Six Concepts for the End of the World and Being Material

Six Concepts for the End of the World
Steven Beard

The MIT Press for Goldsmiths, University of London, 2019
190 pp. Trade, $15.99
ISBN: 9781912685097.

Being Material
Marie-Pierre Boucher, Stefan Helmreich, Leila W Kinney, Skylar Tibbits, Rebecca Uchill and Evan Ziporyn, Editors

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2019
210 pp., illus. 300 col. Trade, $39.95
ISBN: 9780262043281.

Reviewed by
Brian Reffin Smith
June 2020

You sit there wondering if there are books that will help, directly or indirectly, to address imminent doom, or thoughts of such, from COVID-19. Tomes on art and post humanism? No, not in the real world. Camus' The Plague? Oh c'mon. More people have bought and not finished that even than A Brief History of Time. A Bluffer's Guide to Epidemiology? Apparently not yet completed, foreword by guess who? Then two come along together: Being Material and Six Concepts for the End of the World. The former with, of course, its implied Derridean opposite of being immaterial, and much about bio, invisibility, and even someone in a mask; the latter with one of its six fictional scenarios dealing with an 'unprecedented' (© all newspapers) pandemic and another with the birth of an antichrist, perhaps less outlandish these days.

The packages were taken from the never really well-seeming postman with a surgically gloved hand, sprayed with a commonly available fish pond disinfectant having genuine anti-corona-virus properties, left for three days anyway and then unwrapped with more gloves on -– the irony of catching the virus from such a book would be too much to bear. Your reviewer both wants, and does not want, to die laughing.

Six Concepts is a nonfiction book with fictional aspects (very zeitgeist-y at the moment) and/or an experimental novel with real bits. Whatever else, it is very timely. But this is no academic exercise in futurology, though it treats of such. Two film makers want funding for an end-of-the-world movie and get together with some drone scientists who need apocalyptic data to flesh out their models. What could possibly go wrong ... six times? The exoskeleton supporting the central conceit is perhaps a bit loose, but we live in enforcedly playful times. The film makers and the scientists have two kinds of interaction: They are filmed by one man, while the other takes notes that will be developed into scenarios for the scientists whilst also serving as the basis for the film script. Scientists and these kind-of artists need each other.

The themes for the meetings, and the sections of the book, each starting with "Field Notes on a Residency", are technology, sociology, geography, psychology, theology, and narratology. They themselves are divided into subsections such as "Transcript of the Keynote Speech from a UFO Abduction Conference", "Lost in Algospace" or "Voiceover Script from an Occult Artfilm". It is by no means clear where fact and fiction intertwine, smear themselves over each other, stop and start. This reviewer found it most comfortable to read it whilst floating above such fuzzy boundaries, a not unfamiliar feel under lockdown anyway, with bleach one day, demonstrators screaming abuse at nurses the next. Matthew 23:27 in the English Standard Version of the Bible: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness." The beautiful and the bones, them dry bones, are the current poles of much creative lockdown activity.

The whole is also informed by the ideas and beliefs of Paul Virilio, the French philosopher and theoretician of culture, who helpfully pointed out that there couldn't be a plane crash before the plane was invented. He was a military and technological determinist who aided the French military in the Gulf War, though of course to be a war theorist is not to celebrate conflict. Perhaps just as well that, according to philosopher and Pataphycisist Jean Baudrillard, that war did not take place. Those seeking more positive views of Virilio can find plenty online, as well as somewhat hilarious criticism, for example of his apparent inability to distinguish between speed and acceleration. And though he also believed in the "End Times" and angels, he was credited by Mark Lacy with "creating a vision of the world through concepts and language that is often unsettling, a (re)description that makes the world feel strange and unfamiliar". Much like this book and these times.

The scribe, the narrator, starts off the third section, 'Geography', with a talk about globalisation. Remember they are looking for a catastrophe scenario. He elicits from participants a description of what is going on: "Everything is increasingly interconnected. Everyone is increasingly interdependent. It's marvellous". The young scientists nod and grin. "They have adapted to living in the slipstream of a constantly moving world." Then he changes tack, with a photo of a child refugee, and citing Virilio's characterising globalisation as a mechanism for moving entire populations and turning the world's cities into chaotic slums.

He asks how the end of globalisation might be modelled in mixed reality gaming. They come up with columns of refugees, checkpoints and closed borders, nationalism and xenophobia, the end of cheap air travel, dead zones starved of investment, a new Dark Ages, censorship, torture and superstition. What could cause this, the narrator asks. Not the technology going wrong, but the accelerated migration of people somehow going wrong. A contagious disease, perhaps. A virus like H1N1. Or Spanish 'flu. "Of course, I said. That's it. A pandemic. Brilliant! The session came to an end."

The modelling, locations and various effects are worked out, and imaginary proposals constructed. The mixed reality modelling is called Operation Swansong. It is surely no coincidence that the name of a 2016 UK National Health Service disaster simulation of a pandemic, whose results were allegedly too terrifying for public release, and whose recommendations were clearly ignored by the Conservative government, was called Exercise Cygnus, the Latin for ’swan'.

To learn more about what the book's characters decide, read the book. For more about our present "this is not a rehearsal" situation, look outside.

How can we escape from the unreal-feeling reality of the threat of COVID-19 disease and its global side- and after-effects? (As I write, more and more horrendous side effects of COVID-19 are being registered, involving for example the nervous system. It is thought that these, even if relatively rare, may be long term or even permanent. Well, those who can escape, do. Those who can't, seek internal escape in creativity, binge watching surprisingly less-awful-than-imagined TV series, or uninterruptible Zoom chats. Those who can't even support that for long, write reviews of books with exciting interactive covers such as Being Material. And in an increasingly floating world of fakes preferred to reality and retouched cyber presence to real contact, what is Being, and what is Materiality? In art, it is 47 years since the appearance of Lucy R. Lippard's Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 and 172 since Marx'n'Engels' Communist Manifesto with its stunning prediction for late capitalism: "And all that is solid melts into air".

Based upon the eponymous 2017 MIT symposium, Being Material is based on the idea that we have not quite left the material behind: virtual still needs real supports and is constrained by physical matter, interfaces and very tangible technologies. The book is divided into sections on the constraints and liberating possibilities of the Programmable, Wearable, Livable, Invisible and Audible. These are full of captivating examples of artworks, designs, manifestos, essays, research documents and ways of relating the immaterial to the material. Each section also includes a text amplifying the relations between these and the concrete engineering and technological background of MIT itself. The book's cover contains a punched "card" that, in conjunction with a smartphone, can unlock multimedia content on the associated website (untried at the time of writing this review).

The contents are sometimes forced with some difficulty into the sections, such as a foldable microscope into the first 'programmable' part where, too, coding is already asserted to be material. But the examples are many, the pages large and colourful, and it would be hard not to come away from them without having new ideas for one's own work and many insights into the broad range of exploratory, interactive, transdisciplinary and cross-fertile work presented in it, from soil coronas to visualizations of a Satie piece. From polemics to artworks, there are strong dimensions of the politics of such work, and also of art per se, design and philosophy. Under lockdown, be it too material or too irreal, if one needs stimuli to plan adventures in any or all of these areas for when one is again in some sense 'free' and safe, then this is your book. Perhaps along with a dose of Sartre to remind us that 'free' is not merely defined by certain politicians. It will be interesting to see what effects the experience of these times will have on making and thinking about the work of art in the age of its, and our, epidemiological transformation.