Hyperreality Prevails

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Recognitions
Albrecht Dürer. The Rhinoceros. 1515. Woodcut.
23.5 cm × 29.8 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

To picture a rhinoceros in Renaissance Portugal, consider the unicorn. Whether conflated with the oryx or the narwhal at its southernmost and northernmost coordinates, the unicorn was no less of a shapeshifter than Dionysus, who came from the East―the two sharing goatlike renditions; the axis, as Pliny described it, being “sacred to Bacchus.” The unicorn began its westward march during the Bronze Age, from the Indus Valley; its virtuous, convertible version as horned horse―beguiled and betrayed by a virgin―anchored in Late Antiquity by the Physiologus. The hunt of the unicorn established itself as a Christian allegory, laced with barely suppressed panic menace, through the Middle Ages. Save for a handful of scholars who insisted on the identity of both creatures, the rhinoceros was all but lost to Western memory.

Anonymous. The Unicorn is in Captivity and No Longer Dead. 1495-1505. One of seven tapestries popularly known as the Unicorn Tapestries or the Hunt of the Unicorn. Wool, silk, silver, and gilt. The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Until 1515, there had been no rhinos in Europe since Roman times, when great exotics―animal and human―were consumed as entertainment. The Indian exemplar that arrived in Lisbon from Goa as a diplomatic gift to King Manuel I―and which drowned while being transported in the same capacity to Pope Leo X―was a time-traveller, an alien visitor, a royal hostage. It was beheld by two kings, examined by experts, dispersed by correspondents and inspired a curious woodcut as accompaniment to a self-effacing poemetto by a doctor Penni, whose claim to historical fame was to witness the beast.

Frontispiece of Giovanni Giacomo Penni’s Forma & Natura & Costumi de lo Rinocerothe stato condutto importogallo dal Capitanio de larmata del Re & altre belle cose condutte dalle insule nouamente trouate. 1515. 10 cm × 9,5 cm. Institución Colombina, Seville.

A letter describing the rhino and a[nother] sketch of it wound their way to Nuremberg, where Albrecht Dürer took what best he could from them―and Pliny―to show accuracy is accessory to success. His was not the first impression of the creature, nor―unlike Hans Burgkmair’s coeval woodcut―was his accurate, but Dürer’s rhino was too real for reality to outcompete. Despite the reintroduction of rhinoceroses to Portuguese and Spanish courts in 1577―and their sporadic appearance in art, under sometimes very illustrious names, yet earlier―Dürer’s rhino served as his species’ ambassador to Europe until the Enlightenment.

Burgkmair, Hans. The Rhinoceros. 1515. Woodcut.

The genius of Dürer’s rhino is partially encoded in its hyperreality. As it slouched westward over centuries, it became recognisable―in its resemblance to the concept of a rhino, and its deviance from it. Scholarly discussion on its skin abounds, with some opinions pointing to it not being hide, but hidden, armoured. After Pliny, King Manuel did try to make his beast combat one of his elephants, and the rhino’s portrait may include its cover as eventual automaton, test subject, neural link, cyborg. Unlike Burgkmair’s rhino, Dürer’s is also unchained, suggesting its identity as unicorn, the animal that can’t be captured lest through virgin eyes―like Dürer’s were. We may not have such eyes again.

Convergent Evolution

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series Recognitions

Similarly to how social media collapsed high and low culture into a sinuous, middling unibrow; it made room for the fringe to graze the mainstream while allowing outliers and niche practitioners a foot in the door. Though institutional barriers to entry persist, a new art world has never been more possible. It would however be blinkered to consider it only in terms of finished and sanctified outputs; which often makes parameters of fault lines ripe for the pushing. Because it’s structural, the revolution won’t be televised until it’s irreversible and given us its first, fixed forms. The bet is safe, though: anticipate swerves wherever generalised crisis meets new media, patronage and deep shifts in values. The history of the avant-garde has never been more forward-facing.

My previous blogchain covered the surge in agile independent presses that support experimental writing through fictile business models; with a reach faster and more global than anything even their most explosive predecessors could have matched for ricocheting connectivity. The jury’s out as to whether these presses can or will attain real market and / or mythic penetration, though the signs are favourable (Fitzcarraldo Editions, for instance, was established in 2014 and has twice-proven Nobel olfaction.) Examples can also be found in the digital arts, where platforms like SuperRare permit the social collection of tokenised originals on the Ethereum blockchain. Initiatives like SuperRare are the undertheorised arrowheads in the emergence of complete ecosystems for art production and consumption that may soon give the gallery circuit a run for its money. The decentralised ledger may become the double-entry bookkeeping of art collection.   

Convergent evolution is behind the surge of genres that didn’t hit their unsuspected heights until quite recently; the most outstanding of which may be paleoart, a fascinating case spanning the history of human self-regard from evolution to post-humanism. Its archives are increasingly available in ways that urge the relational study of the scientific and artistic imaginations, their methodological friction and combinatory magic. Paleoart is basically an OS-cum-artform, closer in spirit and experimental nature to automata than illustration. Taschen’s 2017 Paleoart confirmed that it had finally arrived, transcending the scope of the natural history museum and the elementary school library. The synthetic shaping of prehistory through art and science over 200 years may contain important lineaments for speculative representation as we face a sixth mass extinction. The future could be fossil-fuelled.   

Prolegomena to Any Dark-Age Psychohistory

When I think about history, the picture in my head is that of a roiling canvas of many choppy, intertwingled narrative streams, enveloped by many-hued nebulous fogs of mood and temper. Star-like cosmic irruption-events, ranging from discoveries to disasters, wink through from the void, disturbing the flow of human affairs and forcing steering imperatives onto those living through them. The picture is as much a portrait of a sentimental sense of history, as it is a map of an unfolding gestalt of events.

When I try to capture this poetic mental image in a drawing however, all I get is the kind of crappy cartoon you see below.

It’ll  do to get the idea across though. This particular sample from my doodle files is what contemporary American history looks like to me today: a generally well-defined low-fog Blue story, getting interrupted by less well-defined, high-fog Red tendrils.

It is this kind of image that is conjured up for me when I ask myself the question many are asking today: Are we in a Dark Age?

[Read more…]

Bourbon Crossing

Late one night, wandering drunk through the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, far from the cell towers and bright lights of Gatlinburg, Karim al-Marin tripped over a root, flailed his arms wildly, and sat down hard.

“Ouch,” the famous qalandar of the Muir tariqat muttered to himself.

It was dark. The sort of intense forest darkness that the unaided drunken eye cannot easily penetrate. Fortunately, Karim had enough juice left in his phone to turn on the flashlight.

He saw at once that though he was still on the trail, it had narrowed sharply at that point. He was deep inside the woods. All around him were trees, the creepily lush, full-of-life kind from horror movies. His ankle was caught in a tangle of hard, crooked roots poking out of the ground. The roots had spread across the trail, forming a sort of low, woody wall across it. As he began to carefully extricate his foot, aided by some minor sawing with his handy Leatherman, a stern grandmotherly voice rang out.

“Ouch!” it said theatrically, but with real anger.

Karim stopped his sawing and looked around warily. To his surprise, the root he’d been sawing at uncurled, slowly and with apparent pain and effort, releasing his foot. He withdrew it at once, and stood up.

[Read more…]

The Liminal Explorer of the Adjacent Possible

A short story.

The city was content in the deepening twilight, as the Sun set with the air of a job well done. Wrought iron street lamps flickered to life and small birds twittered in the bushes on the gentle hillside sloping down towards the water. From the patio of the Em Cafe, two thin and earnest young men looked out across the bay, nursing their cold brews with an air of reluctant contentment.

“Would it be bourgie to say ‘this is perfect’?” asked the ginger-infused cold brew.

Classic cold brew pondered the question gravely for a moment, and opened his mouth to respond, only to shut it again as a homeless black woman shuffled into view, pushing a shopping cart, and muttering something under her breath in a disturbed undertone.

Ginger cold-brew shuffled uncomfortably, “Well, you know what I mean. The bay view, the weather, the coffee. Not, you know, life.”

[Read more…]

Berliners #6: Purgatorinomics

berliners6

Click here for the Berliners Archives

The Berliners #1

berliners1

Introducing The Berliners, an experimental ribbonfarm comic strip inspired by (but not limited to) Isaiah Berlin’s Fox and Hedgehog. Drawn by Grace, written by Venkat. Please bear with us while we both learn the craft.

The Art of Gig III

And now for the thrilling finale. Read Parts I and II first. 

I exited the AspireKat building at a slight trot. Time was of the essence. Anscombe was scurrying to keep up with me, trying to type with one hand on his open laptop, balanced on the arm of his Starbucks-mug hand.

“Figure out Donna’s home address and get us an Uber. I am going to have Guanxi open up a line.”

He reluctantly folded his laptop under his arm, pulled out his phone and fiddled briefly with it. “Okay. ETA three minutes for the Uber. Looks like Donna lives about twenty minutes away.”

“Good.”

“So why are we going to see her? Why would she know about the acquisition bid?”

“Hold on. I’m texting Guanxi here.”

Unlike young digital natives, I can’t text and talk at the same time.

Things under control?

All good. Bainies getting set up for the initial goat sacrifice.

Khan?

Trying to get to Saul, but the Bainies have him.

We need a live feed.

On it. Periscope.

I pulled up Periscope on my phone. It looked like Guanxi had managed to position his phone strategically by the window ledge near the display. Almost the entire room was visible in a fishbowl view. At the far end, Saul was standing regally, in a gown the Bainies had put on him. Three Bainies were doing a slow, ritual snake dance in a circle around him, waving incense sticks and chanting.

Guanxi wandered briefly into view and nodded imperceptibly at the camera before wandering out if view again. I handed my phone to Anscombe.

“Could you monitor that? I get a headache if I stare at a screen while moving.”

Anscombe promptly forgot about the question he’d asked. His gaze latched onto my screen.

“Firehose time. I’m going to have to reconfigure my setup a bit to handle this.”

Handing your phone to anyone born after 1985 is an incredible gesture of trust. So in consulting, it is increasingly important to maintain your phone in a state of plausible shareability to form alliances. It’s also a good way to keep digital natives busy so you can think.

And I needed to think about an important question: what did Donna know?

[Read more…]

The Art of Gig II

Read Part I first.

I shut the door of the conference room gently behind us. We could still hear Khan and Isabella out in the reception area, but their voices were now muted. Saul seemed to be in some sort of philosophical reverie as he made his way to his chair. Guanxi looked at me with narrowed eyes and nodded significantly. I narrowed my eyes as well, and nodded significantly in turn. A look of mutual understanding passed between us.

It’s a consultant thing. We call it the Significant Look Protocol.

Scientists have tried to figure out precisely what information is exchanged and  during these narrowed-eye-nod exchanges, and have come up with nothing. What is known though, is that about 1% of the time, a Significant Look results in a subtle, but unmistakable situational change known as Going Meta. Nobody knows what that is either, but it is a documented fact that when things Go Meta, cartels form and billables increase by a factor of 10.

This means a great many Significant Looks are exchanged at management conferences, but most lead to nothing. Some lead to sexual harrassment lawsuits.

This was one of those 1% of times. We had just gone meta. We both knew it, and knew the other did too.

[Read more…]

The Art of Gig

I don’t talk about my consulting gigs much on this blog, since there is surprisingly little overlap between my money-making work and my writing. But many people seem to be very curious about precisely what sort of consulting I do, and how that side of ribbonfarm operates. Unfortunately, it’s hard to explain without talking about actual cases, and I can’t share details of most engagements due to confidentiality constraints. But fortunately, one of my recent clients agreed to let me write up minimally pseudonymized account of a brief gig I did with them a while back.  So here goes.

It all began when my phone rang at 1 AM on a Tuesday morning a few months ago. The caller launched right into it the moment I answered.

“Oh thank God! Donna has the ‘flu…I tried calling Guanxi Gao, but I can’t reach him. I left a message but… omigod, we’re going to run out of inventory by Friday, what are we going to do?”

If you aren’t used to the consulting world, this is how most engagements begin: you’re dropped into a panicked conversation in the middle of a crisis that has already been unfolding for sometime.

Luckily, I was not yet in bed, but doing some routine Open Twitter Operations from the Ribbonfarm Consulting Command Center.

I hit the red alert button on my desk, which turned off all but one of the 16 flat-panel displays that line one wall of the darkened main room of the RCCC. The one that stayed on showed a blank 2×2 grid with a flashing lemon-yellow border. The speakers switched from Mongolian throat singing to a steady pip…pip…pip. 

16panel

Many consultants today use more complicated first-responder protocols, but I am old-fashioned. One clean vertical stroke, one clean horizontal stroke, at most 10 quick labels, and you’ve got your Situation all Awared-Up in the top right. 75% complexity reduction in minutes.

Ten seconds into the call, and I was already set up to Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. This is the sort of agility my clients have come to expect from me.

[Read more…]