Peter the Great’s Monsters – The Kunstkamera museum.

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Peter the Great

There’s a scene in Gullimero del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone where a character offers a boy a drink he’s just ladled out of a large glass jar in which a dead, mutated featus is distilled. The featus suffers from ‘the devil’s backbone’, a mutation which causes the spine to protrude from the body. In the film it stands as a metaphor for ‘children who should never have been born’.

 

The Devil’s Backbone joins the ranks of many many gothic horror films in which people (often mad scientists) display featuses or other creatures in liquid filled jars. It’s a trope that is so prevelant in films that it serves as short hand for ‘deranged experimenter’ in contemporary horror and sci fi films.

Growing up with these kind of films I’d always considered this to be some strange phenomenon contained only to the realm of movies. I never put much thought into where the trope came from and certainly didn’t expect to see such things in reality.

Of course that was before I visited the Кунсткамера (Kunstkamera) museum in St Petersburg.

 

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View of Кунсткамера across the frozen River Neva

 

Кунсткамера, sometimes accurately described as a cabinate of cultural oddities, was the very first museum in Saint Petersburg. Established by Peter the Great, the museum was part of a project to educate the population. Peter saw the Кунсткамера as a means of preserving and feeding humanity’s natural sense of curiosity.

Since its completion in 1727 the museum has seen countless exhibitions and items added to its now world famous collection. It’s impressive in its scale, beautiful in its presentation and, at times, plain odd in its content.

Upon entering the museum we were greeted by a huge, wooden statue of some unknown, bizarrely well endowed mutant, demon, god or something else. As an indicator of what was to come I think it served its purpose well.

a90a0b5cb568e7ea4db367e76b373ab1The first few floors of the museum are dedicated to the anthropology and ethnology collections. Most, if not all, major cultures are represented here in huge floor to ceiling glass cabinets that house tools, weapons, clothes, crafts and an endless assortment of other artifacts. The displays are images5RZ03OLLorganised in such a way as to give a sense of life. Manquines are positioned and dressed in day to day postures and all related objects are arranged around them. The result can seem less like a display and more like an artist’s impression. The scope of the museum seems endless and although the displays are relatively compact they’re dense with information and things to see. Among my favorite displays were a section on oral hygiene in African tribes, a discourse on kathakali Theatre and a miniature reconstruction of a traditional Indonesian Village.

‘But that,’ one of my Russian colleges cut in as I was describing the museum to a friend, ‘is not the most interesting part’. And she’s right.

The most interesting part, or at least the most notorious part, is the third floor excibit Monsters. This is where one can find displays lined with countless glass jars containing malformed foetus’ both human and otherwise. It’s like being on set at a mad genius’ deprived laboratory. Two faced babies stare out with four glassy eyes. Decapitated heads and bodies with overgrown tumors and missing limbs float lifelessly. The devil’s backbone abounds. It’s gruesome stuff for sure.

But why? Peter the Great was a student of all walks of life, fueled by an endless curiosity and lust for knowledge. Along his journeys he developed a fascination with biology and was particularly taken with the research of Frederik Ruysch who was an anatomist and artist.

 

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Frederik Ruysch

Ruysch was looking for ways to perfectly preserve dead bodies and found a way to do so by injecting hot, red stained wax into the blood vessels which, when cooled, gave the subject a very lifelike appearance. The eyes were removed and replaced with glass. Later in his career he replaced the wax with a special liquid which kept the bodies flexible rather than ridged and he preserved them in a clear liquid he called liquor balsamicus. Being an artist as well as a scientist Ruysch embellished his works with flowers, patterns, lace and other materials which his daughter helped him with. He’s notorious for using the bodies in his artwork, arranging them and incorporating body parts into his displays.

 

The picture below is an artist’s reproduction of one of his real works in which he positioned the (real) skeletons of babies standing on a bed of (real) organs and surrounded by trees of (real) dried blood vessels.

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These works have at times gained a reputation of being distasteful and macabre, although Ruysch didn’t see them that way, and nor did Peter the Great. In fact, Peter encouraged this kind of reseach into deformities and abnormalities, having all manner of still-born babies delivered from over the world to be added to his collection. In displaying them he sought to discourage superstitious beliefs that such deformities were the product of supernatural or demonic intervention. He wanted to show that these ‘monsters’ we’re just unfortunate creatures, victims of natural biological problems.

photo4jpgNot everything in the collection necessarily adhires to this noble goal but more to the time’s obsession with abnormal bodies as fashion. Proudly displayed are the skeleton and heart of Peter’s favourite giant Nikolay Bourjois. The heart, I kid you not, is as large as my head.

To go into detail about any of the Кунсткамера’s exhibitions would be a fool’s errand because there is simply so much to digest. The museum feels incredibly dense whilst at the same time comfortable and welcoming. The atmosphere is much more relaxed than in other museums such as the Hermitage for example, and although the collection is huge it’s never overwhelming and, thanks to the organisation which guides you through at a good pace, never boring.

From the impressively hung doorman to the cultural oddities and dead babies. I highly recommend Кунсткамера as a day well spent. Only, consider eating a light lunch before venturing towards the third floor…

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Museum of Soviet Archade Machines

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IMG_20171210_144419There’s something special about a game arcade, isn’t there? So many people have fond memories of shoveling coins onto bulky machines to play their favourite game, to beat their high-score or to compete with others, whether it be a friend or a name on the scoreboard.

In American movies the arcade serves as a symbol of childhood, nostalgia and growth. They often stand in as a representation of an innocent or iconic society before the film’s hero embarks on their journey into a more treacherous and cut-throat world.

It’s no surprise that arcades carry such meaning, as at the height of their popularity they balanced comfortably between technical innovation and wholesome entertainment. In many ways they helped define a generation while at the same time propelling the world of gaming into the future.

When I imagine an arcade the prevailing image that comes to me is informed by retro American pictures or those banking on the retro image. The Last Starfighter, Tron and Stranger Things. Perhaps for some it invokes a more modern image of high-tech Tokyo arcades with all their lights, elite customers and pop-culture heroes.IMG_20171210_133003

Whatever the word arcade makes you think of I would be willing to bet that it doesn’t include lines of excited children during the era of the USSR queuing up to play the latest and greatest games.

But this is exactly the image that a visit to the Museum of Soviet Arcade machines, located on Konyushennaya square in St Petersburg, invokes. Here you can find all manner of retro arcade machines from those with super basic design and graphics to the mind boggling complex.

IMG_20171210_141931Wandering through the arcade was like taking a crash course in the history of game design. Among the oldest designs we found machines that run pong and variations of it using 1 bit graphics, and also a phenomenally fun racing game called чемпион-м (Champion-M).

From there we made our way through the roughly assembled catalogue, testing various racing games, a side-scrolling adventure game called Снежная Королева (Snow Queen) which was a bit like a Soviet Zelda, and a whole host of ‘table top games’ like table basketball, hockey and, of course, football.

My favourite machine was the impressive торпида атака (Torpedo attack) which used the technical limitations of the time in such an impressive and inventive way that I couldn’t help be impressed even by today’s standards. Using a blend of lights, cardboard cut outs and sound it manages to be incredibly innovative while beautifully retro. The game is this: You look down into a periscope which in turn aims out at the playing field. In the distance small ships sail out, silhouetted against a backlit sky. Your job is to track them and, when they’re in your sights, pull the trigger. This sends an underwater torpedo, represented by a line of red light, shooting from the front of the machine’s playing field to the back where the ship will explode by dropping out of view as the sky behind it flashes a harsh red. It’s a wonderfully straight forward game made with simple technology but it blends the game concept with hardware in a way that very few games do nowadays. By making you look down through the periscope instead of directly at the field it immerses you in the game’s world and by using three physical dimensions (as opposed to the three digital dimensions of modern games) it gives the game weight and makes the distance between yourself and the targets feel more real.

The best thing about the museum is the way in which the vintage machines are displayed. Like ‘arcade’ the word museum conjures certain images and preconceptions too. On the way I had assumed the museum would be a ‘look but don’t touch’ type affair, but there are no such IMG_20171210_135709rules here; no display cases, cabinets or fences. The machines here aren’t only collected and preserved but they’re kept alive and working. Here, the word museum is used in the loosest of ways. What’s fantastic is that it’s not only geeks and pop-culture historians that visit the museum. While I was there the place was jam packed with kids and young people all playing the games without any care that they came from a different era. This is a place that young people actively come to hang out. There’s even a large screen which, at the time, was showing a bizarre Soviet Tom & Jerry knock off but was looking forward to a Studio Ghibli season.

Something I love about video games is that they seem to capture the essence of the time in which they were made. If you look at a game made 30 years ago in comparison to a recent one, more often than not they’re incomparable. They’re like time in a bottle. The museum of Soviet Arcade Machines doesn’t just take the bottle and stick it on a shelf to be admired, it uncorks it and offers you a drink.

If you ever find yourself in a Russian city with one of these museums and have either an interest in retro games or a group of young people to entertain be sure to check it out.

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Identity Crisis and Star Trek Discovery

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Like many people (and unlike many others) I have been enjoying the first season of Star Trek Discovery which came to an end this week after many months. Personally I’ve enjoyed the ride through an uneven but interesting installment of a franchise I’ve been following on and off basically since birth. I know there’s an entire legion of people, however, who have hated the show with a passion for various reasons, to the extent that I’ve seen it described as the most divisive Star Trek ever.

Much of the discourse has been related to different ideas of what Star Trek ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be. Interestingly, this question of identity reflects many of the show’s own themes in a way that highlights why this incarnation of Trek is (whether successful or not) a fascinating examination of both itself and its audience.

Full spoiler warnings and all that. I’m going to be discussing the entirety of Discovery’s first season, so don’t read on if you’re still to catch it.

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The opening credits hint at the theme of deconstruction and analysis.

Star Trek Discovery is, above all else, about identity. Klingons (whose design has been decried by many fans as not being faithful to their original look or first redesign) roar ‘Remain Klingon’ from the bridge of their ship of the dead, a huge warship adorned with the sarcophagi of their fallen comrades. They despise and fear Star Fleet whom they see as trying to dilute their identity, forcing them to conform and integrate themselves into what they see as a universal socialist empire. Star Fleet officers find themselves unable to agree on the role of their organisation and what actions are or aren’t acceptable during a time of war, often citing protocol and telling each other what is (or isn’t) the way Star Fleet should operate.

This has been a conversation that fans have (whether meaning to or not) been quite glad to get involved in. Much of the criticism against the show has revolved around fans’ expectations and demands of what a Star Trek show should look like. It doesn’t take long in any comment board to find instances of fans claiming that this isn’t ‘their’ Star Trek or that the characters don’t act as Star Fleet officers should, by which they mean they don’t act as characters from previous outings have. These sort of discussions are to be expected with such a well loved franchise and they are something that not only the show-runners expected but have relied on to aid the show’s narrative and to subvert the audience’s expectations of the show.

From the outset Discovery has been using the difference between the Federation, the Klingon Empire and the Terran Empire (as well as the opposing ideologies within each faction) to interrogate the social identity of the characters, us as viewers and of Star Trek itself. If Discovery seemed like it didn’t know what it wanted to be at first, that is because it has been questioning what it could be from the beginning.

Discovery’s story, in a nutshell, asks what happens when an inclusive, expansive society comes up against isolationism and nonconformity. At the same it looks at what happens in the opposite situation; if a person (or species) refuses to allow themselves be integrated (or perhaps assimilated, if you like the comparison) into this sort of conglomeration. In short, according to Discovery, they will come into conflict. Not just with each other but also with themselves, bastardizing and compromising their own ideologies. In the show this results in a war between the two species which is exacerbated by the in-fighting between the 24 Klingon houses. The war spreads engulfing everything in its path and wearing away the moral and ideological mentalities of everyone involved until no one’s sense of identity is left fully in tact.

This theme isn’t only explored in the series’ overall plot but also through each of its characters. The question of fractured ideology and damaged identity can be seen again and again through the many splintered personalities of the show’s cast. Each character represents and explores a different aspect of identity or the lack thereof.

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Identity Perception Crisis – The ‘Disco’ t-shirts were a smooth way to discourage fans from using the acronym ‘STD’.

Michael Burnham doesn’t know who she is. Raised by Vulcans she struggles with the logic-based philosophy she was brought up with and the emotions she’s always been told to suppress. Despite this, she had made her way into the a second-in-command position under the maternal guidance of Captain Philippa Georgiou. When this reality is pulled away from her, through both internal and external miscalculations, her identity is thrown into crisis. Lorca gives her a second chance but the damage has already been done and Michael no longer knows who she is and what her place in society should be anymore. Much of the series is focused on the journey Michael takes in rediscovering herself.

As a complete counterpoint to Michael, Lorca knows very well who he is but it turns out that he is not who he says he is. Considering he is the captain of the Discovery (a role that has typically acted as figurehead in previous Trek outings) this deception colours the entire series until its reveal and has deep implications for Michael as well as every other character. To further explore the theme of hidden, mistaken or withheld identity we also have Empress Georgiou, Captain Philippa’s mirror universe double, who is physically not the person she was despite how much Michael (and the audience) want her to be.

Even the characters who are more secure in their identities are made to question it throughout the series. Saru knows who he is but is constantly challenged by his nature and even has a complete personality flip at one point. Ensign Tilly must act unlike herself in the guise of Captain Killy. Stamets must confront his doppelganger. The entire crew must, in the end, confront Lorca and measure the man he is against the man they thought he was, while weighing the validity of his words that he forged their collective identity, making them the tight-knit group of fighters they are by the end.

All these character interactions are a deeper, multifaceted exploration of the show’s wider question of identity. But of course, the rabbit hole goes even deeper and so does Discovery, honing in further on the fractured personality of one character; Taylor/Voq. This character is the most complex examination of fractured identity in the show but also has another function. Rather than simply provoking more questions it is through this character that Discovery begins searching for an answer.

tumblr_inline_oy1uws4y5L1qebpxc_540Taylor/Voq is a representation of what happens when two opposing ideas or ideologies are jammed together carelessly. Like the larger social and political framework, the result is confused, messy and desperate. Voq tries to claw his way out of Taylor’s body while Taylor himself begs for help understanding who and what he is. The two personalities can’t find a unified state. It’s like trying to forge a Hegelian synthesis from a thesis and antithesis that have been lain on top of each other but not given the chance to interact properly.

It’s what happens when left-wing radicalism meets right. Neither side wants to give way to the other and they’re unable (or unwilling) to see each others’ point of view. The result is chaos and aggression, and before long, both sides, although different in principle, begin to resemble one another. Each ideology begins using the others jargon and the same hateful rhetoric can be seen from each side, just inverted.

An example of this can be taken from Trek fans themselves and the way so many people have reacted to the show. A very vocal contingent of the audience has decried its use of diversity in casting. I’ve heard it said that the inclusion of women of colour and a gay couple as main characters is a result of ‘Social Justice Warrior’ mentality. Others, while acknowledging its positive contribution in this area, have called faul of the series’ darker, grittier and more violent tone in comparison to its predecessors, calling for a return to a more wholesome and faithful vision. Others still will defend it blindly, stating that Trek has always pushed boundaries and only looks blindly optimistic (possibly naively so) in retrospect. There are a lot of rage-filled message boards but not a lot of genuine conversation on the matter, or certainly not on the surface anyway. There definitely seems to be a ‘for or against’ mentality when it comes to the show which doesn’t leave much room for discussion and seems to mirror how a lot of political discourse takes place on the internet currently.

Most of Discovery’s criticism is wrapped up in the questions of what Star Trek ‘is’ or ‘should be’. There seems to be a disconnect between what Trek’s place in the world was and what it is now. This is exacerbated by the fact that when reading reviews of the show form pop culture websites such as io9 or gamesradar+ we seem to be getting a discourse about what the writer thinks the show should be rather than what it actually is. One gets the sense that these reviewers had decided on their opinion of the show long before it even premiered and as such the reviews become much less about the show and more about the reviewers themselves. Very few discussions about the show are able to reach a mutual understanding or even acknowledgment of each others’ opinions. Star Trek Discovery is either brilliant, embodying the true values of Roddenbury’s boundary pushing epic or awful, an insult to the series’ legacy and a product of contemporary television’s obsession with ‘grit’. The truth, of course, is probably somewhere in bstdetween.

Because of all the contrary opinions before the project had even taken off, the showrunners had a lot to consider. Not just regarding the story, design and style of the show, but also its politics, ideals and how it should approach them.

I think Taylor/Voq is what Star Trek Discovery might have looked were it not given the time to explore its place in the world: Retro, nostalgia-laden optimism pasted over an adverse sociopolitical climate and thrown into a more cynical and exploitative televisual landscape. It most likely wouldn’t have worked. But through Taylor/Voq’s suffering the show is able to begin reconciling its vision with its ideology and history. Taylor looks good to begin with, he’s tough, charming and has heart, but as time goes by the cracks start to show. He’s damaged, lost and, worst of all, it turns out he is not what he thought he was, what he wants to be or what he ‘should’ be. It’s a struggle Star Trek Discovery was always going to have.

When Voq’s previous second-in-command, L’rell, finally agrees to work with Star Fleet doctors to help him we begin to see a more real synthesis. Through a mutual love for the confused mess that is Taylor/Voq they put aside their radical ideologies and work together to save whatever identity is left in him. It’s the first real compromise on both sides and a sign that it is possible to forge a relationship between these two identities, both Tayor and Voq as well as Star Fleet and the Klingon Empire. It’s this compromise which will eventually lead to the end of the war which is neither won nor lost, but firmly seated in compromise.

Before they can get to this point though, the crew of the Discovery find themselves in the Mirror Universe during the second half of the series. Here they are forced to see their organisation reflected through a lens of race-hate and opportunism, in the form of the Terran Empire. Unfortunately, the reality they see isn’t so far away from that of their own universe and, in some ways, even closer to our own. The darkness witnessed there is the kind of darkness found in all humanity.

Jasen Issacs said, of the Mirror Universe:

How different are any of us from the Mirror version of ourselves? […] This particular administration in America has brought some of the ugliest parts of human nature out from in the shadows.
[…] What Ted (Sullivan, co-executive producer of the show) did, which I thought was so brilliant, is make [the Mirror Universe] not that far from us. So, it is a world where people are slightly more Darwinian. That whole “Make the Empire glorious again” and not all races are equal. We worked hard on that speech that Lorca gives to make it not that far from the way many people around us think.

In Star Trek Discovery all universes, all beings and all identities are bound together through the Mycelial Network; the roots that hold all of creation together. This shows that all these differing ideologies are intertwined and closer in kind than each would care to admit. It’s important that Lorca’s slogan ‘make the Empire great again’ is not a far cry from the Klingon’s ‘remain Klingon’, and both have very clear real world counterparts. The implication is that our own universe is also part of this network and Discovery hopes, as does all good science fiction, to act as our own mirror universe.

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It is in Discovery’s Mirror Universe, the realm of literal and metaphorical self reflection, that the crew finally come to see themselves for who they are, who they could be and who they must aspire to become. This is all put into words by Saru in the engineering room where he speaks to the crew in what is much less an address and more a meeting. He says speaks about releasing themselves from their confused and fearful past by stating ‘Lorca abused our idealism. But make no mistake, Discovery is no longer Lorca’s, she is ours, and this will be her maiden voyage.’ The scene is a direct reversal of an earlier moment in which Lorca stands in the same room and announces that the ship was ‘not a democracy’.

It’s from the moment of Saru’s speech that the characters start to embody the true ideals of the Federation and we begin to see the original utopian ideals Trek is famous for. It’s no accident that one of the last lines spoken in the mirror universe arc is; ‘That is who Star Fleet is. That is who I am.’

This becomes a mantra of sorts and is constantly repeated throughout the final two episodes and culminates in Michael’s speech in which it becomes a kind of manifesto for the show.

In the end of the Mirror Universe arc the merging and fixing of the show’s fractured identities is reaffirmed as the crew make their way back to their original universe through the Mycelial Network and ‘the clearing in the forest’; a moment of quiet introspection where you can see the world around you and your place in it without being ‘among the trees’, as it were.

Of course, on their return, not all is as it should be and the crew instantly come up against yet another crisis and are forced to stand by their newfound sense of identity even when other member’s of Star Fleet bend under the pressure, allowing themselves to stoop to ever lower depths in desperation. But the crew of the Discovery have leant and grown throughout their journey. They have not only interrogated but embodied the ideals of Star Fleet and it is their confidence in who they must be that paves the way for true change and for the future of not just the show’s world but for the show itself.

After everything has been said and done, Michael puts into words the show’s statement of intent:

No, we will not take shortcuts on the path to righteousness. No, we will not break the rules that protect us from our basest instincts. No, we will not allow desperation to destroy moral authority. I am guilty of all these things. Some say in life there are no second chances. Experience tells me that this is true but we can only look forward. We have to be torchbearers. Casting the light so we may see our path to lasting peace. We will continue exploring, discovering new worlds and civilisations. Yes, that is the United Federation of Planets. Yes, that is Star Fleet. Yes, that is who we are and who we will always be.

Star Trek Discovery is a strange show that takes many risks both in terms of its story and as a show. It relies heavily on a novel-like structure more than many shows I’ve seen that may still be serialised but not novelistic. The show’s first half is much grimmer and more pessimistic than that of its second and the writers ran the risk of alienating much of the audience who didn’t want to see such things from the classic franchise. But the show needed that time to interrogate its own identity, asking what place Star Trek has and what form it should take in a world that seems to be turning its back on Utopian ideals. By testing its characters (and its audience) morally and intellectually it has endeavoured to justify its own existence in our current political, social and televisual climate. Michael’s final speech sums up the series investigation and its discoveries. Now it knows what it is and who its Federation is, the show can start working towards reaching the goal of creating a believable, honest vision of utopia that is relevant to today’s audience.

Ted Sullivan said about Saru’s speech;

We get it. We believe in Star Trek and Starfleet too. We just had to go through this journey of twelve episodes.

 

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Live long and prosper

 

Tetsuo: The Iron Man – Futurism

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I’m always on a quest to watch films that people recommend as being ‘odd’, ‘weird’, ‘surreal’ or otherwise ‘bat-shit mental’. As such, you can probably imagine that I’m no stranger to Japanese cinema. With their penchant for over-the-top violence, surreal imagery and absurdism a lot of really interesting and bizarre film comes out of Japan, some of which is beautiful, disturbing, fascinating and prolific, and some of which is just absolutely mad.

Despite my interest in expressionist and experimental cinema, I’d never actually seen the world famous Tetsuo: The Iron Man until last night. Wow, what a ride that was! It’s one of those films that you don’t so much watch as you experience.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a 1988 black and White tour de force of filmaking which explores concepts of dehumanisation at the hands of industry and technology. It’s often paired up with the Cyberpunk genre although I’m not convinced that’s a satisfactory label for the film. Tetsuo defies genre mixing elements of surrealism, body horror, sci fi, action, erotica and more into an hours bombardment of images and ideas.

The main thing that kept floating through my head as I watched it, was a paragraph from the Futurism Manifest written by F. T. Marinetti in 1909.

Futurism was/is an art movement which began in Italy. It sought to move away form ideas of the past and instead focus on the future. It was a bold, brash movement which reveled in concepts of speed, violence, machinery and industry. Motion became a staple of Futurizmo and objects such as motor cars and aeroplanes were incredibly important to them. The futurists sought to move the world forward into an industrial age with force, by fiercely rejecting the past and storming ahead with all the power of a locomotive. They glorified war and spat on ideas of morality, feminism and peace.

For me, watching Tetsuo: The Iron man was like seeing the ideas of Futurism on screen in beautiful and terrifying clarity.

Tetsuo begins as it means to continue as we are assaulted with harsh images of an industrial suburb of the city. A man, identified in the credits as ‘Fetishist’ enters his home, which is full of unidentifiable mechanics, wires, gears and metal rods. Here the camera glides erratically over the collection of strange and almost alien mechanics, set to a pounding, metallic soundtrack. Suddenly and without warning the fetishist slashes open his leg and forces a length of metal tubing into the wound. Later, when he unwraps it he’s horrified to see that the wound has become infected and has begun to rot, covered in maggots. In horror he runs out into the street and is knocked over by a car. This scene, in contrast, is backed by smooth 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll. Again we’re treated to an all too familiar but strangely otherworldly landscape of metal and wire, as well as the words ‘NEW WORLD’ written on a piece of scenery.

This cinematic punch to the face is a bold opening statement already mixing images of agony with pleasure, ugliness with beauty and progression with death. These mixed messages will continue and grow throughout the film until one is barely discernible from the other, pleasure becomes about agony, ugliness becomes beauty. This mirrors some of the ideas written in the Futurist manifesto about 80 years earlier when they speak of a ‘new beauty’, a beauty far away from the traditional concept which glorifies nature and calmness, but instead acknowledges speed, noise and the unnatural:

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We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

The story of Tetsuo begins some time after the car crash and follows the man who knocked over the fetishist. He begins to notice bits of metal protruding from his skin and over the course of the film he slowly and painfully transforms into a sort of human junkyard.

In this context the idea of a man turning into a sort of mechanical monstrosity is of course a metaphor for the dominance of industry over nature. It mirrors the way a city grows, swallowing the landscape around it, exactly the way Tetsuo is swallowed by the metal in his body. It also speaks of the dehumanisation of man as we become just parts of a larger mechanism, a message which has been found in films before, most notably in another futurism inspired masterpiece; Metropolis. This isn’t the only similarity Tetsuo bares to Metropolis. The way Fritz Lang filmed close ups of moving machines in a way to make them otherworldly is very similar to what Tsukamoto is doing in Tetsuo. Some of the expressive performances in Tetsuo are also very reminiscent of certain scenes/characters in Metropolis.

Of course the story isn’t only working on an abstract level but on a literal one too. The idea of man literally becoming machine is very prominent in futurism and from it concepts such as Transhumanism and Technological Singularity have risen. In 1927 Fritz Lang was affected by this when making Metropolis in the wake of the First World War, as Anton Kaes noted in his essay Metropolis: City, Cinema, Modernity;

Millions of veterans with prostheses and mechanical body parts—half machine, half human—walked the streets… The war and its aftermath provided the ultimate context for modernism, Metropolis offers a hallucinatory vision of the relationship between humanity and machine.
For Tsukamoto in 1988 this was becoming even more prevalent with the use of computers and mobile phones and with the rapid expansion of industry in Japan. People were really experiencing their lives changed by technology as they were brought into a, as Tsukamoto puts it, new world. And it’s still relevant to us today. As our lives are becoming further integrated with technology the idea of man becoming machine (at least in part) is closer to reality than ever. In fact, in a recent interview Ray Kurzweil, an American inventor, writer and self proclaimed futurist spoke about an event he calls ‘The Singularity’ which marks the time when our machines will be so advanced and intelligent that they’ll be on-par with humanity. At this time our lives (and physical bodies) will start to become completely integrated with technology. In a statement that in some ways evokes the image of Tetsuo with his metal growths bursting from inside, Kurzweil says;

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It’s not some alien invasion of intelligent machines coming from Mars to invade us. It’s coming from within our civilization and the whole point of it is to extend our reach.

And this is what is happening In Tetsuo. As he metamorphoses into his new metal form, he in many ways becomes better, stronger, more powerful whilst all the while loosing his compassion, love and gentility. Seen from a futurist perspective we can acknowledge that these more human sensibilities make one weak and their loss is a positive thing. By replacing these with raw power and aggression he becomes stronger, better, more able to take on the future. As a metaphor this is strikingly similar to the way the futurists called for the destruction of art galleries, libraries and academies because they stifle creation. In order to move forward and create something new and extraordinary, one most let go of comforts that hold them back. In Marinetti’s words:

To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action… Indeed daily visits to museums, libraries and academies…is for artists what prolonged supervision by the parents is for intelligent young men…

After the opening sequence and a short scene showing Tetsuo noticing a shard of metal growing from his face we see him in relative normality, or the closest we’ll get to normality. He speaks to his girlfriend on the phone, a conversation in which the duo repeat the term ‘hello’ eight or nine times in a show of everyday monotony. It is only after one of them mentions the accident that the conversation, and the film itself is allowed to continue. Following this is a couple of nightmarish sequences in which Tetsuo is chased by a woman with a mechanical arm, and a second where his girlfriend (with Brigitte Helm style expressive make up) rapes him with a metal tentacle like appendage.

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Both these scenes are genuinely unsettling and are probably some of the scarier things I’ve seen on film recently. Both reinforce the idea of progression through force as Tetsuo’s changes begin in a violent and violating manner. There may also be a sense that one cannot outrun progress, nor con it be beaten. The chase scene is filmed in short, frantic bursts as Tetsuo flees through a maze of underground corridors, perfectly invoking that sense of speed and constant motion that one associates with underground transport and power lines. The dream sequence (although distinctions between dream/wake, fantasy/reality should be taken very lightly here) mixes the erotic with the violent whilst none too subtly hammering the point that industry is a forceful invasion on nature.

The film carries on with this theme in some of the brashest film-making I’ve seen in a while. Eroticism continues to mix with violent, forceful symbolism until it reaches its bold and unforgettable conclusion. Metallic screeches and groans cry out while the woman’s teeth slide over a fork. With each sound Tetsuo reacts with a mix of pleasure and revulsion until it all becomes too much and…

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There is an assumption here that the bizarre and violent sexual content tells a wider story of impotence, repression and the weakness of the flesh. I think it says more about human nature and thril in the face of violence and chaos. Here, the phallus is a symbol of destruction and invasion in the most literal form. Even the most normal instance of sex in the film takes place just after the couple have dumped the fetishist’s body in a ditch. It’s the thrill of having killed a man which ignites the passion in them, and then is furthered by the thrill of being watched. As the woman groans ‘honey, he’s watching us!’ the scene climaxes with a film stock explosion. Even here sex is seen as a destructive act and this only becomes more prevalent when Tetsuo literally drills her to death. It’s interesting to note that she is only drilled after she wins a confrontation with him, stabbing him in the neck. After this she becomes overtly sexual again which results in her gruesome death. Just like before, it is she who penetrates Tetsuo before he is allowed to penetrate her. There’s more phallic imagery at the end of the film when Tetsuo and the revived(?) fetishist are moulded together and transformed into a massive penis shaped tank ready to destroy the world.

The male genitalia here is nothing but a force of destruction, a symbol of power, strength and speed. This is in keeping with ideas put forward in the futurist manifesto which denounces feminism and literally hopes to breed contempt for women. For them femininity is a symbol of weakness and cowardice, something that only exists to subdue the destructive and creative power of male compulsion.

We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.

As the film continues Tetsuo’s agonised screams become background noise, along with the pounding, mechanical soundtrack. Images of his ever-changing body become more and more grotesque as an already aggressive film ramps up the violence and horror, never letting up right until the credits roll.

The dead fetishist comes back from wherever he had been dumped and fights Tetsuo in a manga-esque battle put together with fast paced, angry stop-motion. After all is said and done the two characters are morphed together into that giant penis-tank I mentioned before. The imagery here is nasty and discomforting completely at odds with the feelings of the characters. Tetsuo himself is now nothing more than a head, surrounded by metal and dribbling blood or oil. Yet he gladly pronounces ‘I feel great’.

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The fetishist, who is at the… head of the tank, brandishing a gun speaks of destroying the world: ‘How about turning the whole world into metal? You and me. We can rust the whole world and scatter it to the dust of the universe. Our love can put an end to this fucking world!’

Of course he’s talking about their love of violence, of speed and of industry. He’s speaking of ending the world as it is and driving it forward into a new age. Denouncing what is old and traditional, literally burying it in metal. In its final moments the film drives home the main focus of the futurist movement with crystal clear clarity. As Marinetti wrote:

Let the good incendiaries with charred fingers come! Here they are! Heap up the fire to the shelves of the libraries! Divert the canals to flood the cellars of the museums! Let the glorious canvases swim ashore! Take the picks and hammers! Undermine the foundation of venerable towns! […] Look at us! We are not out of breath, our hearts are not in the least tired. For they are nourished by fire, hatred and speed! Does this surprise you? it is because you do not even remember being alive! Standing on the world’s summit, we launch once more our challenge to the stars!

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‘I feel great.’

Tetsuo: The Iron Man may not be the most profound film ever made, and certainly isn’t the most likable film I’ve seen. In fact it’s a hateful, vicious piece of film-making which takes the concept of subtlety and explodes it in front of the audience. But the futurists weren’t interested in subtlety either, and they sure as hell didn’t care if people liked them. What Tetsuo is, for me, is an almost perfect example of this particular art movement. I’ve never seen another film, or art work of any kind which has so thoroughly and accurately embodied the concepts and atmosphere of futurism.

There’s a lot more I’d like to say about the film; that the role of the fetishist is actually played by the writer and director of the piece and how that changes the perspective of the film (just think of the ‘honey, he’s watch us’ scene); or about certain gestures (such as a man miming a drill-penis with an iron bar) brings the various scenes of sexual violence into a different light. But I feel like it’s unnecessary at this point. There are a lot of layers to this film and a lot to be said in its short run-time. Mainly though it’s a mad, frenetic bombardment of images which starts with a bang and never lets up, dragging the audience through with its visceral images and pulse-pounding sound scape, offering no exit from the ride. And that, in itself is a perfect representation of the kind of art that futurism was interested in producing.

Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.

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Finding myself through words.

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I realised recently that I love sculpture. This came as a slight surprise because I’ve never really put much thought into the sculpting arts before. I remember being absolutely bowled over by the Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow and I also loved the Rivers of Siberia fountain in Krasnoyarsk. I was less enthusiastic but still impressed with the multiplicity of marble sculptures in Rome and the brass, militaristic statues in Beijing became one of the most interesting aspects of the city for me. Even so, I unconsciously logged all this information away without putting any of it together.

 

Monument to the Conquerors of Space

Monument to the Conquerors of Space

 

The reason I finally realised it, was the same reason I’ve realised so many of my personal tendencies; through my own writing. In particular I was toying with an idea about a city filled with living statues. While daydreaming about this I realised that sculpture has always played a part in my fiction, from my first novel Sketch to my latest, as of yet untitled, project. The statues in my fiction are always impressive and profound, if they’re not alive then they carry some special significance to the plot. In one story a man is slowly transformed into a stone statue after standing still for most of history.

It’s funny how it was only until after I’d written all this that I came to the realisation that I obviously have a strong appreciation for sculpture. Perhaps it comes from the fact that I actually know very little about sculpting, so had never really thought of it as anything but a periphery curiosity. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that this is not the first time I’ve realised something previously unknown about myself through writing fiction.

Through writing over the last five or six years I have discovered so much about myself. I’ve learnt what imagery I find beautiful or scary, what themes intrigue or infuriate me and what ideas have gotten stuck in my subconscious over the years. Through reoccurring thoughts and ideas I’ve discovered fears and concerns lurking in the back of my mind and had the opportunity to explore them. Writing has also helped me to put my social, political and spiritual views on paper and then deconstruct them, argue with myself and even take on the opposite point of view for a while. There’s also the fact that writing a novel, even a completely fictional one requires a nonsensical amount of research into related and unrelated material. I think I’ve learnt more about myself and the world through writing fiction than I have in any other medium or for any other reason.

At George Carling’s funeral Luis CK tells how he received advise for doing stand up from Carling. The advise was never to write the same joke twice, because that way you’re forced to look more deeply inside yourself for content. If the first joke comes from your head then the second comes from your heart, ‘until you get to the balls!’ says Luis CK. I think novel writing is similar to this in the ways that it’s more of a slow job than a sprint. I often find that my feeling of inspiration and excitement in telling a story only carries me so far before I realise there is an ocean of words between myself and the end of the novel. Pushing myself to write past the end of my inspiration forces me to really examine what it is in a story or theme that interests me. What traits in my characters do I find loveable or abhorrent, and if I find it abhorrent then why did I write it?

I’d always recommend that people write, whether it’s a novel, poetry or stream of consciousness, for this reason. It really can help you find and discover yourself. Through this act you might learn what it is you love and hate about yourself. If it’s not writing, then try something else that similarly stimulates you; sculpture for example.

I’m in Poland at the moment, working on a new theatre piece. But when I go back to England next week, I’m inspired to grab some clay and try my hand at making something. I hope I find out something new about myself in the process.

Necessary perspective. Traveling for life.

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A book shop. Possibly the grandest I’ve ever seen.

Last week I paid a visit to Saint Petersburg in Russia, with the intention that me and my girlfriend will be moving there later this year. I think it was the first time I’ve actually visited anywhere before committing to a move. As anyone who’s followed this blog before will know, I’ve already visited Russia a few times now so I more or less know what I’m letting myself in for and certainly won’t be encountering the same kind of culture shock I did last year in Beijing. Even so, it felt important for some reason (perhaps because this time I’m moving more as a life choice rather than because I’m chasing a job) that this year I not make the move cold, as it were.

So I spent a week in the city with my girlfriend. I’d love now to write about the city itself, with its grand, elaborate buildings, winding canals, vastly deep metro tunnels and homey, soviet style cafeterias, but I feel as though I’m unable to. Mostly because, although I noticed them, these are not the things I was paying attention to.

I think it would be fair to say that I’ve been “traveling” (read; taking jobs in obscure places) for three or four years now, and I can’t easily remember the last time I lived in one place for more than a year. I feel that because of this, perhaps unfortunately, the wonder of traveling has worn off slightly for me. Add to this the fact that our visit to Saint Petersburg was informed by the idea that we’ll soon be living there and my perception became a little different. This meant that I viewed the city through a very different lens than I would have done were I just visiting, and to how I think I will when I finally return, whenever my visa clears.

When seeing a new place with the intention of making a life there, your experience of it changes somewhat. Gazing down a wide, tranquil canal at the fantastically named Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood is wonderful, but the English bookshop just there on the left suddenly seems much more interesting. The hustle and bustle of Nevsky Prospect might be exciting but how is the local coffee and breakfast? I started looking out with excitement not for brilliant architecture but for shops selling boardgames and such tit-tat. I admired the many sculptures less for their own artistry but for how they might inspire me over the year or more to come.

I suppose it’s natural that in this circumstance my experience would be different to that of a tourist’s but it almost feels like a shame that my appreciation for such a historic, beautiful place was overshadowed by necessary and sometimes superficial considerations. Having said that, this was the whole reason for our visit and I can happily say that once I fully arrive there in the next month or so, I’m optimistic the city will lend me many much more interesting observations and stories.

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Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood

Creativity in the lines – Directing children’s theatre in Beijing.

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I’ve been racking my brains, daunted by the task of just how I can put into words my time in Beijing. How would I describe such a place, such an experience, such a feeling? I’ve still not worked it out so I’m trying to split it up into more manageable parts. Whilst thinking about this I realised that I very rarely write about my work on this blog so I thought that might be a nice place to start.

So, this year I’ve been teaching theatre and acting at a drama academy in Beijing, China. I work solely in English, teaching students who range from about seven to twelve years old. They tend to have pretty good to excellent English and those who are of a lower level bring so much enthusiasm and dedication to my classes that it’s anything but an obstacle. Throughout the year my students demonstrated extraordinary talent and such a mature, almost intense work ethic which never failed to impress.

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We split our year into two semesters, one was our ‘training’ semester in which we taught various aspects of drama and English. The second is the ‘production’ semester where we directed shows. We also, during summer and winter, ran five day camps where we would direct a full show in the week. So, as you can see, the majority of the work focused on directing.

I think the process of directing a show for a group of children is always difficult and complicated, but doing it in Beijing carries its own set of very specific considerations and requires a lot of technical juggling to make all the parts fit together.

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Firstly, a large part of the job becomes about parent management. Chinese parents are very involved in their children’s upbringing and education, desperate to make sure their child is learning to the best of their ability and being given the opportunity to challenge and push themselves. It’s touching to see the level of involvement and care but it can also manifest itself in an ugly tendency to compete. Some parents, in wanting their child to do the best they can, also want them to be the best in the class and so be given the most attention. Managing this becomes an art that starts with the script.

Many of the scripts we were given (no, we didn’t choose them ourselves) were quite awful. Many were badly written and those which weren’t were often inappropriate in terms of language level, cultural applicability and designation of lines. The first thing on the agenda is to cut the script to ribbons. Most of them (but not all, to be fair) are not designed to be given to classes of kids who should all have roughly the same number of lines. This means that we have to be quite liberal in the way we reallocate lines. Anything that can be spoken in unison is, anything that can be split between multiple actors is, anything too reliant on cultural foreknowledge is cut and many sentences are simplified in a big way. Already, I know we’re going to have problems with some of the parents not understanding why one character’s lines suddenly belong to five others, but that is my burden to bear. This first draft is all about mathematics, not about the story, my students skill or level and certainly not about making a well written show. More will change as we go, but this is our first draft, cut down from the usually bloated and inappropriate original.

The funny thing about juggling the lines is that despite their insistence that the lines be reallocated with mathematical precision my student’s parents do not often share their children’s English abilities. More often than not we’re performing to an audience who don’t understand what we’re saying either way. This changes the way we direct and deliver the dialogue. Lines now need to sound impressive rather than actually being perfectly articulated. Tone, pitch and rhythm of the dialogue becomes of utmost importance as we cut and rewrite along the way, making sure everything carries a kind of singsong quality. Jokes are built up with rising tone and punchlines are delivered to sound like a drumbeat. At the same time our actors have to reiterate all this with their movements, undulating like waves with the rhythm of their speech and punctuating their meaning with gesture and pose. During rehearsal, it can sometimes look like some sort of bizarre Meyerhold etude before being pared down to something more manageable later.

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This rhythm also informs the overall structure of the show. Again keeping in mind the fact the audience won’t be following us it’s important to keep the show flowing whilst putting an emphasis on visual action. Logical story telling tends to take a backseat to movement and action and this is, admittedly, exacerbated by the fact I tend not to prioritise linear narrative in theatre at the best of times; a product of having studied experimental theatre arts.

When working with young students it becomes very important to keep everyone as active as possible so whenever I can put everyone on stage, I will. This is a matter of logistics but also a hangover from a lot of my own theatre work which included large scale casts. A lot of the work becomes about the placement of students on the stage. I go to bed dreaming of geometric patterns formed of Chinese children dressed as sheep or broccoli. When successful the result of this is beautiful. A Kaleidoscope of action and sound which can be mesmerising and impressive in its simplicity. I often worked with ideas adapted and simplified from Greek chorus or, more often, from the way Kantor used procession and group postures. As often as possible I would have actors appear from and vanish into the collective in order to create a sense of ensemble which, as I discovered early on, was not typical of Chinese drama education which tends to focus on ‘star mentality’.

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Something else I played with, especially towards the end of the year, was the actor’s journey rather than the character’s. Most of the audience were made up of friends and parents so the actor’s story became just as, if not more, important than that of the character. This culminated with a moment in my last show where one of my Witches jumped into the role of Lady Macduff in all of one second. My co-teachers were desperately telling me she needed a costume change which I didn’t want to make time for, knowing the rhythm would be thrown off. I was sure that the audience were more invested in the actress than the character so that even if our simple signifier demonstrating the change wasn’t clear enough (which it would never have been considering not all the audience would even understand who Lady Macduff is or why there are witches hanging around everywhere) it didn’t matter. The audience won’t care if she’s the Witch or Lady Macduff, I said, because she’s Connie. They would be following her journey as a performer from one scene and character to the next over the technicalities of the story. This was one of our most successful scenes in the end.

There’s a lot more to it, of course, but these are some of the ideas I’ve been playing with throughout the year.

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Almost every decision made during the direction of these shows is underpinned by a logistic, mathematical need. Lines are counted and made equal as is the placement of performers on the stage (we can’t have certain actors downstage more often than others for example). The actor’s presence on the stage is checked so that if someone has been in the ensemble for a while they must (damned be the story) feature prominently in the next part. Delivery is designed in a non-naturalistic, descriptive way partially to help the audience understand and partially to entertain without them needing to. The funny thing is that fitting all these sliding parts together and trying to keep everyone happy actually sort of forces you to adopt a more expressive, less linear mode of performance which can be understood and enjoyed by all. I found many creative doors opening before us in part because of this focus on technical direction.

My year in this job has certainly taught me a lot of tricks when it comes to the directing (and writing) of plays. These are tricks that I’ll be taking with me whether I continue to work with children or with adults. It’s taught me to embrace and explore inside a forced structure and that creativity sometimes lies in the lines of a page rather than just between them.

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