Monthly Archives: April 2008

SF ebooks, redux

Yet another reason why giving away Free Electronic Books is a really fine idea – the latest one from Tor, Karl Schroeder’s Sun of Suns, arrived last Friday and I finished it in a few hours. It’s really rather good – but if it hadn’t come through that push channel, I’d never have known about its existence. After that, though, I’ll be looking for the rest of the series (and yes, spending actual money on them) and downloading a copy of his first novel, Ventus.

Ventus is a novel of information apocalypse set in the far future. For a thousand years the sovereign Winds have maintained the delicate ecological balance of the terraformed planet Ventus. Now an alien force threatens to wrest control of the terraforming system away from the Winds…

Major Barbara at the National

Last night, I went to see Shaw’s play Major Barbara at the National Theatre (Wikipedia, Gutenberg) along with Web Cowgirl and a few others.

It started fairly badly for me, but then that was due to my taking a while to click with Shaw’s abstractionist speechifying (I kept wondering if Lady Britomart was about to say “Your father, who as you know is a noted manufacturer of cannon”) as anything else.

Except the lighting design. The stage at the Olivier is absolutely bloody enormous, a huge black cavern of pure theatre, and in order to convey the right warm, familial, and slightly stifling atmosphere of Lady Britomart’s lounge they’d placed an Edwardian living room on a rostrum in the centre. And hung a huge practical chandelier over it, with more than a dozen lit bulbs. This would have looked OK if we’d been in the stalls, but at the back row it meant that we were looking down on the chandelier as much as on the actors, and it was really annoying.

Having practical (theatre term meaning ‘actually works the way a real one would) lights on stage is, sadly, extremely stupid. It’s a nice trick that always appeals to nontechnical directors, but it never works the way they want because real lights are nowhere near as powerful as theatre lights, and don’t light actors to be seen in any case. Rule 3 of theatre lighting runs thusly: You point the bright end at the side of the actor facing the audience. It’s something a lot of lighting designers have trouble with.

There’s a corollary to the Rules which says: Lights are not a decorative element. Like most corollaries, it’s open to debate, creative misinterpretation, and downright breakage, but fundamentally, if the audience end up looking at the lights then yer doin it wrong.

Thankfully, that only lasted for one scene, and the design of the rest of the play was absolutely superb. The bowels-of-the-machine scene, in the Undershaft works at the end, was beautifully done, with moving trusses delivering rank upon rank of artillery shells to the accompaniment of industrial noises while the scene change took place.

I know the play fairly well, but I’d forgotten just how beautifully it deals with the playfully subversive ethos of the Salvation Army (Blood and fire!) and the tension between class struggle and cooperative enterprise. (Ooh, a socio-economic paradox. We must be in a play by Shaw. And there’s a good socialist quotation to prove it. No man is good enough to be another man’s master – William Morris)

“Contemporary art’s obsession with science”

The other day, I went to the Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Prize Lecture at the Royal Society.

Si├ón Ede (Arts Director, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation) was the lecturer, and it was rather disappointing on the whole. She’s clearly very heavily invested in Big Art, as I suppose you’d expect, and seemed to extend that to Big Science too. Her thesis – as the blurb for the lecture suggests, I suppose – was that Artists are inspired by Science, and occasionally Scientists are inspired by Art. Well… yes. This isn’t exactly news.

New technologies make new kinds of art possible, and new ideas in society inspire artists to comment on them or reflect them, by cheerleading, perversion, or polemic. This is because artists are people, and generally smart people at that – the kind of people who can see something and fall in love with it. Who want to make it the best it can possibly be, or who can’t help but prod and poke it obsessively till all the flaws and failings are out in the open.

And you know what? So are an awful lot of scientists.

I did ask, at the end, about that – “You’ve spoken a lot about artists who work with scientists, and vice versa. What about artists who are scientists themselves?” and her response was pretty unencouraging. It’s not possible to be both, it seems – though she did say there were a few rare exceptions, probably because I’d introduced myself as an artist who used to work in nanomaterials engineering and computer modelling. Being a scientist takes up so much of your time – writing papers, putting in grant proposals, and so on – and so does being an artist.

Bollocks it does. Those aren’t science, or art – those are paperwork. The annoying crap that people like her make you do so you can do the fun wonderful socially useful bit.

And art isn’t solely, or even mostly, Big Art. It’s thousands, millions, of people doing their thing, obsessing over some element of the world in their own way, informed by their own history and experience and knowledge. Big Art does some amazing things, but also some complete lemons (I’m thinking Angel of the North versus Hirst’s diamond skull here – your mileage may differ) and I don’t believe the proportion’s any different there to the rest of art. Big Science (and here I’m including Engineering and Technology, because they all fall into the category of People Doing Wonderfully Cool Things That Never Existed Before) is about the same.

Oh, and speaking of the Angel of the North – if that isn’t art’s response to technology, not much is. Hirst I’ll have to write about some more – she did explain some really interesting things about his work I hadn’t considered before.

The houses of the sun

The biggest reason I paint is that I truly love working with good, vibrant colours. I had to get some more gold acrylic last week, and found some Daler-Rowney System 3 on offer. I’ve just opened it up, to do some gold detailing on a keyring piece (you know the things, those little snap-together plastic ones that you can put photos or anything in – I use them for scraps of my test pieces) and just had to do a couple of panels too. I don’t know what I’ll end up doing with them, but anything I paint over that with is going to be warm and luminous.

Infrequent poetry

I used to write a lot more than I do now – I haven’t been able to do this on a regular basis for quite a few years. So enjoy this one.

We understand the world through ink and light;
we draw, we see, we draw again
as faith becomes our paper, hopeful-bright.

Mathematics helps us get it right,
models all that is within one brain.
We understand the world through ink and light.

Which is most important, brush or sight?
We glance from world to model, back again,
and faith becomes our paper, hopeful-bright.

Each drop of ink transforms the paper – white
becomes a sheaf of colours with each stain.
We understand the world through ink and light.

There’s close-packed worlds in everything we write –
a thousand contexts that we can’t explain,
for faith becomes our paper, hopeful-bright.

Our dear friends help us share in their delight –
they show us how to see a truth again,
to understand the world through ink and light.
Our faith becomes our paper, hopeful-bright.