Michel Serres

More than Deleuze (with or without Guattari), more than Foucault, somewhat more than Derrida, so different to Butler, but like her someone I returned to again and again, for the quiet care and poetry, for the love of movement, one of that first group of philosophers I got introduced to by the same person at a moment in my life where they resonated, and — like only Butler from those names — continue to, 25 years on. I knew it was coming, likely sooner, but still, I lost my breath for an instant, I stopped.

The more I dance, the more I am naked, absent, a calculation and a number. Dance is to the body proper what exercise of thought is to the subject known as I. The more I dance, the less I am me. If I dance something, I am that something or I signity it. When I dance, I am only the blank body of the sign.


To dance is only to step aside and make room, to think is only to step aside and make room, give up one’s place.
To leave at last the page blank.


Laughter is that little noise, uttered in blank ecstasy.

Reading: Sean Carroll — The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself

Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself made it onto my reading list because of another theoretical physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder, who reviewed it mid-2016. I’m reading it now because I need my regular fix of sciencey, astrophysics stuff and it seemed to compliment the other stuff I’m reading at the moment (also all the other science books on my list are textbook affairs with commensurate eye-bleeding price).

I have to say from the outset I’m not the imaginary audience for The Big Picture, nor am I especially enjoying it. I wish I was because I enjoy the hell out of what he writes about, and appreciate he can do hard science without pissing all over philosophy and the humanities, unlike quite a few popular atheist science bros. He manages to rope in Wittgenstein (who is always wholly relevant and informative in any situation), my dear favourite Leibniz gets a go for calculus, as well as best of all possible worlds, and principle of sufficient reason; he even manages to have an entire chapter on gender and identity and I’m showing my age here but I’m still pleasantly surprised when I see how unremarkable these matters have become — even in the last decade, in fields not explicitly feminism/queer/gender studies/etc.

So why am I not enjoying it so much? It could be the recurrence of disproving Laplace’s and/or Descartes’ demons, or explaining from extrapolations of different parts of physics the impossibility of (or at least extremely unlikely) things like mind-body duality, having a soul, life after death, god. Which makes it an invaluable book for people who themselves have questions and doubts about these subjects, but from my personal experience kinda useless in persuading even the most casual of ‘spiritual’ types to give up their astrology.

I used to be a much more diligent atheist, until atheism was taken over by white hetero bro New Atheism colonialism and ruined it for the rest of us. I like Caroll in this regard because he isn’t absolutist. Paraphrasing here, he says while nothing we see or know about the universe requires a god, nonetheless that does not preclude one (or many), just that if there was a god or gods, they would have to adhere to the laws of physics like the rest of us do — as far as we can tell by the current, pretty bloody good state of our understanding of physics. He also says that irrespective of the existence or not of god or gods, religion serves a cultural purpose spanning millennia that saying “God doesn’t exist, because physics” isn’t going to miraculously cause mass conversion to atheism.

For a white, hetero male writing on the Big Questions — historically the domain of self-congratulatory alpha males — he’s done a banger of a job of steering through all that anachronistic baggage. But steer through that he does, stopping off along the way to describe then disabuse us of what’s fundamentally a Christian, or Christian-derived view of the universe.

Maybe it’s because he tries to cover so much that it feels to me he paraphrases philosophers’ and scientists’ ideas so they read like, “close enough”, as with describing Lucretius’ concept of the clinamen (which I don’t think he actually named, but was what he was describing), or Leibniz’ ideas. Or maybe it’s that he holds on somewhere to an uncritical belief that physics is above all this and is the one neutral — as well as correct — way of viewing and understanding the world. The correct part, sure, as far as we can tell now, but neutral? I wonder if some of the hostility directed at 20th century philosophers by scientists (which again, he isn’t doing) is because the logic in pointing out that language creates the world is pretty solid. Whether it’s Wittgenstein, Derrida, or others, even after throwing out whatever bollocks they wrote, we’re left with this. And to have a bunch of soft humanities academics repeatedly and in various ways tell the hard scientists their rationality and neutrality is dubious at best, because language is a limit on describing and experiencing the world, is going to get messy.

It’s not even a question of agreeing or not with him. Newtonian physics? Yup, same for Einstein’s relativity, general or special. Quantum mechanics also. It might be that I find the experimental side of things lacking by comparison to the theoretical. For example observations of cosmic microwave background by COBE, WMAP, and Planck observatories currently provide the best evidence for, and more or less confirm the Big Bang theory, specifically the inflationary model. Questions such as “What is the universe?” “Where did it come from?” “What was there before it existed?” while not definitively answered are comprehensively narrowed down. The discovery of the predicted Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider and concurrent lack of discovery of new particles also set limits on possibilities, or at least pushed various other competing theories to do some heavy re-theorising. But mentions of these experiments seem sparse compared to Descartes and his cogito ergo sum. More of the former and less of the latter would have moved things along far more enjoyably.

But maybe all this, multiverses, the Planck era, macroscale quantum theory are too advanced for the intended reader, like introducing all the exceptions to the rules before explaining why the rules as are they are and where they came from. For my imagined intended audience, then: it’s comprehensive and brings together a lot of threads of physics from the history of Western science and philosophy that make it a good general introduction. It’s kinda boring though. I’d rather read Sabine Hossenfelder or Ethan Siegel, whenever they get around to writing a book.

Finally, the history of Western science since the Enlightenment has been one marked by arrogance, overreach and the worst of humanity given legitimacy through its declaration of rationalism. And one marked by frequent declarations of , “Yeah, we learnt our ethical lesson, we’ve got it right this time,” before cocking it up again. I’m not sure there can be a grand Theory of Everything, which is what Carroll is proposing. Like Mark Zuckerberg imagining he can reduce people and their desires to code, or transhumanists imagining they can upload their minds, it speaks of a smallness in understanding the world and a meanness in how they value it. There is always something that remains, that cannot be assimilated, a residue this reductionism cannot account for and cannot consume.


Chinesisches Haus Park Sanssouci

All the 17th and 18th century Berlin-Brandenburg Fredericks/Friedrichs confuse me, so: Frederick the Great Elector, otherwise known as the Elector of Brandenburg, Frederick William (or Friedrich Wilhelm in these parts): not a king. His son, Frederick I of Prussia, also Elector of Brandenburg, upgraded to King of Prussia, married to Sophia Charlotte of Hannover (also of Schloss Charlottenburg), the daughter of Sophia of Hannover, both of whom were good friends of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (and generally good for arts, culture, philosophy, science). These latter three are the ones I’ve been interested in. Their son (Sophia Charlotte’s and Friedrich I’s, I mean), Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia, the army guy, the Soldier King, who more or less didn’t go to war. And his son, Friedrich II of Prussia, that is, Friedrich the Great (plain Great, no Elector despite also being Elector of Brandenburg, well they were all Electors of Brandenburg, and the latter three Kings of Prussia and all called Friedrich, when not called Friedrich Wilhelm) who was totally into music, philosophy, the arts, lots of really admirable stuff, and totally went to war with his father’s Prussian military. So:

Friedrich (Wilhelm) the Great Elector (of Brandenburg), Friedrich I (of Prussia), married to Sophia Charlotte, Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia the Soldier King, and Friedrich II the Great (of Prussia). Four of them. (Oh, and the Great’s successor was his nephew, Friedrich Wilhelm II (yes, of Prussia), who was the indolent hedonist (and patron of the arts) who ruined all those previous Friedrichs’ good Prussian work. A couple more Friedrich Wilhelms followed but we don’t care about them.)

Because I was at Park Sanssouci today with David wandering the outsides of all that beautiful baroque and rococo architecture and was totally confused over which Friedrich was which.

As usual, the Bildergalerie was closed. I think I’ve established now that european winter means closed museums. And generally a current torrent of euros from wherever all over the place means renovations means closed museums. There isn’t one city I’ve been in this year where I haven’t been met with locked entrances of significant museums instead of awesome art.

Nonetheless, feast on the bizarre Chinoiserie of the 1755-1764 Chinesisches Haus. It’s really splendid, from the flattened cupola above high oval windows with a buddha-like golden seated figure bearing a parasol at a rakish angle (there’s a good photo on German Wikipedia), to the tented main roof with diagonal patterning and folding giving a sense of motion like a roundabout, to the massive golden columns and arrangement of trios eating and drinking at their bases, quartets of standing figures playing a diversity of musical instruments between the trios of portico windows, the entire trefoil plan splitting it into three main rooms (not that we could go inside), it’s sublime and naïvely kitsch.

Most of the figures are unambiguously European, though more than a couple of the standing musicians have eyes definitely of the Græco-Buddhist style, and some of them it’s possible were based on either art representing Chinese or South-East Asian people or actual people. What’s more remarkable is the plethora of styles and cultures all thrown together as Oriental: dress, fabrics, headdress, musical instruments, cushions, seem to come from as far north as Xinjiang and as far south as Thailand, with some of the musicians even looking Central Asian or northern Chinese, others have styles that seem imagined or fantasied, mashing together vaguely Asian with vaguely northern European hats and shoes, cuts of dresses and bonnets. It’s madly chaotic. Especially for the trios seated on pillows enjoying Chinese tea and other far eastern delicacies. For them, the musicians seem to encourage the freedom to dress up as Orientals, to wear hats and slippers, silk and embroidery, light, form-following gowns, for men to wear changshan dresses and women cheongsam. It’s gloriously radical and liberatory, yet also exactly the opposite, only possible because of wealth and might. It plays with these things, burnishes the participants’ sophistication, but never changes them. Or perhaps it did.

It’s probably far more beautiful in summer or autumn than in the last grey dregs of winter, but still …


Deutsches Historisches Museum

It’s Sunday so that means it’s museum day! I haven’t been to a museum in ages! (No, Vienna’s Gemäldegalerie doesn’t count, trying to charge 5€ for the ‘privilege’ of taking photos.) This week it’s the Deutsches Historisches Museum in the Zeughaus on Unter den Linden, which I’ve been to before, but not for the permanent exhibition.

I’ve started to grow an interest in Mediæval—broadly—north-west Europe, the bits that became Germany and Germanic-ish countries, which comes from things like the Bode Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Bologna’s Museo Civico Medievale and Museo della Storia di Bologna, covering a timespan of something like 7th-15th centuries. The Germanic region in this time grew on me because it seems regarded even by comparison to the British Isles as deepest Dark Ages, yet the art and culture I’ve so far seen is glorious. And of course it all leads to Leibniz, so I need a better understanding of how he got to where he was (and it helps me to go back a thousand years to do that). The Deutsches Historisches Museum seemed then to be able to fill in some gaps. Gaps that turned out to be cavernous. Let’s just say I knew nothing and I discovered I know even less.

As to what I’d look at, or how to approach a museum, I decided to try an experiment. Since reading Nicole Griffith’s Hild, and reading about how she proposed to herself to discover who Hild might have been by researching 7th century Britain, and since reading the brilliant Medieval People of Colour blog, I thought about what might interest me in a museum, or rather, to consciously describe what I look for and to make that the subject of being a museum visitor.

For me then, it’s long been about finding women in history, teasing out the significance of their occasional appearances in museums; trying to understand life outside the roster of heroic males doing heroic things (usually killing large numbers of other males and everyone else too poor to get out of the way) who required heroic portraits or themselves—the Deutsches Historisches Museum is full of them. It’s also about people like Leibniz and those around him at that time; China and Central Asia; and since reading the Medieval People of Colour blog, looking for representations of people who do not look “typically European”.

On that last, a digression: I’m trying to find another term besides People of Colour to describe what I see. My understanding is that it’s primarily used in the United States to describe anyone not white, and I have some resistance to uncritically using a term that comes linked to a significant, specific history and country. Additionally, it seems to me to often denote visible difference, that is to say, a person of African descent in European art is often (but not always) visibly different from the usual pale skinned figures. There were a lot of Turkish and Arabic figures in this museum, whose difference was substantially down to clothing or facial features, and whose skin colour in no way denoted them as different. Contra all that, to say ‘non-European’ is to conflate skin colour, dress, ancestry and so on with being European, which patently is not the case. So I’m in a bind as to how to describe ethnic and cultural diversity in Europe. As Griffith and Medieval POC repeatedly say, there have always been people of colour in Europe.

A second digression: I do a minimum of editing the images: first dealing with any lens distortion and cropping, then some colour balancing. I’ve noticed when I do the balancing on paintings with people who have dark skin, the automatic Photoshop settings make them vanish into blackness. It seems there’s a heavy bias towards achieving colour balance for pale skin in the automatic settings at the distinct detriment to everyone else. Additionally, it’s really difficult in general to represent here what I saw in the museum, to compensate for the artificial light without generating a false image; to compensate for the RAW camera settings and image without adding in masses of additional colour and contrast. In short, what’s here is only very approximate.

We start with a map then, of Europe in the time of Charlemagne, around 100 years after the events of Hild, but the map holds true: there’s Whitby. There’s no Berlin though, in fact east of the Elbe there’s not much at all. Then there are two curved axe heads, my namesakes: Franziska. These were next to a couple of Seax, again the kind Hild would have used. Some armour, chain mail, shields, all the more real from having read that book of her. Then a tapestry, the Annunciation of Christ, and on the far right is definitely a person of colour, and of high rank, bearing a sword and crown. Some books and a clock, then another tapestry for which I don’t have the full name, but there are Indians on the backs of Giraffes, and two African musicians playing drums, about which the audio guide said, it was common for them to be employed or enslaved to work in the houses of royalty.

Iranian chain mail armour! I liked this just because armour, knights, and all that tends to be entirely associated with Europe and European history, yet here’s some very Persian-looking armour from the 15th century that looks well hard, especially that nasty scimitar.

A quartet: The Augsburger Monatsbilder. Four huge paintings each covering on season of the year, and it seemed also one direction of the compass. I just liked this, the life of the town in the late-1400s.

Then a painting for which I forgot to photograph the title, but intrigued me for the setting of knights jousting in front of a palatial residence, and the possibly Persian knights (just behind the giant fish, centre-left) and the African or Arabian possibly slaves (there’s an ankle chain visible on one) tending the horses along the bottom.

The wooden Crucifixion is a side-interest at the moment. I’ve just started reading about religious blood cults in mediæval Germany and the depiction of blood as in this crucifix, hanging like cords, reminded me of that. The paper theatres I just thought were beautiful works of art, and the lithograph of fireworks done in 1667 looks so uncannily like Art Nouveau, they make me smile every time I look at them.

Several more works with Turkish, Arabic, and African people in them. The hunting bags were particularly strange, being used to herd the hunted animal while waiting for the riders to arrive for the kill. There was a whole section covering the Turkish invasion of Europe and the siege of Vienna, as well as—at least until the siege—regular occurrences of Turkish, Arabic, Muslim, North African people. Not a huge amount, but enough amidst the wall-to-wall heroic white men that I was surprised by how frequently they appeared.

And then, Leibniz. I smiled a lot. A copy of his Oeuvres philosophques, printed in 1765, some 50 years after his death. Followed closely by Leonard Euler’s Theorie motuum Planetarium et cometarum, and a work I thought was Robert Hooke’s but turned out to be De Europische Insecten by Maria Sibylla Merian: sublime and colourful illustrations of plants and insects.

I skipped all the Kaiserreich and World War 1 period. There was a separate exhibition for the latter, but it didn’t and doesn’t hold much interest for me. There was one painting of a prisoner of war, Hamed Ben Nadi Abo El Kader by Hans Looschen which somehow connected for me—as a reappearance perhaps—with the medieval paintings. It seems necessary to remark on, that the diminishment and then absence of diversity in art, a narrowing down until it’s only portraits of white men, and until the culture from which this art comes itself is an embodiment of this parallels an emerging nationalism, xenophobia, and misogyny. The latter I think is pertinent because the diminishment and then absence of women corresponded pretty closely to the absence of people of colour.

What else? The audio guide isn’t free, but it’s pretty good. The permanent historical exhibition is the usual Berlin leviathan which left me ravaged after three hours. I didn’t see more than half of it with the care and attention it deserves; there’s enough to go on to cause a reading frenzy lasting years. The early period from around 800AD is the smallest and isn’t as thorough as I’d like (even though I was trapped in it for at least an hour). Which means I’m on a search for a museum for that period next.



It’s Museum Sunday again! Almost didn’t make it there, and once I arrived, almost didn’t make it in. About to leave and a phone call from a non-German number. It’s Emile, in Melbourne! I said, “But your number’s not Australian. Prove you’re there, speak in an Australian accent.” Well, not quite, but he did describe Balaclava, The Wall, and all my favourite East St Kilda stuff, so I believe him.

The Musikinstrumenten-Museum closes at a mere 17h, so by the time I’d promised to join him for a coffee at The Wall next year, I barely had enough time to bike to Potsdamer Platz before getting kicked out. Once in, I was met by one of those genuinely horrible ‘guards’ who would not let me in with my bag, despite my utter lack of an extra Euro for a locker. Luckily an equally and oppositely genuinely nice person at the ticket office not only lent me the necessary Euro, but gave me a set of headphones and an audio guide.

Normally I haven’t been bothering with the audio guides, but Emile had said something like, “It’d be great to hear all the instruments,” so with him in mind, I did. Also in mind was the delightful Michael Garza, Principal Bassoon in the Guangzhou Orchestra, who, when visiting Berlin in 2008/9-ish had made this one of his museum visits. The museum isn’t huge, but with the audio often being quite comprehensive, it’s another one that would probably take a full day to get through.

The Sonderausstellung then, Valve. Brass. Music: 200 Jahre Ventilblasinstrumente, or 200 years of brass instruments. And shy, never putting itself forward Berlin is the place where not one, but two musicians —Heinrich Stölzel, and Friedrich Blühmel – invented two different approaches around 1814 for valves for horn instruments. The exhibition has around 150 examples spanning the two centuries and they are a joy to behold.

It’s like rampant, wild, unfettered experimental evolution. Brass instruments now have settled down more-or-less into recognisable forms, trumpets, trombones, saxophones, horns, tubas, but back then, it reminds me of the very weird life in the sunless ocean trenches, pipes and valves multiplying, twisting back on themselves like clumps of barnacles, or curlicues and fronds, things that look improbable or completely different species, have broken off the evolutionary path and gone wandering into all kinds of madness. Double bell euphoniums, trumpets like conjoined triplets of steam-engines, over-the-shoulder bugles, a tenor trombone like the plumbing from a small building, delicate Aida trumpets as long as spread arms with a single twist and one valve, oval Wagner (yes, him) tubas … the inventiveness is hilarious and beautiful.

Does it signify that instruments as they have become are the most perfect, or perhaps the most useful, most dextrous, capable of occupying multiple niches, unlike the singular lifeforms of their distant predecessors? I have no idea for an answer, as this museum I approach very much as an outsider. Coming with Michael, or someone knowledgeable would certainly be an advantage.

I left brass flying in arcs and curves across the walls like migrating birds and found myself with the hammers that hit metal strings, pianos, clavichords, harpsichords … strings that are sawed at with bows or plucked with fingers, wooden tubes with holes blown down through a reed, all also showing their exuberant, multifarious origins and offspringings. Some old bassoons also. And a couple of new things, including a peculiar proto-synthesiser.

The keyboard instruments were particularly beautiful, given such wide expanses of flatness onto which whole forests and meadows were painted. One Tafelklavier from 1791, though devoid of ornamentation was quite the most cheerful and happy sounding thing in the whole place. Then there was another with a horrifying battle scene painted along the underside of its lid, so when opened for some nice Baroque entertainment, the audience could also enjoy a weeping man, another man perishing beneath his fallen mount, and an army of others swinging sharp objects at each other. And then there was the traveller’s harpsichord, very cleverly built in three folding pieces, and formerly owned by Sophia Charlotte – the good friend of Gottfried Leibniz – who gifted to her grandson, Frederick the Great, a composition of whose, played on the instrument can be heard.

As with many, if not all of the museums I’ve seen recently, the Musikinstrumenten-Museum focusses on Germany in general, and Berlin in particular, with the other countries historically having close relationships with the lands that became Germany somewhat represented, mostly in respect to an instrument’s history, like Sophia Charlotte’s Paris-built harpsichord. Instruments outside of Europe (where Europe is bounded by seas on three sides and doesn’t extend much further east than a line drawn from the Adriatic to the Baltic) feature not at all. Perhaps it’s the wrong city for this, but I would dearly loved to have seen a musical instrument museum filled also with ouds, gamelans, didgeridoos, something of an ethnomusicological museum, rather than one which ventured little from the classical instruments which form today’s orchestras, the evolutionary successes, so to speak.

It occurred to me also, while early in the Valve. Brass. Music exhibition, that there were considerable similarities between what I was looking at in a musical instrument, and what I’d seen in the Deutsches Technikmuseum: ship engines, trumpets; same application of technology, different end. A couple of instruments later (I tend to wander exhibitions in inappropriate order and direction), the descriptions, patents, schematics around the original valve designs also noted that they were inspired by inventions in engineering and the industrial revolution. From that, and seeing the proto-synthesisers at the dawn and early years of the computer age, it seemed clear that music uses the newest technology of the day to manufacture new instruments, new sound, new compositions, new ways of playing, and has done so for as long as there has been technology. A museum then, of these interrelationships is what’s implied, a kind of museum of the philosophy of technology and its applications, not divided into technology and industry over there, and art and music over here. Conversely, this predicts and describes where music will come from next, probably most immediately a combination of mapping massive datasets and 3D printing. Definitely 3D printing is going to change music, especially when printing metal and composite materials becomes common.

Ah, but there’s so many beautiful instruments to see and hear, really, it’s a joy; one of those lesser-known museums that is entirely worth seeing. Photos, then:


“Indeed, cousine, I should rather you were a since…

“Indeed, cousine, I should rather you were a sincere Satanist than a pretend one; for the former recognizes God’s majesty, and may be reformed, while the latter is an atheist, and doomed to the Lake of Fire.”

The Confusion, Volume Two of The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson


temperance 16mm film

With all the adding of video and making newness on francesdath.info, I started looking at the footage of temperance again. It’s been years since then, reading my blogging on the project is a curious reminder of that time, and the process of forgetting, the certitude of thinking one remembers.

I decided then, to do some rough cutting of the film, beautiful 16mm stock that had been sitting in a fridge for decades, wondering if I could work around the limitations of some of my decisions in the filming. A good deal had already been done. Paul had synced the cameras and also done a first cut – though what I have done, while retaining some of this, is far from it, and also conditional, preliminary.

A thought early on, a week or so ago, was what to do about music. For the rehearsals, we’d been using a track from the Boredoms, which fitted well the mood of the rehearsal as well as of that time. It didn’t fit now, or rather it did but didn’t say or add anything I particularly cared about.

In addition to the film, there was also all of Bart’s sound recordings, including boom from the floor – also all synced. I wanted to leave this in place, as the sound of feet, breathing, scraping, knocking the floor, the hum of the cameras, was all things I felt belonged.

So to music. I thought perhaps something Cello or otherwise, but then was listening to Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations and one track, the 15th, somehow suited. Perhaps it is a bit long, perhaps one that was four minutes would have been better, but strangely the rhythm of Bonnie and Gala matches that of the piano.

This then, is a first cut. I am really not a film editor, though I can stumble and thrash my way through Final Cut enough. I decided to stop here as the only real option is to spend weeks on familiarising myself with all the footage, and carefully assembling it, for which I don’t have the luxury of such time, nor do I think I am capable; and I also know if I don’t at least call something ‘finished’ now, it will remain in the darkness of my hard drive forever.

There are a couple of edits I’m a bit cringy about, where the continuity is very off, and other places where more tightening and timetimetime would make me smile more, but there is also much in here I like. The dancing and attentiveness of Bonnie and Gala, the camerawork of Paul, the sound of Bart, the Temperance Hall, those two weeks when we made this.

You can also watch temperance on francesdath.info/video

monadologie day 11

We played in the VR Lab today. The Astrophysics Centre has 3-D Stereoscopic projectors and twin cameras for filming also (yes, we will be playing with those too later), and after almost a month of reading stuff, both here and over the holidays in Adelaide, it seemed like a good place to start. It has that “wow! oh that’s amazing” effect on everyone who sees it, stars and galaxies spinning, millions of years compressed into seconds.

Bonnie and I have been joined by Lina Limosani, whom we’ve known for years, though as usual are actually in the same room and city maybe twice in that time. She was choreographing in Ignition too, so it’s been only a couple of months since we last were in the same place. A lot of talking then, first at the new favourite coffee shop and record store run by the French guy who makes it feel like we’re in Europe, then once I’d grabbed masses of equipment, in the theatre.

“What am I going to do?” has become “I don’t know what I’ll do next, but this is what I’ll do now”. Lina and I spent yesterday at Napier St, again mostly talking, but trying to get familiar with all the improvisation techniques. I seem to be working with it at a level lately where every time I think about it or explain it I realise something new in it, where it can go, how it connects to other things, how it can be better thought in order to be more clear and coherent.

Once I worked out how to operate the system, we watched a bunch of visualisations of the large scale structure of the universe and others of galaxy formation and interaction. I can’t really talk about these too sensibly yet, so rather than pollute your mind with misinformation, I’ll try and explain what we see.

These visualisations are evolutions of systems over time. We particularly liked the one named, “Disrupting Dwarf”, which came from a Hubble Space Telescope picture of a distant galaxy a couple of years ago. Someone noticed a small, dwarf galaxy being consumed by the main galaxy, and so decided to model what might be happening. The visualisation is a small, fast moving globule that gets sucked through the disk of the galaxy, spins out the other side leaving a trail of debris that spirals back in, before it in turn plummets hubward, and bounces in ever decreasing arcs through the core, splattering and ejecting matter on each pass until it is entirely absorbed. Each bright dot that twists in agonisingly complex paths represents clusters of stars within the galaxy and dwarf. We can zoom in, rotate, speed up, slow down, stop and reverse time, all in trippy 3-D.

With our necessary 3-D glasses on, looking like alien hoodlums, a camera to capture it all, and Sunn0))) live in Le Chapelais playing, we spent a few hours trying to map this with all the techniques we’ve been working with. We started mostly with fingers and hands, and simple 9-point mapping and a bunch of point and line methods, keeping it simple is torturous when cascades into infinity almost immediately. Later it got more open, and … this stuff seems to build on itself, the more there is, the more there is.

The first day has been a rather exciting romp in science wonderland. I think it could go quite well from this, and the feeling or sense I’ve had of what it might look like seems to be vaguely accurate. The complexity though… Oh it’s going to be murder. We’re in the VR Lab all this week, with some time in a proper studio to put this into our bodies later in the week, and then…

I have a date with the State Library to slobber over some almost 300 year old texts from Gottfried Leibniz. mmm … rare book porn.

Some photos of what we were looking at and playing with.

monadologie – week 2

A rather crazy five days for me, dramas with friends far away and then Lily, Bonnie’s sister coming into the project. Today then was another morning of working on improvisation systems out in the black box (now with grey floor) of the Temperance Hall in South Melbourne (where apparently you can’t drink inside…).

A question of is this process of generating movement dehumanising, does it create dancers who are just interchangeable blobs, or does it lend itself to some radical apprehension of self through movement? Personally, the more I think about this approach to both generating movement and improvising, the more I find in each concept, an endless unfolding brought about by considering what a body is doing when it’s in a particular modality.

We were doing a bunch of 9-point stuff today, which is both rather basic, in the sense of being an exersise or task that intensifies specific understanding of a body or parts of a body in space, and also fiendishly complex for exactly the same reasons. I came to think the term ‘point’ is slightly misleading in that it implies an infinitesimally small dot of only one dimension and as such does not engender a intuitive visualisation of it having a front, back, sides, top, and bottom. So I described it instead as a small box that you could approach with a limb from any path or direction and then with whatever surface of that limb describe one surface of this box. This immediately lends itself to the idea of, say, describing one side of the box while approaching it from another, creating much more complex paths.

Back in Temperance Hall then, and talking about yesterday when Bonnie came out to the Centre with me to be shown around and also to see the VR Theatre. She was really quite awestruck by some of the visualisations of galaxies colliding and 3-D maps of the large scale structure of the universe, and just … I think that’s what’s important for me in this, or really in all my work, to make people feel something and want to know more, and to have that kind of reaction when seeing the visualisations in very convincing 3-D after talking about all this stuff for the past few days was really satisfying.

The previous night I’d been restless with thoughts, trying to deal with concepts that are far beyond my ability to grasp … I was thinking it’s like when you’re really fit from dancing and then go for a run for the first time in ages, and all the muscles are really strong in a particular way, but in running coordination they are so unfamiliar … the next day is pain. This is mostly my brain these two weeks. So I was thinking about Bonnie coming to the centre, and really agonising over where to start everything and the large monsters of ideas that I couldn’t reconcile when I thought it might be rather fun to try mapping the 3-D visualisations onto our bodies while in the VR Theatre.

Watching the animations with Bonnie it was so obvious this was a good idea.

So after two weeks, things are coalescing into … something. There’s a number of … ideas, things, areas, vaguely defined concepts that could become something, and simultaneously an idea of what it could look like when we get into Temperance Hall in late-February.

Firstly there is the literal data mapping, how to get various groups and clumps of data that can be represented in various 2- and 3-dimensional forms onto the rather inaccurate and prone to infirmity sack of bones and goo that is a body. This entails for me at least an endless plummet through research where one three-letter acronym like, say, SPH (that’s Smoothed Particle Hydrodynamics) leads all the way back to Kepler and 2- and 3- body problems. mmm … elliptical orbits and eccentricities. That is to say, fun holiday reading.

Then simultaneous with this is the incomprehensibility of these papers and the research here. At best trying to read a paper can be an aesthetic experience where the mathematical symbols are the equivalent of calligraphy and there’s some kind of beauty in the whorls of glyphs and surrounding white space. This led me, circuitously, back to Forsythe and how ALIE/N A(C)TION was assembled. I think here, the interest lies not simply in the mechanisms invoked, but rather the process as alluding to ways to think of how choreography might be generated.

Veering off from this was a couple of days spent re-reading Leibniz’s Monadologie (the – duh – eponymous name of this piece) and being quite stunned by the logical genius necessitated in attributing a mechanical (of some description) universe to a divine creator. Which, via stalking Chris on the internet caused me to remember he also is rather fond of the history and philosophy of science. So there is this third thread that somehow manages to make sense of this, which was I suppose the original conceptual starting point of this piece.

Through this I have rather masses to read on the history of constellations, their mythology, changing cartography, and … Cartography. I suppose the fourth thread that is entwined with the third and also the first simply because in very real terms what is done here is a mapping of the universe on myriad scales, from large structure stretching over billions of light years where there is an explicit temporal duration in the map, to almost humanly apprehensible scales in mapping the barely attained structures of distant solar systems.

Finally there is something of the human in this, sort of like the anthropic principle, that is to say the universe is here because we’re here to observe it to be here. This is both something of the wonder and awe present in looking up and trying to make sense of what we see in the night sky that over millennia has led to astrophysics as it is now, and also the people who work here, who despite their interests that are so far from the mundane as to appear close to witchcraft nonetheless are human.

And with this then is trying to make all this somehow human, something that exists within the realm of what it means to be a person and … I guess this is one of my concerns in all my work.

Yesterday Bonnie was sitting here with me and I played her a video from the Hinode Observatory Satellite showing chromospheric loops on the sun, and had sunn0))) playing It took the night to remember from Black 1 and photos of them in concert …

Kinda good, no?

monadologie days 4 & 5

I’ve been reading Leibniz’s 1714 text Monadologie again. It’s sometimes like a vortex, or … how things turn and spiral around on themselves, so I’m spinning through things where I’ve been before.

I’ve been anxious (no, really?) about, I suppose the obligation of doing certain things in a project that is sitting temporally about six months later than where it was supposed to be, and consequently has caused me to lurch out of the concerns of all the people… and the previous few months where my direction has been along one particular broad series of threads into another quite different set of concerns. Consequently there is this simultaneous concern with reconciling some very large issues, I guess succinctly described as those dealing with issues of human identity and sovereignty with rather disparate ones of astrophysics.

This kept me not occasionally sleepless last night.

Today, as it turned out, laden with a bag of fresh cherries, rehearsal never even got off sitting on the floor, talking. What am I trying to do? What is the interest in trying to formulate some method of choreographing that is beyond what I have previously done? How does this specific project relate to my recent work, and so can be comprehensible in rehearsal and performance in relation to these works? In what way is it a return to previous concerns, and where and how does it leap off into something unknown?

Then, is what I know of Forsythe’s Improvisation Technologies a suitable approach for generating something that could be regarded as choreography from a literal analysis of the Centre’s research? Is attempting a literal understanding, something of an exposition or lecture a feasible approach? Or, is the very incomprehensibility of such research also something that needs to be elaborated somehow? Is Dr Chris Fluke’s passion for Star Wars figurines also something that should be considered, or is that likely to lead to me into trouble? Which is to say, how should the individuals who do this research figure as people in this residency?

Then, should I be reading Leibniz again? (Yes!). How does the history of science my passion for which got me into this in the first place figure in the whole thing? How does the history of mapping the solar system, galaxy, universe figure also, particularly in respect, I suppose, to how cartography in some way describes the limits, approximations, and errors of knowledge?

I think it was a really good midday and afternoon of talking and … sometimes, often, I forget the people I’m working with aren’t necessarily party to everything that’s going on in my head, and how little or single things are intertwined with other things. And as a corollary to this, just how mystifying it can be stuck in a room with me. Also with this is that all the talking is really good in order for us to collectively understand whatever I’m attempting, to feel a group, to perhaps also feel passionate about it or to have a sense what we do is important. And for me as well there is a vast gulf between how I conceptualise things as thoughts, how I might write them here or in notebooks, and how they resolve themselves when I talk about them with the people I’m working with.

Not to say I’m now utterly confident about what I’m doing here, but …

I spent the afternoon and evening until now at the Centre, reading a bunch of stuff from Sarah Maddison on Molecular Clouds in the LMC, and Dusty Debris Discs, thinking about the history of astronomy then realising it’s one of Chris Fluke’s research areas, reading Leibniz, remembering the State Library has a rather fine collection of his works including some original publications in the Rare Books room, not quite getting to the stuff on cartography, deciding now is a good time to go home but planning on being here over the weekend…