'age of the amateur'; the Internet is full of shitty filmmakers making shit films for their friends. You have middle management tweeting about what bar they're in; she was saying that you also have art students with iPhones, still making Blair Witch.
My argument was that it doesn't really matter. Middle management tweeting in a bar, doesn't really matter. It just increases the ocean... it increases the size. There will be more crap out there, but it shouldn't impact the good stuff.
MB: It's dangerous to say that “this is it”. I did an interview a couple of weeks ago, and said that there are more people without access to clean water than there are on Facebook. It needs to be in context. Yes, it is important, and I could not have done this stuff that I have done in the past 4 years without this technology, but I am in a privileged enough position to have a computer, buy my own video camera, and have a partner patient enough to let me sit in front a computer until the early hours, cutting videos of me sitting on a toilet reading other people's tweets.
But, you're right, there is a lot of shit out there, but it is incredibly important. Over the next 2 years, we are going to see some stunning work coming from places that we, currently, cannot possibly imagine. You only need to spend 5 minutes on Vimeo, to find staggeringly good work on there.
Do you think that we should be excited about the future?
MB: One of the worst Pink Floyd albums of all time, is The Final Cut. There's a song in there about possible pasts. It describes a group of old men, complaining about what could have been, and that everything has been taken away from them: people without future. The bleakest thing that can happen to any of us, is to wake up one morning and think of the future as not being exciting.
TB: In a very cheesy way, I was going to say that of course we should be excited, because it's going to be great, and leave it at that! It's a Brutalist thought process - a big concrete block that says “Hold tight”.
MB: Take it to Interesting North. “It's going to be fucking ace!”
Toby Barnes is Managing Director of cross-platform production company Mudlark, whose latest project is Chromaroma, a location-aware online game which uses Oyster cards. Marcus Brown is Director of the Black Operatives Department. His latest project is I Walk for Dr. Peter Figge, which starts on 1 October.