August 19

Sunday Reads

An ideally weekly, if my Saturday wasn't too busy, selection of medium- to long-form articles I would like to recommend to you, perfect for a lazy Sunday morning in bed with a cup of tea and your phone.

Why Writing Matters in the Age of Despair

This is one of those quite astonishing pieces of writing that ties up a deeply personal account of trauma and our societal situation of awfulness with the importance of writing, always writing, never stop writing, because without articulating our stories we will vanish. As someone who writes in part to make sense of the world and my place in it, I often feel the pointlessness of writing, like screaming into a hurricane of shite. But Lyn Lenz reminded me that we are not alone and that the collective nuance of many voices is the best weapon against "the flat face of fascism". I have failed to do this piece justice in one paragraph. Go read it.

The Most Powerful Publishers in the World Don’t Give a Damn

One of a few articles attempting to articulate the general despair directed at the custodians of our social media platforms who really don't seem to understand the forces they've enabled or their responsibility for enabling them. I'm not sure if "don't give a damn" is quite fair though. I don't think they realise they should give a damn in the first place. They still think their heavily programmed, heavily mediated information processing machine is as neutral as clean water.

Halfway to boiling: the city at 50°C

I really suffered this summer from the seemingly endless dry heat. I felt crushed and drained until sunset, and even then couldn't really function. Yet it only really hit 30°C in Birmingham. In other cities around the world the temperature hit 50°C and the thought of that just hurts. Which makes sense because it's potentially fatal. A sobering look at a growing trend.

The Last Temptation of Christ at 30: how Scorsese's drama still soars

My only real memory of this film was the mention on some arts programme about the anachronistic use of jet engines to soundtrack the climax, which thought was cool, but then I was raised in a godless home so had a massive blindspot for religion. A few years ago I saw Mel Gibson's gorefest adaptation of The Passion and found the whole thing endlessly fascinating, digging through Wikipedia entries for the characters like it was Game of Thrones as that blindspot started clearing. Who knew the mythology of my people was based on such meaty stories? I should probably re-watch this.

Bad Romance - To cash in on Kindle Unlimited, a cabal of authors gamed Amazon’s algorithm

A deep-dive into the murky world of gaming Amazon's Kindle Unlimited system. This goes under the "algorithmic employment" umbrella coined by James Bridle, being jobs that depend on understanding and optimising for an opaque and constantly shifting algorithmic environment that you cannot predict or control. It feels to me like we're at apex of gamification, a term that was parroted as a potential force for good at one time because humans like playing games so let's apply game systems to stuff like healthcare. Social Media works as a game, from getting likes on Instagram to building a brand on YouTube. And making money from Amazon is definitely a game as complex and satisfying as World or Warcraft. It's all kinda fun, until you realise people living on the precarious edges of society are depending on algorithmic employment, from eBay bedroom resellers to Uber drivers. Should their lives be a game?

Delightful video

Is all that a bit too much? Here's a lovely 4 minute look at the weirdness of the English language. How would English sound if it were phonetically consistent?

August 16

Ken Campbell

On iPlayer Radio for the next few weeks is a three hour show called When Diane Met Ken, a deep dive into the BBC archive of interviews with and clips of Ken Campbell, accompanied by chats with people who worked with him, notably Nina Conti who you may know as the monkey ventriloquist from the fantastic film she made about dealing with the puppets Ken Campbell bequeathed to her by taking them to Vent Haven, the resting place for puppets of dead ventriloquists, and Daisy Campbell, his daughter, who you'll remember from that talk of hers I posted the other week, and who has recently taken responsibility for his legacy.

Three hours is a long time to commit to a radio show, although I know all the kids are podcasting like crazy these days and it does divide nicely up into hourly chunks, but it's well worth a dip. Interestingly, while it features people I've heard talk about Ken before, there was loads of new stuff here and very little repeated. But then I guess there are endless stories about Ken to tell.

Part of the Ken Campbell legacy work is The School Of Ken, a day of events at the British Library in London featuring Nina Conti, Prunella Gee, Toby Jones and Terry Johnson talking about him, plus other stuff. I'd be there if it was viable. (London is so unviable these days...)

The day before is a performance of Pigspurts Daughter, Daisy's one-woman show about her dad, which is also in Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle this month. I really enjoyed her Cosmic Trigger play so would love to see this. Maybe I will. Details in her newsletter.

The other night I was out with the Black Hole Club artists, most of whom are, shall we say, younger than me, which is fun because they don't know about stuff that I certainly didn't know about when I was their age, but they also know stuff that I don't know because I'm not their age, so it's always a nice exchange of stuff. I was telling Dinosaur about Ken Campbell, because I felt he would really benefit from knowing about him, and it occurred to me I didn't really know what to recommend. Because of the nature of his work, deeply influential but literally underground a lot of the time, the visible stuff doesn't tell the whole story. It just comes out in anecdotes and memories from those around him, which is lovely but kinda hard to point to. Here, listen to this three hour radio show. Watch this documentary about something else really. Watch this shakycam video of him talking about something or other on YouTube.

There's no canon, and maybe that's the point. There shouldn't be a canon for Ken. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try creating one. Maybe I'll start putting something together. You know, for the kids.

August 16


The first new photo I posted to Flickr in 2004 (as opposed to photos taken prior to signing up to Flickr) was of a hedgehog I found in the garden. I mention this because I don't think I've seen a hedgehog in my garden since, until this week.

Yes, we have hedgehog. Singular right now, but you never know.

For two nights in a row we've stumbled upon this little dude while going out to give the rabbits their evening feed so I think he's a regular. Tonight I fed him some slugs from the compost bin and he liked them a lot. I also left a bowl of water out because it's still quite warm.

What's particularly cool about this is we are out in the garden at night quite a lot. The rabbits, you see. So if hedgehogs were a regular thing we'd definitely have seen one by now. This is new, and probably means we have a hole in the fence, so now we have to find that and try and make it the right size that hedgehogs can get through but rabbits can't. Because it's important that the hedgehog can commute around their 1km2 patch.

We live in terraced suburbia and while the area of adjoining gardens is pretty large it is effectively an island surrounded by roads, so I don't think the hedgehogs can easily get to, say, the park or the river. But there are plenty of trees and bottoms of long gardens to live in. I'm sure they're as fine as can be expected.

But hedgehogs are in decline in the UK, particularly in the countryside, so anything we can do to help is a good thing. Did I mention they eat slugs? Much more useful than the idiot grey squirrels.

It's all very exciting, which means I've been reading up on what to do with hedgehogs. Here's some articles and resources.

Apocalypse hedgehog: the fight to save Britain's favourite mammal

Hedgehogs in the garden - RSPCA advice

The Big Hedgehog Map

British Hedgehog Preservation Society


August 10

Wars of the Rock Doctors

I'm the son of a geologist, so while I've never studied the science to any useful degree I have an innate sense of geological time and the importance of rocks. It's a strange sense to have, really, because while geology is everywhere, literally the planet we live on, and stretches back to the beginning of time, what we know about it is relatively piecemeal and disputed, possibly precisely because it covers everything that ever was, and that's a lot.

A couple of nice examples of feuding geologists have appeared in The Atlantic recently.

Geology’s Timekeepers Are Feuding looks at how Stratigraphers, those who name geological eras, associating each rock layer with a specific stretch of time, are dealing with the widespread acceptance of the Anthropocene, marking the epoc of significant human impact on the Earth, while we are still living in the Holocene, marked in part by the rise of humans. Does the Holocene have to end in order for the Anthropocene to begin? It might seem irrelevant to you, but you're not a geologist.

The Nastiest Feud in Science shows how a science exploring geological timescales can shift and change dizzyingly fast and never really be agreed upon. Things we take for granted now were quite recently unknown, such as plate tectonics, only fully accepted in the 1960s. Dinosaur extinction by giant asteroid, formally known as the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, is another strangely recent idea, only proposed in the 1980s though very quickly accepted. It surprised me to learn there are eminent geologists who see the asteroid theory as a flawed rush to judgement, and who have been bitterly attacked for doing so.

It seems if you need a case-study for Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions which, briefly, states that the practice of science, being undertaken by humans, is affected by social structures and dynamics, geology would be perfect. Because unlike those scientific disciplines where evidence is abundant in the moment, geology is building from the barest of scraps. You cannot observe changes over geological time, you can only see the effects of those changes, and while you can make some pretty solid inferences from those observations there's going to be a significant amount missing. And that can lead to feuds.

August 8

Are You Satisfied?

Last August a message went around the Birmingham art grapevine saying Rachel Maclean needed unpaid extras for a film she was making in the Bullring titled Are You Satisfied. She'd been In Residence there for a Channel 4 programme and the shoot was going to be all night.

Fi and I had seen and enjoyed her film Feed Me at BMAG (you know you like a piece of video art when you sit through it for the full hour) so we signed up, as did a few friends, Louise, Ben and Joe.

The programme, The Shopping Centre, was broadcast on Sunday night and is on C4's shonky iPlayer clone for the month. There's also an interview with Rachel in the Guardian.

As extras our involvement was pretty superficial and it really wasn't clear how we were going to be used until the final piece was shown, but it was still a lot of fun getting painted blue-for-boys and pink-for-girls, even if in the end we were heavily pixelated. This is Fi being recommended face cream, followed by me being offered pants.

I have many thoughts and opinions about the Bullring's relationship with the city and the experience of making work there, be it a full-on residency or just trying to take photos on their property. But I think Rachel deals with everything I might say in the programme, so go watch it. At least for the next few weeks before it vanishes into the dusty vaults.

We were asked not to share photos before broadcast, so here's a few from the makeup room. Photography nerds will be delighted by how Auto White Balance got very very confused with these faces.

This also partially answers the question Pete With Hair?

August 6


Graffiti Removals collects examples of covering over graffiti with areas of paint that don't match the underlying colour of the wall or object that was graffitied. While the intention is to remove the offending mark, the result is a new form of abstract art - simple shapes in bold colours arranged in a seemingly arbitrary way, directed by the whims of the taggers. In a cityscape saturated with messages, these censorious acts are both eye-catching and calming.

One is also reminded of the RED experiment, where a waggish youth realised he could leave instructions to the coverup artists which would magically be obeyed. Oh, how we laughed.

If the images are too fast for you they can viewed on the website: (Instagram only allows 15 second videos)

A post shared by THE MOBS (@m.obstr) on

August 6

A Parasol in a Camera Obscura

A while back I came into ownership of a hydroponics tent, a 2 metre cube which can be zipped closed to create a microclimate for the growing of plants that cannot be grown outside. While I have no desire to grow plants, it also happens to be 2 metre cube which can be zipped close to block all light from entering. Which is obviously of interest to me as a camera obscura making person.

Unfortunately the tent I was gifted didn't have all the parts to make the frame, so before I invested in making a new frame I hung it from the pergola to see if it was obscura worthy. I kinda knew it would be because Lightplay Sam has been using an insideout tent in Devon for a while now with great results. But this also let me get some proper measurements.

Duct taping a +1 lens (see previous for explanation) between the zips worked very nicely and got me thinking of some new ways to work with the image. The focal plane of the projection is essentially a dome and I thought about making a curved screen to rear-project onto. Then it occurred to me that an umbrella is a curved screen and that we had a white parasol in the house.

While photos were tricky, it worked very well and I definitely want to pursue this line of thinking, which is why I'm posting this.

August 5

Sunday Reads

Will this be a regular feature? Who can tell? Maybe I'll try and schedule it for Sunday morning in future.

Why the Wachowskis’ Flop ‘Speed Racer’ Is Actually a Masterpiece

My memory of Speed Racer was of a fairly good little film, but after reading this I need to revisit it. I'm not a rabid Wachowskis fan, though I do like their films and think their oeuvre is going to be worth revisiting in the future. Behind all the genre-fluff there's an interesting overarching subtext waiting to be knitted together.

It’s Tough Being a Right Whale These Days

This article is horrific and not for the faint of heart as it details the traumas inflicted on whales by man from Viking hunts to the present day hellscape of the northeastern US seaboard without pulling any punches. But beyond that it also raises some interesting questions about the status of "wild" animals in the Anthropocene, positing that they can't be considered wild anymore.

The traditional view of animal welfare has been that we’re responsible for animals under our care—pets, livestock, zoo animals, laboratory animals. Concerns about wild-animal welfare have typically ended at the question of what we put them through as we kill them.

That began to change in the 1990s. [...] “Much of the Earth’s surface is now under human control, partial control, or influence, and this inevitably often affects the fate of wild animals. We have a degree of responsibility for their welfare.”

A quarter-century later, Jennifer Jacquet, an assistant professor in environmental studies and animal studies at New York University, is more emphatic. “Is there wild-animal suffering anymore? I mean, are there wild animals? Is there suffering in the wild, or are there just human-altered animals suffering from human-caused harms?”

Why restaurants became so loud — and how to fight back

Of interest because I can't stand restaurants these days. Yes, my tolerance for noisy public spaces has hit an all time low, but the acoustics of these places is always atrocious, often after a fancy, much celebrated refurbishment. See also Birmingham's fancy new Apple store which has no sound-absorbent surfaces anywhere and is a nightmare to be in.

The Bullshit Web

Another reminder that as the speed and capacity of our internet infrastructure has grown, it has mostly been filled with shit, especially on pages that should just contain text and a few images. I made an art about this last year which tried to manifest the scale of the issue but didn't really address the weight, the energy used for all these trackers. Hmm.

The Anatomy of a Comparative Illusion

An academic-ish text which attempts to understand why humans will think sentences like "More people have been to Russia than I have" or "Can a man marry his widow’s sister?" make sense, until they think about them for a surprisingly long time before realise they're nonsense. As someone who constantly skims and misreads stuff, and who is interested in how we perceive the world so badly, this is good stuff.

The British Heat Wave and Aerial Archeology

This has cropped up a lot over the last month with photos of fields revealing foundations of lost buildings and layouts of lost farms. In Stirchley Park we have an amazing perfect circle where a bandstand once was, looking as if a Alien ship burned it into the grass one night. And it's all because some patches of soil are deeper, or denser, than others. Fascinating stuff.

August 4

The inclusionary, exclusionary Ode to Joy

We don't really talk about "surfing the web", particularly now we're supposed to be getting our stuff from algorithmically optimised apps, but I much prefer the sentiment of just following your nose and stumbling upon things you wouldn't otherwise have considered. Digital Flaneurism, as my old chum Jon B used to call it.

So I'm surfing around and come across this, from a local character.

Ode To Joy as the anthem of the European Union is a fascinating thing because it's not exclusive, being extracted from Beethoven's 9th. Repurposed, if you will, like Blake's And did those feet was repurposed by Hubert Parry to bolster support for WW1 and in turn become the preferred national anthem for those who find God Save The King/Queen a turgid dirge.

I was reminded of something I'd seen where some brainy chap had pointed out the ideological flexibility of Ode to Joy, how it had been adopted by nazis, communists, racists, revolutionaries and now the EU. It was, of course, Slavoj Žižek in his highly recommended 2012 film The Pervert's Guide to Ideology in which he uses scenes from classic films to illustrate philosophical ideas, in this case A Clockwork Orange, in which the music of ol' Ludwig Van plays a major role.

The interesting thing Žižek points out is that all the ideologies that use Ode to Joy only seem to use the first bit, the rousing, sublime, brotherhood-of-man stuff which lends itself to national myths. But this is followed by a second bit (starting here), a more carnivalesque, vulgar, common bit, evoking the kind of people who might be excluded by from the brotherhood of man, because as we know from history, anything that binds people together requires other people to be cast aside.

End-note: The EU has a collection of versions of Ode to Joy for use in films and the like. They range from the sublime to the laughably awful.

August 4

Oak Apple Orchestra at If Wet, 2014

Paul Gittins presented an early version of his Oak Apple Orchestra at If Wet #20 in 2014.

The Oak Apple Orchestra comprises of small electric clocks modified so the second hand acts as a hammer, striking resonating objects (tin cans originally, but now guitars, glasses and other things) with aak apples, formed by secretions from from wasp larva, at inevitably regular intervals.

As with a lot of those early If Wets, I was taking photos.

The current iteration of the orchestra is at Artefact, Stirchley, throughout August and into September. It has evolved splendidly into a real body of work and is highly recommended.

More photos on this page.