Dancing through the pain

I turned my ankle walking in the park the other day, which is good going for someone who used to hike at every opportunity and now, in lockdown, barely gets more than a block from his house.

It hurt a little, but the more notable thing is that it revived some memories.

Ten years ago, I broke my leg quite badly. It required surgery, and they screwed the bone back together with bits of metal.

It never really gives me problems these days, but any injury to the same leg gets me wondering and even worrying: Have I done something to the screws? Am I going to have to go through all of that again?

I dealt with my park injury as I usually would, but the real problem was the sensation of “having done something to my leg”. Every bit of sensory information coming from that part of my body now goes through the lens of history, memory, and emotion. Does it feel weird? Does it feel different? Is there a problem there? I have to try and separate out my historic feelings from the present experience – not rejecting them, but recognising them for what they are.

Pain is a great source of information, if only you know how to process it.

The great choreographer Twyla Tharp wrote that:

“The dancer learns early to take pain for granted and that there is great freedom in choosing how to respond to its appearance. The thing NOT to do is deny pain. It must be acknowledged. Sometimes the right way of moving forward will be to push through pain. Your choices determine who you will be, who the world will see[.]”

Ultima Vez / Wim Vandekeybus + Mauro Pawlowski: “What’s the Prediction?” (ImPulsTanz Vienna 2010)
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Angels on the beach

Walter Benjamin wrote a few famous lines about Paul Klee’s artwork Angelus Novus. You may know them:

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

-Walter Benjamin, “On The Concept of History”

Imagine the plight of Benjamin’s angel today. The winds are more turbulent than ever. The ground on which the angel walks has become, perhaps, more unstable. Each step, however small, is taken in extreme uncertainty.

Perhaps the angel has come to realise that they are no longer alone. Other angels, with other perspectives and other understandings of what has gone before or where they are headed, also stagger against the storm. However much they wish to stay with the past that has gone before them, they are constantly driven onwards.

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Interview with Mark Stewart, Part 2: Beyond the Valley of the Clueless

Earlier this year, I interviewed the academic and researcher Mark Stewart about the changing nature of television in the digital age. Our discussion, presented in two parts, explores the geography of televisual culture: who gets access to what TV and when? Whose content is privileged and whose is excluded? What happens when you can’t get the shows you’re looking for, because you find yourself in the “wrong” part of the world or wanting the “wrong” content?

Mark also talked about his personal journey to becoming a television studies researcher and how he found himself reading his way into a culture of shows and movies which had not featured in his New Zealand childhood. You can read the first part of our interview here.

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I want to return to this question of networks, and awareness of what is out there, from online Buffy fandom, to the streaming services’ cornucopia, to the grey market trading in unlicensed material. How do you map the television landscape? 

Mainstream content providers are locked into a framework which is colonial. It consists of a set of privileged spaces which generate and export content for the rest of the world – both as a capitalist endeavour but also to establish certain values and norms.

In the age of subscription streaming, you enrol into the system, you accept that you’re its subject; you play by capitalist rules as you subscribe, you accept that they’ll tell you: “This is what comedy looks like, this is what drama looks like, this is what sexy looks like…”?

Part of the intent is to share a set of cultural values and assumptions that make the environment more hospitable to the content provider. One of those assumptions is that there is a homogenous nation of television watchers. Yet in every corner of the world, we’re way beyond that kind of homogeneity; we understand that the nation is an imposition. Its boundaries are permeable, it’s filled with diverse and ill-fitting and resistant elements.  

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Interview with Mark Stewart, Part 1: Don’t you have an elsewhere to be?

Earlier this year, I interviewed the academic and researcher Mark Stewart about the changing nature of television in the digital age. Our discussion, presented in two parts, explores the geography of televisual culture: who gets access to what TV and when? Whose content is privileged and whose is excluded? What happens when you can’t get the shows you’re looking for, because you find yourself in the “wrong” part of the world or wanting the “wrong” content?

Mark also talked about his personal journey to becoming a television studies researcher and how he found himself reading his way into a culture of shows and movies which had not featured in his New Zealand childhood.

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A few years back, you wrote about “the myth of televisual ubiquity”, this notion that despite the sense that television is abundant and easily available worldwide now, there are still barriers, restrictions, and friction when it comes to global access to television. The “tyranny of distance” still applies thanks to national borders, licensing deals, and the assumptions made by content providers about what kinds of show people want to watch.

What does that look like in 2021?

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The Lusory Attitude: Interview with Florence Engasser

This month, I spoke with Florence Engasser, senior foresight analyst at the innovation foundation Nesta. Florence works on exploring the future of innovation for social good; her interests include intelligent cities, social incubation, games and simulation.

We caught up to talk about her work using games as a tool to stimulate and develop the thinking of policymakers, including the innovation board game Innovate!, which was released in 2018.

Playing the Innovation Policy board game prototype – image courtesy of Nesta

M: You’re fond of quoting Bernard Suits in The Grasshopper: games are “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”, what he calls “the lusory attitude.” Have you always enjoyed overcoming unnecessary obstacles?

F: It’s a really cool quote, isn’t it? I’ve always been into all kinds of games; growing up with two brothers who are close in age, and parents who weren’t great fans of television or pop culture, I spent a lot of time “off screen”. As I grew older, I graduated from games like Uno to those which my parents might have labelled as “brain games” – more intense and elaborate stuff like Pandemic or Risk, where you might end up banging your head against the board!

M: Games serve so many purposes: entering an imagined world, competition, intellectual challenge, social connection — for you, was there one particular aspect which appealed above all?

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“Whose futures matter?” Gender, identity, and strategic foresight

I was privileged to be Dr. Pani Farvid‘s guest at The New School’s SexTech Lab this week, talking about how researchers of gender, sexuality, and identity can work with the imagined future to understand the present and challenge its assumptions.

The discussion built on some previous tentative explorations of foresight and identity, which you can read on this site: “Foresight and Cruising Utopia” and “Dots that I haven’t joined yet“.

Another valuable reading is last year’s article “Whose futures matter?“, from a group of foresight practitioners including Joshua Polchar, Özge Aydogan, Pupul Bisht, Kwamou Eva Feukeu, Sandile Hlatshwayo, Alanna Markle, and Prateeksha Singh. I also recommend the OECD’s Alex Roberts‘ piece on “otherness and innovation” from 2017.

Closing the loop

It’s the last of three pieces about films and time. There were some words about visions of an endlessly repeating day; some words about the immeasurable season of grief; and finally, some words on breaking the cycle – or closing the loop.

At the beginning of Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer (2018), a woman wakes in her car beneath an L.A. underpass. With the shuffling gait of the walking dead, she heads to the concrete banks of a storm drain, where a crime scene has been established. The detectives already present are dismayed at her arrival. “This is handled,” they tell her – but the woman, their colleague, insists on knowing the details.

A man has been shot – his blood has run into the drain and is darkening in the light of a perfect California day. There are stolen bills, stained purple from a dye pack, pinned beneath the body, and a distinctive tattoo of three fat black dots on the back of the victim’s neck.

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A discomfort watch

“What was the question?”

The opening line of Russell Harbaugh’s 2018 film Love After Love lets you know that this movie isn’t going to lead you by the hand. It starts as if you’ve just come back to yourself after drifting away from a conversation. You’ll be left to work out what is going on, who is related to whom and how; even the amount of time that has passed between scenes is left as a matter of conjecture.

Family patriarch Glenn is in the opening scenes, raspy-voiced but hearty at a family gathering; then he is in bed, struggling to breathe, and in the bathroom, with his two adult sons struggling to lower him onto the toilet and his wife tugging his pants down to his ankles; then he is gone and the men from the funeral home are clattering the gurney as they transfer him from the bed in which he has passed away.

His death comes a fifth of the way into this ninety minute film, but it’s the stone, cast in a pond, whose ripples we’ll be watching for the remaining duration. If last week, we talked about Groundhog Day and other fantasies of endless repetition, here Love After Love reminds us that the world doesn’t solely run on hours, days, months, and years. There are other ways to mark life’s pace, and other kinds of endlessness, like the time in which someone close to you is irrevocably gone. You might not be able to say how much of the calendar this movie covers, yet it clearly takes place almost entirely within one season: the season of grief.

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Fandom and literacy – A conversation with Ludi Price

The latest instalment of Scripturient, my column for Information Professional, is out now.

In this series, I’m looking at how we can push the boundaries of literacy in the 21st century, to encompass new areas of representation. What does it mean to read the future? To read risks? To read the forces that underpin our relationships and drive us psychologically? To read the signs and signals which exist in the natural world? If we look outside of the institutional and habitual ways of doing things, will we find fresh and useful insights?

In the latest issue of Information Professional, I talk to the librarian and scholar Ludi Price about her research into fan information behaviour: the ways in which communities of people with a shared passion for pop culture manage, organise, and distribute information relating to their fandom.

You can read Ludi’s thoughts about “fan literacy” in a PDF download here, or get your own copy of Informational Professional magazine here.