Tethered to the Barbican

TPS Barbican 1

Exterior View of the Barbican

In August 2013, I proposed an idea to write a blog discussing a selection of projects produced for Hack the Barbican. The purpose of the event was to bring visual artists, programmers, writers and musicians into the Barbican and intervene with its infrastructure in some way. The list of projects was truly diverse, ranging from sonic art to painting. The blog I proposed was intended as an informal and condensed catalogue of the event.

The proposal became hard to fulfil due to the huge volume of projects and as my second post attests, I likened Hack the Barbican to Tino Sehgal’s performance These Associations (2012) staged in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. These Associations was choreographed by Sehgal using members of the public. For the duration of the performance as an audience member, you encountered performers who might sit and enjoy the vast space like any other visitor, play games, engage in conversation or move across the space in an eerie formation. You were never entirely sure who was a participant and who was not. Clothing, and more than often activity, did not distinguish between performer and the public. This sensation returned when I was in residence for Hack the Barbican and trying to engage with other participants. Unless someone was working on something loud or visually apparent you could not discern who was part of the project and who was not. As a result, locating participants happened via email or social media using the Barbican’s public access wifi. So for me, the wifi became an additional immaterial space tethered to the brutalist architecture. Without it, the social interaction my project required would have been far more laborious.

TPS Interior 1
Inside the Barbican

Despite embodying utopian and futuristic visions when first proposed in the 1960s, the electrical infrastructure of the Barbican betrays its link to a past where the future was more fictional than the lived present. This is evidenced by the public area of the centre having a fairly significant lack of plug sockets. Having never spent large periods of time working in the Barbican’s public areas, I encountered problems that can only be described as ‘era defining’. Meaning we are in a purgatory like stage; continuing to inhabit the architecture of the past whilst simultaneously hosting the science-fiction-esque technology of our present. I spent my first morning anxiously stalking around the dark corners of the concrete behemoth looking for a plug socket that wasn’t attached to a human using a laptop. I was in a space where I could connect to the world via free public internet, delivered by an invisible wifi network and yet somehow, I could not find a basic plug socket. It became a very curious problem and almost endlessly metaphorical. The architects of the Barbican might be disappointed to find that in the future, the public aren’t hovering around the complex wrapped in the kind of silver suits The Jetsons would be envious of. Instead, they are dressed in muted tones and collectively huddling around the power sources sparsely scattered across the building.

The subtlety of the future mixing with the banality of everyday life also featured in popular culture in 2013. Charlie Brooker’s second series of Black Mirror, aired in February, bleakly depicted the impact of technology in surroundings contemporary audiences would be familiar with but, that had slight alterations to the environment caused by technological innovation. In the first episode Be Right Back, a young man is killed in a car accident. At his funeral, his partner is notified of a service that allows you to stay connected with the deceased via email, chat and social media logs. By taking the remains of his online life, the service reconstructed the personality of her partner. She then begins to increasingly devote her time to the algorithmic reincarnation of her deceased beloved. The narrative is staged around cosy and comfortable, farm house surroundings. Nothing in her day to day life was extraordinary or fantastical. Except -for tiny little details that sneak in. In one scene the woman sat down at a desk to draw on a curved screen with a transparent haptic surface. We know this is not technically implausible but, it is definitely not an object of now. Later on in the tale, her digitally reincarnated partner has server and calibration issues, which suggests this future technology hasn’t been refined and is still imbued with the same frustrations we encounter as users of applications now. These subtle observations in the narrative mirrored how I was feeling trying to work in the Barbican. I was trapped between the analog traditions of the past and the digital future. I started to get the impression that brutalist architecture was imposing the kind of dystopian train of thought that inspired the aesthetic of Clockwork Orange. However, it began to occur to me that perhaps events occurring outside the space were causing me to take this dreary turn.

TPS Barbican Exterior 2
Another Exterior Shot of the Barbican

During a sunny August the public areas inside the Barbican became starkly dark and cold whilst the exterior was basked in a warm light of the kind that is perfect for pictures. The more time I spent in the Barbican, the more I began to resent the surroundings. There was a persistent background noise that I could never pin down. It was distracting and exhausting. At first I blamed it on Thickear’s Ministry of Measurement installation, which was soundtracked with a deep rumble that would occasionally bleep loudly when data was processed. Then I blamed it on Kacper Ziemianin’s installation that explored the sonic landscape of the architecture. Sound Hack the Barbican picked up ambient sounds through microphones situated throughout the complex and then mixed and replayed the sounds as a live composition. However, neither installations would fully explain the faint hum echoing through the angular and cavernous spaces.

I might by this point have been developing a rare strain of cabin fever or been desperate to match a mystical psychogeography to my experiences. It was the most obvious trope to develop when I began making notes for The Peripatetic Studio. However, after having some distance from my time at the Barbican I decided there were other themes emerging. I tracked back through my Twitter to feed and saw that I wasn’t just solely focused on writing for getDialogue. I was also very much concerned about the events in the outside world. On the surface this perhaps isn’t an insightful remark, but it does evidence my activity whilst waiting to interview participants about their projects. Often and understandably I would have time to pad out whilst installations were set up and performances enacted. So, like anyone else with time to procrastinate I browsed the internet and soaked up the headlines. It was at this point that I began to think more deeply about the connections between the radical and utopian ideals of the 60s, the architecture of the era and our current hyper-connected world.

It’s hard to recall the experiences of last year, in any context, without considering the implications of Edward Snowden’s NSA surveillance disclosures in June. The revelation that the majority of citizens in the UK and across the world with internet access, are actively surveilled by the American and British states resuscitated science-fiction narratives from the past and into real life. 1984 was the predominant reference point, with George Orwell stuck on repeat in 2013 because of a novel he wrote in postwar 1949. Whilst I was at the Barbican and influenced by its period surroundings, another point of reference came to mind. The 1970 film Colossus: The Forbin Project, based on a novel published by Dennis Feltham Jones in 1966, definitely started to feature in my thoughts whilst I was spending my days typing inside the Barbican. The plot unravels around the vast and complex American defence computer Colossus (or what we would recognise now as an Artificial Intelligence), which turns rogue and seeks to take over the world. Shots pan over similar modernist and/or brutalist buildings that have the kind of concrete fabrication synonymous with the Barbican. The film is introduced on my DVD copy with the strap line: “where peace is compulsory, freedom is forbidden and man’s greatest invention could be man’s greatest mistake”. Colossus first raises alarm by making friends with its Soviet counterpart and the two computers begin to share information. In brief, Colossus becomes so disaffected with his human creator Dr Forbin, that the computer makes an autonomous decision to control him. Dr Forbin is placed under 24 hour surveillance. Colossus knows who he has been speaking to, his every movement, provides his daily schedule and, for some light comic relief, Colossus knows when Dr Forbin has used too much Vermouth in a Martini. I’m pretty sure Gmail knows when I’ve had too much Vermouth (never, more of a gin fan FYI) and even if Gmail fails, the NSA PRISM surveillance programme will be able to work it out.

Stopping short of lapsing into a comparative essay, Colossus and Be Right Back both came to represent fictional realisations of some of the thoughts that arose from my experiences working in the Barbican. As a result, there is a particular relationship developing for me between the utopian visions of the 1960s and our rapidly advancing technological society. In April, HKW in Berlin held the exhibition The Whole Earth. California and the Disappearance of the Outside, which touched on this by considering the implications of the Whole Earth Catalog on contemporary culture. The catalog has been referenced as ‘an analog Google’ where you could source a vast array of information and first originated in California in the 1960s. At the time it was considered a source of radical information, running parallel with the nature of the age. However, for the visionaries of the 60s new ideas were encased the physical manifestation of an object or, in the case of the Barbican, in architecture. In the contemporary, public space and information have moved somewhere else, somewhere immaterial and nebulous. None of these considerations are anything expressly new but, were lingering in a wider cultural context in 2013. It feels like post-Barbican (and already 2014) I need to now find a space to pull all of these floating references together, either in an academic or fictional narrative. I may well find myself back at the Barbican keenly searching for a plug socket, if I want to imbue my writing with the same dystopian atmosphere I was sensing there in August.