facebook keeps pestering me to 'complete my profile' with information such as my hometown, university etc. there's an apparent assumption that you are defined by your past. but the internet when i joined it was a place where you left your past behind and became whoever you now wanted to be.
facebook offers me strange and random possibilities for my hometown and university, which given how much of this information is openly online is reassuring evidence that the panoptical software doesn't join up [yet]. it compiles from my friends, leading to amusing suggestions that i work for the church of england or went to school in Australia. it doesn't notice that my age makes my hometown and university of little relevance. it doesn't notice that i came to facebook from the internet, not to the internet from facebook. it doesn't account for social mobility.
maybe facebook is being true to its roots as a college-age networking tool where these things still [potentially] matter. and if it wants to advertise effectively to me, it should be asking my favourite brand of shoe, or what i listen to, or where i shop for food. all of these things seem to go unnoticed, in spite of all those online purchases. apparently it takes a human to read a pair of shoes correctly, or to know that shoes are there to be read.
this is what the first few Grace flyers looked like:
and this is what nic hughes did for 1996:
i wonder about the effect of this redesign on Grace's self-image. it told us what we were going to be. that logo, typography and strapline were a template of cool but friendly modernity that still shapes our output and self-understanding 19 years on. identity through design. thanks nic.
that Grace began, but i wasn't going to be there for another three and a half years.
in november 1993 i was one year into a two year unemployment, because the early 90s recession hit architecture very hard. i was living in surrey, not in london, and attending the local methodist church. i was aware of the nine oclock service, but hadn't yet formulated a definite wish to be involved with anything like that. it didn't seem to be an option, as far as i knew there was nothing similar in the southeast [though i wondered why not]. after some boom years in the 80s there weren't many people of my age group left in my church.
my hearing was still recovering after a rave-induced collapse in 1991. i was having twice-yearly hearing tests and had to carry earplugs everwhere [which i do to this day, though they're not used outside very loud environments]. so i couldn't go out, but i couldn't afford to. music was mostly cassettes. having no money, i made mixtapes off the radio. i've been digitising them recently - some are good, some make me wonder at my tastes back then. but you can't delete a track from the middle of a cassette if it isn't so good. or you can, but you get a silence. the world was still mostly analogue then.
i had taken a desktop publishing course - how odd that phrase now sounds! so i could put quark express on my CV, and i had started reading macworld to get a grasp of the field with an eye to buying a mac when i could afford it. 44MHz was considered fast, but PowerPC was just around the corner. i was publishing the church magazine on a real desktop, using a typewriter, letraset, clip art and a photocopier.
I was well aware of the internet but hadn't seen it. i can't remember if i knew about the world wide web yet, but version 1.0 of mosaic was released a few days after the first grace service. so grace and the popular internet are the same age, but only one grew exponentially ;)
when i finally got to Grace in 1997, jonny baker asked me if i had an email address - it was already how the community liked to communicate, and Grace already had a website [here on the wayback machine!]. i had my mac by then - a 7200/90 which at 90MHz was a ferrari compared to my 66Mhz work PC! but i didn't have email yet, because i was renting a room and using a shared phone line. there was of course only one, landline, phone. i had to negotiate usage of the line - generally late at night when no-one was expecting phone calls, via a 15ft cable down the hall to my modem. i still have my first email address, though i have a few more now.
but all that was a little later. in november 1993 my world was analogue, local, and small. it was a quiet period, a dead of winter moment when the branches are bare and the new life can't yet be discerned. and then came the thaw, and a technological revolution that would give me a platform, and Grace and alt worship to give me something to do with it, and a network of friends across the globe... not an easy thing to get without being very rich, in 1993.
sitting here, typing in this blog window, 'online' as usual - what was it like to not be connected to anywhere, anytime? as i've said before, lack of connectivity spooks me. i must try to remember what it felt like to not even know.
** a couple more things:
in 1993 i had no tattoos or piercings.
i notice i've discussed 1993-2013 in terms of technological change. whereas 1973-1993 would have been about social and political change - punk, thatcherism, the end of the cold war, for example.
sitting by me on the central line this evening: thirtysomething man with brand new santa cruz skateboard, the pointy 70s sort with kicktail, white with blue jelly wheels. his new ride?
and a guy with piercings pulls out his knitting, three kinds of wool, complicated. once people had got over their concealed amusement they watched mesmerised by the difficult motion. it probably helps to be tough and handsome if you're going to knit on the tube.
notes on the roy lichtenstein retrospective at tate modern:
lichtenstein's art exists in relation to abstract expressionism and should be seen with it. they should have hung a rothko or newman in the first couple of rooms, their brushstrokes against his. abstract expressionism was about handcraft, authenticity of feeling, the artist as existential hero before the cosmos. lichtenstein's work substitutes pseudo-mechanical reproduction, fake emotion, second-hand mass produced sources. in the early 60s it violated the norms of high art in the way that, say, tracy emin's bed violated the norms, in terms of subject matter [trashy] and technique [apparent lack of]. the early pop works, taken from newspaper small ads, are bracingly cheap and vulgar.
the exhibition shows that the iconic mid-60s comic strip paintings are far above the rest of his work. there is the immediacy that makes people smile, but the compositions are usually perfect both visually and emotionally. considering that they are meant to imitate printing techniques it's odd that the colours of the benday dots are never CMYK. or at least the C and M are replaced by primary red and blue.
from the late 60s it's mostly downhill as lichtenstein gets academic and art-historical. his subject matter is cheap commercial america. when he tries to be respectable and painterly it fails. gentility is deadly to his art. the comics gave him a subject matter that he could edit and simplify to a fine point of impact. the later works suffer from being worked up to cluttered complexity which obscures rather than communicates. postmodernism and self-reference led him down blind alleys. ironically the best later works are the calculatedly crap perfect/imperfect paintings, "the nameless or generic painting you might find in the background of a sitcom"… precisely, roy. that's your territory.
in pop terms, he's the musician who went on too long, gained too much technique and no new ideas, wanted to be considered serious, thought he was ready to compose symphonies. but the discovery of 60s pop art, as for 60s pop music, is that low art can be great art when its simplicity and focus come good. the equivalent of whaam! and the comic strip girls is spector's girl groups and wall of sound, where production line music nailed universal emotions for all time - will you still love me tomorrow? the lyrics sound like lichtenstein paintings.
of course, it's a disturbing thought, as a creator, that you only have so much in you. it's no good for a career.
On 30 April 1993, CERN made the source code of WorldWideWeb available on a royalty-free basis; the software was free for anyone to use, and remains so today. Web usage exploded as people started setting up their own servers and websites. By late 1993 there were over 500 known web servers, and the WWW accounted for 1% of internet traffic, which seemed a lot in those days (the rest was remote access, e-mail and file transfer). Twenty years on, there are an estimated 630 million websites online.
and here's the first website, as it stood in early 1993.
interesting that the web was developed on a NeXT computer, Steve Jobs' baby when he wasn't at Apple. Apart from being the basis of Apple systems a decade later, it shows Jobs' design eye long before his collaboration with Jony Ive.
on saturday i took my crt tv to the recycling centre. i bought it cheap in the mid 00s knowing that it would be obsolete when they switched off the analogue transmissions in 2012. i could get a freeview box but i only watch tv on the computer anyhow. why have a big heavy screen just for one type of content? (that's the digital shift in one - the link between device and content broken.)
it was obviously the day for getting rid of analogue tvs. there were five at that moment on the bench. once the good ones would have been set aside for sale or repair, but now a man cut the power cords off without even looking and tossed them into a shipping container full of dead tvs.
so that's a major 20th century technology gone. 80 years or so of existence, 50 years of dominance. television isn't one thing anymore, isn't an object around which we must gather. so what is it, if it isn't defined by a particular technology or way of watching? it's the same question that music faces. for the moment we continue with albums, singles, series, channels, programming left over from old technological constraints, until we can agree new norms based on attention span and consumption mode.
are size of screen and length of viewing time the new key factors? are live broadcast and serialisation the essence of tv? if we plot all video media on those four axes, which part of the graph is 'television'? is the word itself obsolescent? a news bulletin will be a news bulletin, a crime series will be a crime series, a channel will be a channel, but they won't be a TV news bulletin or a TV crime series or a TV channel. the TV bit won't signify anything anymore.
after the last post i found this 1986 article about the 80s tube refurbishments in an old file of architectural magazine extracts. the writers' judgements have broadly stood the test of time, although the kings cross scheme, which they liked, has gone while piccadilly circus which they didn't like remains - for the moment. it has to be said that london transport's design standards wobbled in the 80s [see also here].
designers' journal was a good magazine - intially a monthly supplement to the architects' journal, then as a stand-alone. it closed in the early 90s recession which bit the building industry very hard. i had every copy of designers' journal, i kept a few and some extracts but i wish i'd kept more. i didn't know then that i would be working in that field 20 years later.
in its 150 years of existence the tube has been through many eras of design, each of which has left its mark. each era has its own ideas about what constitutes a good public transport experience, and has its own repair and upgrade issues. the preceding untidy and outdated era is always being improved and swept away, but the job is never finished before economic and political circumstance intervene. so the glory of the underground as we have it is in its incoherence, its many layers of old fashion, a richness denied to those newer metros that only have consistency to offer.
at the moment we are in the middle of another clean-up campaign, tied into crossrail and the olympics. on the whole this has been a good thing. many formerly dingy stations now gleam. there is a kind of improvement kit which has a standard ceiling and lighting setup, the standard signage and station name systems, and white wall tiles with line-related accent colours. it's the wall treatment that worries me. it's fine in itself, and where the preceding treatment was irremediably filthy, ugly, or unsuitable. but i fear for the quirky or unfashionable parts of the system - those places that are ageing, out of date but not yet 'heritage'.
the 80s seem to have been most under attack lately. many central area stations had total makeovers in the mid 1980s, which were sorely needed at the time. major artists were commissioned to design the wall treatments. the designs made reference to their locations and were very different from one another, rather than providing a consistent tube-branded experience. this aspect was criticised at the time and ever since.
the current refurbishments have imposed the new uniform of white tiles, leaving only the more distinguished artwork elements - some have gone entirely, some survive only as a small representative patch. given the scale of works at tottenham court road i wonder how much will eventually be left of paolozzi's mosaics.
above: paolozzi mosaic detail
the fate of the 80s work shows the reversals of fashion well. its consistent background colour was beige tiling, not white. at the time white was considered cold and clinical. at embankment artist robyn denny created an interior of white stove enamel panels, with coloured stripes performing sequenced, abstract moves. at the time it seemed very dated, a hangover from the 60s by someone who hadn't moved on. now it seems timelessly modern, while the beige and brown is swept away.
above: 1980s beige and site-specific design
in fact, in the 60s the new background colour of the tube was not white, but two shades of grey. the blue/grey colour scheme of the victoria line was the height of early 60s modernist fashion [see also british rail]. it was said to be a neutral background, and that people would provide the colour. unfortunately financial restrictions led to poor lighting and a dingy effect. naturally these stations are in line for cheering up, not without good reason. but i hope that one or two can be preserved, like pimlico which is almost intact. clean it and improve the lighting. it has its own quiet elegance.
above: 1960s grey and bare fluorescent tubes
at warren street the grey tiles have just been replaced by cream, which is a throwback to 1950s stations like bethnal green. i have to say it's gorgeous, especially with black and red or orange.
above: 1960s grey replaced by 2010s neo-1950s cream. the 1960s maze artwork remains.
more of this would be good, but please leave a grey station or two, or the magnificently gloomy passageway at vauxhall where i used to wait for a train when leaving vaux.
above: 1960s dark grey and pale pink. it's the floor and ceiling that are bad.
and then there are the intense late 70s jubilee line stations, whose colours inspired the first smallfire.org site and much else. the white tile wave seems to have passed and spared them for the moment, but i wonder what will happen when the fading yellow/grey/ochre laminate panels need replacing.
above: 1970s orange, yellow, grey and ochre
when i move through the tube i am constantly inspired by the strange juxtapositions and wrong colours - the combinations that once seemed good or normal, in their day. green and black, red and cream, orange and grey, beige and brown, yellow and purple. colours that show you how different the past was, or how different the future could be. combinations you wouldn't think of, inside the prison of your own time and taste. i hope that the people designing refurbishments have catholic tastes and historical awareness. i hope they have an eye for the distinctive and odd, not just for good taste and design classics. they could give me a job, of course.
my current project has to do with the interiors of the scottish widows building in edinburgh. photos of the outside, of course i don't publish photos of the insides [except for small uninformative details]. the building is a late work by the edinburgh practice of sir basil spence, spence glover & ferguson although it's not clear how much involvement spence himself had in it. regardless, it won an RIBA award in 1977 and is listed.
the hexagonal geometry was inspired by the basalt columns of the salisbury crags behind it, and the stepped outline of the building echoes the crags so precisely that i wonder if the architect stood across the road from the site and drew the profile to fit the landscape, and worked the rest out from there.
spreading stacks of octagons or hexagons are a cliche of 1970s office architecture, but here they fit beautifully into the landscape. from within the continuous glass walls give the occupants some of the best views in edinburgh.
the gardens of the building itself are something special too, including a large multistorey car park almost lost under woodland. it's a pleasure to work on a generous and stylish building, and of course edinburgh itself is a pleasure and makes me happy to be there.
i had an episodic dream last night which shifted between alternate versions of the present - not wildly different in science fiction fashion, just different. i can only remember the last section [kind of] clearly. i got on a crowded train in a city centre and got off somewhere rural. the train had been futuristic and shiny, but surprisingly worn and utilitarian on the inside, and as it drove away i could see it was now battered and old-fashioned on the outside too. we had shifted into another timeline. i took my luggage into the small historic town.
we went for a meal in the community canteen, which was perfectly bright and comfortable with good mainstream food, like a department store cafe. the editor's letter of a magazine revealed to us how the history of this place had diverged from ours in the early 1970s, into a social-democratic swedish-style future, very high levels of state control, comfortable and attractive but without dynamism or initiative. no poverty, no luxury. by some strange means disabled and street people were turned into sofas, where they were happier**.
this is, in effect, the future that was envisaged in the 70s, without any thought of neoliberalism. in the architects journal silver jubilee issue of 1977, a great range of contributors were asked to predict the course of society over the next 25 years to the golden jubilee of 2002. some were optimistic, some were dystopian, but none - absolutely none - foresaw neoliberalism, even though thatcher was already prime minister in waiting, and the ideas had been around for years. 1977 was the high water mark of state control in britain, more than half the economy in state hands, and it was universally assumed that this would extend ever further, for good or ill.
all this is a reminder that an unexpected future may be right on the doorstep, and we cannot see it. it is a reminder that imminent paradigm shifts may not be visible to the most perspicacious of commentators, and that they can happen quite quickly given the political will. this is a gospel of hope as well as despair. other arrangements are possible, if we wish it, if we can imagine the alternative clearly enough to act.
at the moment, in britain, it feels like we are stuck with fixers and restorers of the old order, world without end amen, as happened in the 70s. we are waiting for another thatcher - someone with the vision, certainty, force of will and political ability to impose her new paradigm in the face of great opposition from the experts of the current order. every change has its winners and losers. my bizarre dream allowed me to feel the difference between where we are and where we could have been*. i'm not sure which i preferred.
*the neoliberal present had dynamism and drama, luxury and excellence - at a cost of poverty and inequality. the socialistic present was pleasant and equal, but there was no possibility of entrepreneurial or individual initiative. it was also technologically about 25 years behind. by which i mean our sort of technology, the fruits of enterprise and consumerism. possibly they had better big technology - greener power generation, a base on the moon, nuclear fusion etc.
**the sofas were light blue fabric, with primary coloured scatter cushions.
one of the phenomena of 2012 was the union flag everywhere - initially for the diamond jubilee in traditional form, but then for the games in endless mutated colourways under the influence of the 2012 branding. the cyan/pink that seemed to be the brand people's first choice was rather nasty and showed up the strength of red, white and blue:
but stella mccartney's team gb outfits had more subtlety in their shades of blue and navy [better forget about the white and gold tracksuits for the opening ceremony]:
and by the autumn this kind of multicolour thing was everywhere:
the union flag has appeared in pop culture at intervals since the 60s, but i don't recall the colour being destabilised before, except to make a point about black british identity [red gold and green!]. now it feels as though the design has become detached from its colours - just in time, because if scotland vote for independence they may remove their st andrew's flag, and what would replace it? it would be a shame to give up such a strong and unique design. i wonder which is stronger in the end - patriotic attachment to colours, or design?
i have a union flag rubik's cube which allows me to mix up random variations. it's a souvenir from a tourist shop bought long before the olympics, but it says something to me about the evolution of national identity. photos in the new year.
this is my father's 1969 reel to reel tape recorder. it was last used in late 1976 to record an episode of the two ronnies. since then it has been in a cupboard along with 39 tapes, mostly early 70s music. here's pioneering synth-pop track 'popcorn' by hot butter from 1972:
and 'tiger feet' by mud from 74:
here are some of the tapes:
the contents are written down in a little book: geoff love, the new seekers, englebert humperdinck, suzi quatro, t.rex, elvis, louis armstrong, mrs mills, procul harum, des o'connor, the railway children, dougal and the blue cat [which frightened my little brother]...
the only issue right now is that the ffwd and rewind don't work properly, so i have to wind the tapes laboriously by hand. it probably just needs some cleaning.
quaint line from the instruction booklet: after switching on, wait one minute for the valves to warm up.
as mentioned earlier, i turned various pages from smallritual.org into postcards back in march. it was always kind of intended, that's why the image format is the way it is. although i did have to do some splicing to get the multi-image sequences onto one card.
in june, i met with a group from the protestant church of the netherlands [pkn], who were researching 'fresh expressions' of church in england. when we had finished talking about Grace and similar things i gave out a few sets of my postcards to see what they made of them - the first public airing outside of Grace. a few months later charissa bakema emailed to ask if her community in utrecht could make their own versions of my cards, based on some of my ideas but changed to suit their local cultural situation, and using their own graphic designer who does all their stuff. so i was pleased to say yes, and here are some of the results.
[front, detail - places in the city labelled as 'church'. probably based on this.]
the above are all pretty close to my themes, although with much more polished graphics - i never have time for more than the sketchy version, but hey it's the idea that counts. but this one amused/weirded me out:
barbapapa morphed into a church - 'are you joining us in reforming?' [text on back - 'don't let the church die out']. now this is one dutch cultural reference where i'm not sure what the english equivalent is!
blossom030 intend to put the cards out in the churches and pubs of utrecht. i hope to hear what the reactions are. i haven't dared put mine out in public, although one of my work colleagues has a set pinned up on his filing cabinet.
sad to hear about the death of sir patrick moore - although it was always a surprise to find that he was still alive, as he seemed to have been old for most of his life. I have a couple of 1970s books by him:
but moore did not inspire my childhood interest in astronomy. 'the sky at night' was on long after my bedtime, his books were too grown-up and i remember him mostly as an eccentric commentator on the bbc's apollo programmes.
no, my interest had already been sparked by the ladybird book of the night sky [1965 edition]. these scans are from my original, now very tatty, copy. the 'stars' book blogged about previously was a couple of years later when i was ready for something more complex - and is a better book. but i learnt my first constellations from the ladybird book, and i still have these illustrations in mind whenever i see the new moon with earthshine, or venus and mercury at sunrise or sunset.
'the night sky' offers careful realism grounded in a child's suburban environment, and yet opening out into science and wonder. it's not gimmicky or cartoony, or tied to merchandise or a tv series. i hope there are still books like this out there, because what you give a child at 5 or 6 can haunt its imagination for the rest of its life.
you can't know in advance how a bereavement will affect you. they're all as unique as the neural tangle they uproot. it's like opening a data cabinet and tearing out a random fistful of wires. there's no predicting where the spaghetti will end or what connections will be disrupted.
saturday was hard.
funerals and memorial services are bittersweet. you meet a lot of old friends that you haven't seen for ages, and you're all really pleased to see one another - but you'd rather have done it another way, and one of you is missing.
the liturgy nailed it. "we should not be here" was the refrain, and outside the church afterwards i cursed that hard reality. it was fucked up. we really shouldn't have been there.
the one moment that lifted my heart was the release of balloons by the children in the churchyard. it was a lovely act, as if we were letting nic go, up into the sky, until 'a cloud hid him from our sight' [Acts 1 v.9].
many wonderful stories were told about nic. most of them involved mischief of some kind - pranks, humour, misbehaviour, intellectual and theological mischief. nic loved to burst a bubble. his curiosity wouldn't let things lie, wouldn't take things as given. some resemblance to muttley was noted by a number of people.
does that make kester dick dastardly? ;D
nic's death is a warning. we always think we can meet up some other time - when we're less busy [but we're always busy]. and suddenly there is no more time.
the same busyness claims the time we should have been doing the stuff we were placed here to do - our unique contribution or gift. instead we shopped and cleaned and cooked, made trivial phone calls, worked for money, in the hope that when we'd done all these acts of maintenance they would give us time and space for what we really meant to do. i get now why stereotypical artists live in poverty or squalor - their precious time goes into their gift not sustaining a lifestyle. nic got more stuff out there than many, but he only left us a fraction of what he had inside him.
The Augustine quote is probably my favourite at the moment. (He's so quotable!) It was written in a sketchbook by a mate of mine 10 years ago. I only understand what it means now. The idea that God is essentially unknowable and totally "other". So anything we use to represent God or describe God will always fall short. If we understand it, by definition, it's not God. He and all the other apophatic writers are always suspicious of the imagination, as its language is still constructed from the images of the "real world". They're all about a journey of "in" and "up", collapsing language in the process, and meeting with God.
I like the quote so much because it challenges the very idea that the visual arts can be used in any meaningful way in worship. Let alone a site dedicated to the exploration of spirituality and aesthetics. It's one of the key questions I want to tackle. That and the fact that spirituality and design are separated categories in our culture and not considered one.
A visual apophatics is an interesting place to begin exploring.
naturally i replied:
I only understand what it means now. The idea that Nic is essentially unknowable and totally "other". So anything we use to represent Nic or describe Nic will always fall short. If we understand it, by definition, it's not Nic. He and all the other apophatic writers are always suspicious of the imagination, as its language is still constructed from the images of the "real world". They're all about a journey of "in" and "up", collapsing language in the process, and meeting with Nic.
jesting aside, nic was a guide and touchstone for me. he showed me many things that i needed to know, that i doubt i would have known [or would have known much later] without him. he forced me to take my design interests seriously. all the design work i have done since meeting him has been done with an eye on what he's up to, wondering what he thinks, hoping that he'll at least not wholly disapprove. in the future i will be a little more blind.
in nic's honour, and so you can see his work if you don't already know it, i put a set of his stuff together on flickr. this is certainly not all of his work, nor probably even the best, it's just some of what i happen to possess. it pulled me along in its wake. in his design work for abundant, grace and vaux, nic broke away entirely from religious clichés. his work for vaux had a modernist rigour [stylistic and philosophical] that was genuinely groundbreaking and formed an essential part of vaux's impact. no church had ever presented itself this way.
so it also seems natural to give him a dedication and a page on smallfire.org
above, laika motif. nic was always fascinated by the myth of laika, the idea that the little dog sent into space with no way back is still up there somewhere, watching over us.