Shift Happens: Through the Looking Glass

This is (more or less) the text of a talk I gave at Pilot Theatre’s digital conference Shift Happens in July. It’s about the potential of using technology as a material, rather than simply as a mirror. 

One of the things we do at Caper is run Culture Hack, an international programme that encourages people to make things quickly with cultural data. This means I spend a lot of time thinking about the point at which art, or culture, and technology meet.

In particular, this has led to me think about using technology as a material. Like clay or wood, it’s a material with its own affordances and limitations. It can be made into everyday, ordinary objects or crafted and shaped into beautiful things.

If you speak to a potter or ceramicist, they’ll tell you that each piece of clay has a personality of its own: that it almost knows what it wants to be, and that the hand on the wheel is just helping it to become a better version of itself. And to do this, the potter has to treat the clay with care, respect and confidence.

We tend not to do that with technology. Instead, we often seem to concentrate on bending it to our will. Rather than allowing it the freedom to become itself, we mould it to fit endless lists of needs and requirements.

For example, we’ve heard a lot recently about how video is the saviour of the arts. That filming things and putting them on the Internet will make it all okay – that this is what digital was here to do.  Make the TV all over again, but even better.

But sometimes putting a camera in front of things is the path of least resistance – it’s simply allowing a chink for technology to see through, not allowing it a way into the process, just offering it a hole in the wall.

Which is an opportunity for a cautionary tale. In Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, two young lovers who lived next-door to one another. When their parents refused to let them marry, they whispered to each other through the wall every night, their faces pressed up against the bricks. And one day, they escaped and attempted to meet – but they encountered a lion. And to cut a long story short, it didn’t end well.

The lesson being, I think, that the more time we spend simply poking video cameras through the chinks in the wall – rather than scaling the wall and trying to get a better look at what’s on the other side – then the more we’ll come to rely on the wall being there.  And then, eventually, looking over the wall (let alone, going outside and confronting the lions) will seem too dangerous and we’ll stop even trying. There’s the danger that we’ll become complacent and simply stick to what we know.

And I don’t necessarily think that people in the arts should try to be at the forefront of creating new forms of technology – because there are others who can do that much better – but we can lead in the way that we implement. We can use our imaginations and our foresight and our bravery to make brilliant things with the materials that are already there.

Central to this is an increase in literacy and understanding: if we can become like potters, who can intuit the best uses of a piece of clay, then we will inevitably use technology to make better things. But we need to focus our understanding on the right things.

Now as far as I know, no one who’s ever written a novel (or even, printed a marketing brochure) has thought they would learn to make paper first. They may have agonised over many other things, but they’ve probably left the papermaking to the papermakers. After all, paper isn’t the material that novels are made of: they’re made of that space between one imagination and another. And so with the Internet. A really good digital project isn’t made up of screens. The devices we use are instrumental. A book is a book if I read it on paper, on my iPad, on my phone. It persists apart from the means of delivery.

And while knowing how to write a line of code (or thousands of lines of code) is a brilliant thing, the sort of literacy we need the most of is the sort that makes us ambitious and confident and creative. The sort that turns into works of art.

In the recent Invisible exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, and there was a photograph of a piece by Yves Klein. The caption said, “In May 1957 … Yves Klein presented an empty, white-painted room filled with the artist’s sensibility.”

Yves Klein in the Void Room (Raum der Leere), Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, January 1961. via

And people queued to come into the room and experience the sensibility, the pureness of the idea.

What would happen if we concentrated on filling a different kind of space with a sensibility? If rather than worrying about making apps and Facebook pages and video players, we started to fill the digital space with our sensibility and waited to see what happened?

For instance, think about what theatre is, how it can linger and persist and fill the space that we make available to it. How can we make a theatrical experience that is natively of the Web, that uses and adapts to its materials? One that pings around the networks like electric thoughts.

And it seems that we’re approaching the stage where that becomes possible.

Has anyone here ever used their iPhone as a mirror? You see a lot of teenage girls on the tube doing it. They’ve flipped the camera function round so they can do their make-up, and it looks pretty weird – like they’re gurning at their phones for no reason. But in reality they’re using it to look at themselves. Using it as an actual mirror.

And that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been using technology as mirror in which to see ourselves.

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan had a name for this phenomenon in children. Apparently a baby can recognise itself in the mirror from as early as 6 months old, but there’s a mismatch because the child’s relative lack of control over its body makes it aware of a division. It becomes aware of a primordial, ideal being in the mirror, and – to allay the threat of this other, perfect being – it subsumes it into its identity.  Lacan says that this gives the child a fleeting sense of mastery – as if it has tamed itself – owning and mastering rather than setting up a more playful, and possibly more productive, relationship. And Lacan says that this “situates the ego … in a fictional direction.” In other words, it shows us that we look like one thing, when we in fact look like quite another.

image via

So the cultural world is at quite an amazing stage with regard to digital technology. We’re like toddlers, forming our digital ego – working out who we are, what we can be. And we could take the obvious path and continue to recreate ourselves in this image, take the digital materials we have to simply remake theatres and TV stations and art galleries. Or we could take advantage of our growing maturity to be more innovative – explore the materials at our disposal, see what they can do – and create something radically different. We can take some inspiration from Alice and go through the looking glass, rather than stand considering our own reflections.

And if we do that, we can we start to view technology as a material for exploration and innovation – the sort of thing we can build our dreams from – rather than merely an aid to recreate what we see in the mirror.

From Alice Through the Looking Glass. Illustration by John Tenniel.


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