As I’m currently working on one e-book and two print projects, one of which launches in September and will be spectacular, I give print a 66.666666% chance of survival. The serious answer is, chill. Just because you can read everything online, doesn’t mean that you want to, or even that your kids want to. For myself, I need a separation between things I read, discuss, reference, tweet in the course of my work day, and things I read alone, often for pleasure, in bed. The digital-physical split fits that need nicely. And generally, as long as people want to be seen reading, things to read will be printed. Think about what happens if there are no more beautiful books or niche matte-paper magazines: Instagram just collapses. Boutique hotels crumble into the void. No no, print’s going to be fine.
what’s your favourite smell?
I think all my favourite smells are sort of extemporaneous. Like, if I catch the scent of dying lilacs on the edge of a breeze from a certain distance, I’ll just cry. I won’t even see anyone that day. Or, since I was very small, I’ve loved the smell that wafts from window air conditioners in city heat, which I think is really the smell of dryer sheets, but makes me see bleach-blonde single moms listening to bitter-soft piano ballads and drinking vodka.
what are you listening to lately?
This very second I’m listening to Cat Power’s “Manhattan” remixed with Angel Haze, which I highly recommend. I’m also back on that Britney Spears/Justin Timberlake tip like you wouldn’t believe. When I’m working (typing) I play very specific albums, mostly Four Tet or Grimes or the Chromatics or Galaxie 500 or the xx, or one song on repeat til I can’t hear anything, like Sky Ferreira’s “Lost in My Bedroom” or Solange’s “Bad Girls.” When I’m running, a thing I’m doing for the first time in years, I listen to Beyonce’s “Halo” (How to Dress Well “refix”) so loud that construction workers look up in surprise, glitter on their faces. In the afternoons I take extended dance breaks, usually to songs about diamonds and drugs, and when I need to sleep I put on Satie. I want to hear this new My Bloody Valentine record, but I can’t without feeling like some 40-year-old stoner intellectual is trying to impress me : (
And perhaps some are learning these lessons. In 2007, Nannette Jackowski and Ricardo de Ostos created the “Hanging Cemetery of Babylon.” Inspired not just by the ancient Wonder of the World but also the “endless flights of cargo planes delivering dead coalition soldiers back to their home countries,” it is proposed as “a gigantic presence of a hanging funeral structure” that will hover above the war torn streets of Baghdad.” One imagines it could also serve as a human shield; the non-living protecting their living friends from the never-living drones.
Another alternative, a bit saner and actually completed, is the Aga Khan Award for Architecture-winning Altach Cemetery in Austria. Beautiful, peaceful, and solid, it acts as an anchor for the Muslim community of Austria. No matter what Islamophobia Europe may purport and contort itself into, these Muslims of Austria will forever be a part of the land of Austria. The cemetery’s citizens are intransigent on that point, and Bernardo Bader Architects brought their true clients’ wishes to fruition. The flipside of this are the British War Graves of Kabul and Baghdad, the source of great copy during wartime. The three-letter-word in their official titles, however, remind the dead and their visitors not to confer any particular Afghan-ness or Iraqi-ness to the residents. They only rest there, in a decidedly “not-home” space, due to extenuating circumstances.
For many people, or at least the desperately rich and desperately poor, taxes are not a certainty. The only certainty for all of us is death. When Mendelsohn discussed the curious case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, he noted that many people did not want Tsarnaev’s body “polluting” their land, their ancestors, or some other such transmutable substance. It was not his body they feared, it was his soul, perhaps so poisoned that it would spread its non-substance, like a transmogorific Typhoid Mary. The body itself, of course, is dead. When Mendelsohn hails back to Ancient Greece, we see that the only democracy in that place was in death. Everybody is buried. Everybody gets a stele. This is the other true horror of death. It is a tremendous equalizing force, putting Tamerlan at the same level as our beloved grandparents. Many memorials try to hide this horror and turn it into solemnity, but no structure recognizing the Siege of Sarajevo is as effective as a field of graves that all date back to 1993. The enormity of death is a unifying factor, one which horrifies those colossal men who have no wish to share the same space with those “below them.”
It is particularly moving, then, when one of those colossi refuse a singularizing honor. The tomb of Ottoman Sultan Murad II is marked by its open-dome roof, open due to the sultan’s demand to have “the rain wash his face like a pauper.” The dirt over his body is covered by greenery, but he is separated by his family and the rest of Bursa by a hundred square feet of marble. His request was followed to the letter, but only in death can a sultan’s wishes be denied. Respecting the dead ought to mean releasing them from the tyranny of the living. And by living like the dead, we may be able to release the tyrants from us.
To be dead is to have endeavored to commit a political act. This is not to say “to die;” the act of dying, preferably for a cause, has been a political act for a long time. The Sumerian, Greek, and Sanskrit epics tell us of martyrs and murderers. But the strange controversy surrounding Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s funeral—caught so wonderfully by Daniel Mendelsohn—demonstrates the political space of graveyards themselves, and the social demands of the dead.
Being dead is a political statement. Dzhokhar Tsarnayev, the living brother, will soon stand trial. If convicted and given life imprisonment, he will likely be laid to rest in a prison graveyard. As captured by Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, these are perhaps a different matter. Tamerlan Tsarnayev however had the temerity to die before there could be a reckoning, by his family and by his society, of what to do with him. Tamerlan is sadly not alone, even though his last living acts were peculiarly awful. The past dozen years have left us with hundreds of thousands of dead who call into question the honor and goodwill that politicians have clothed certain decisions in. Tamerlan, in his loneliness, was taken in by an empathetic Christian. But who will empathize with the wedding revelers, the “double-tapped” first responders, the military-aged males? To say nothing of the slaves, the sipahis, and the boys of the Mersey, the Thames, and the Tyne? They are the true 99%; the popular urban legend that there are as many living people outnumber the dead is egregiously false. It is our responsibility—we are all of course somebody’s last living relative—to speak up for them.
And that is exactly what happens. The data of the dancing brings about new technologies, new objects to consume, new measurements. Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency.
From the 2011 riots in London to the Arab Spring, I’ve heard a lot about the effects of crowds on human behaviour. Mass Psychogenic Illness is the official term (or rather, the term taken up within the standardisation of the medical system) and Mass Hysteria is the term used when relating to women. (Shortly after Frau Troffea’s little dance, they started burning witches at the stake.) But official dismissal aside, it is terms such as revolution, occupation, or [fill in your blank], that are used when it comes from the bottom up.
During the French Revolution, wax was used as crowd control. Busts of figures revered by the people—eerily similar to heads on stakes—were placed in the public town square, and traffic was forced to flow around these obstacles. Somehow through the chaos it worked, and a new system was born. During the Dance Epidemic of 1518, however, it was the dancers themselves who were placed in the square. A hired band and all, their presence was meant to cure the populace. But in the end the town leaders were wrong, and it was not the band that was put on a pedestal, but the fear of Saint Vitus himself. The town leaders underestimated the fear that they induced for control: more and more dancers joined, and a new system was born from old.
Now consider the idea of a plague endemic to technology and society today. (After all, as I discussed earlier, it is in times of crisis that the hidden yet communicable symptoms of plague most readily emerge.) Error: public squares become filled with dancers, the Blue Screen of Death appears with its lines of code, feet echo loudly, cursors blink menacingly, and the familiar monuments of the interface disappear behind the symptoms of their own infrastructure. New systems are created, yet technology continues to loop. Social media become tools, flash mobs become standardisations, new terms become used to define, and the symptoms become hidden away yet again.
The drone is a complicated carnival character because its nature and tradition are still being discovered and disputed. The dream of a machine that is physically remote (and so maybe one day mentally as well?) from its controller is not inherently a martial one. But we live under the heel of the military industrial complex, and our dreams are first and foremost funded for military application. In this way, the drone reminds us of the conventional airplane—a machine that is at once the creative fulfillment of an age-old human fantasy and a device that metes out unprecedented destruction, shielding the destroyer from what s/he destroys.
By calling for and publishing art about drones even as we call for and publish art about drone strikes, we are displaying two faces of the drone, on a mask, worn by ecstatic dancers hailing from all points on the network. The mask is less a Janus face than the mask of a hydra; the more we cleave into these fictional forms, the more they multiply and divide. We don’t justify the violence, we absorb it into the many steps of a dance. This festival’s dance is of both the creative technology and the destructive weapon, the promise of techno-utopia and the harbinger of techno-apocalypse. This is a confused and confusing movement. Can a weapon have so many expressive faces? Can the drone exist apart from the military that uses it? Or does the glint on the wing merely blind us to the fleshy corpse it leaves behind?
These are questions Murmuration will ask as a festival, and the pieces we publish will complicate these questions further. What Murmuration does insist is that the impulse to create can and must do battle with the impulse to destroy. If research and development can’t take up this task, then art and fiction must.
Festivals are not as simple as they might seem. Mikhail Bakhtin theorized the “carnivalesque” as a characteristic of festivals that move against the standard order. Roles are reversed, traditions are refuted, and the established world is turned upside down as the bottom of the hierarchy catapults itself to the top. This is the sort of festival that Murmuration intends to be. This is no conference of the Unmanned Systems Industry. This is not a Presidential Speech. This is an attempt to recode powerful technology with art and fiction. This is a deployment of the drone as a cultural node, a fictional character that refuses the rhetoric and mechanics of political and robotic systems and instead speaks in the many voices of the artists and writers who imagine it. Art and fiction are uncontrolled, free to depart from the established talking points and waypoints and seek new destinations. The character of the drone is not controlled by military satellites from above, but by the people from below.
Like a child folding a parent’s newspaper into an “unmanned” aircraft and tossing it skyward, we launch our festival from the headlines.
The goal of our festival was and is not to exploit the current moment, but to understand it. To do so, we felt, we had to go beneath and beyond conscious arguments into the realm of art and fiction. What does it mean to live in a time in which someone sitting in one place can fly a plane that drops a bomb half a world away? How does the drone’s existence alter human existence? What has changed and what has stayed the same?
The answers fluttered down into our inbox and delighted us with their creativity and insight. The works of art and fiction that we will post this month come in many forms: poems, stories, ruminative essays, drawings, photographs, films, musical compositions, even a video game. They answer the question from the perspective of pilot, plane, and target; bewildered observer and grieving loved-one. Like drones themselves, they are varied in design and purpose, to the point at which it would be difficult to categorize them together–outside of the word: drone.
But if it is all a ruse, all a cartoon pony show teaching us that Soft Power is Magic, then why bother saving “the corporation” and “the state” from being mashed together? Isn’t it all just power and class? A corporation is a citizen, is a state, is a system—because all wars are the class war anyway? Perhaps, says the theorist. We will continue to analyze and let you know. We are waiting for history, so that we can give a conclusive reading. And meanwhile, the streets rage on.
I would say this to any CEO, any senator, professor, or protester. While we compare and contrast, categorize and conflate, reality continues unabated. I only have my singular view on reality—that of a precariat worker in Oregon of 2013, but I can tell you any number of ways that the corporations I deal with on a daily basis are not like the states with which I do the same. (I might argue that a corporation could be like the military industrial complex in its most state-like incarnations, but that is a different discussion for a different time.) I have very complex relationships with both Google and the United States, both in their idealized sense and in my material day to day life. But they are in no way similar. I cannot be jailed by Google for failing to testify at a grand jury. I don’t submit personal information to the United States in return for free productivity tools. Google doesn’t shoot people in my neighborhood. I’m not applying to test new consumer gadgets produced by the government. I’m not attempting to pay more tax to Google so they can fix the roads and fluoridate the water in my city. And I don’t wonder if the government is rolling out an update to my communications infrastructure.
This seems like the part of the essay in which I get all anecdotal and folksy, and that is because it is. But it is also the part where we stop speaking in the discourse of headlines and the colon-separated subtitles of topical books about “change” and “disruption“, and starting thinking about how actual people in the street relate to the systems around them. For people who are in the jaws of corporations and/or states, this is no idle, metaphorical comparison. This is not about “seeing like a state”, or “thinking like a corporation”. This is about thinking and seeing like a person persecuted by these things, using only the ideas handed down to them by thesis-writers and commentators. It is one thing to spin a yarn about the state and corporations being similar. It is another to see through the shadows, and see how states and corporations in terms of power and class. And it is another thing yet again, to actually attempt to push back against that power and class. We are all in trouble here. And while on some days it may seem like a good idea to talk about states and corporations as two “hands” of the same “body”, there are other days when our bodies are in actual danger, and we need our hands to be as material as possible, to shield the blows.
The point of the Citizen’s United is not that a corporation wants to be treated like a citizen, and we need to “save” citizenship from them (and maybe cut down on executions too). Nor is the point that the US Supreme Court was somehow fooled into thinking that a corporation is a citizen. A corporation is not a citizen, and never will be a citizen. A corporation can never be imprisoned, can never be shot by police, cannot have its citizenship revoked. A corporation cannot be executed, because it has no body. It is not that the law has been interpreted to say that corporations get free speech and yet cannot be executed–it is the reality that you cannot execute something that is not alive. The Supreme Court, even in its most deluded, conservative, corrupt moment, can never conclude that a corporation has a body. But what it will do is use any number of legal loopholes to let corporations do what they please.
A corporation does not seek to be treated like a citizen–a corporation seeks to do whatever it can in order to continue to make a profit. A corporation would argue that it deserved to be treated as the incarnation of Satan if it thought it would help the corporation profit in the long run. By arguing about the interpretation of the law, we buy into the distraction. We play the corporation’s game while it picks our pocket. By ironically balking at the idea of a corporation “becoming more and more like a person”, we are giving it the latitude to push back on this ideational line of argument in order to achieve material ends. The injustice here is not that corporations can be sometimes considered legally equivalent to people. The injustice is that the law can be bent to serve corporate wishes in absolutely any way, and therefore law as a defense of citizenship is meaningless. We should not be angry that corporations might be legally “like us”. We should be angry that a legal that could conclude so even exists.