Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Euro Bridges and Other Imaginary Architecture

“Everything you can imagine is real.” - Pablo Picasso

Robert Kalina’s bridges are amongst the most well known landmarks in Europe. The only problem is that they don’t actually exist.  

When the European Union introduced its common currency in 2002, Euro banknotes were introduced in seven denominations. One side of the notes displays images of windows or gates drawn from Europe's cultural history from the Classical to the modern, representing Europe's openness and cooperation.

With respect to individual national sensitivities of the Euro nations, Austrian artist Kalina designed seven fictional bridges to illustrate the reverse of the notes.  This use of imaginary architecture artfully avoided the difficulty of allocating any specific nationality to banknotes that would be shared across the union of 23 countries.

Now, a decade later, Dutch designer Robin Stam is building all seven bridges for real.  They will span the canal that borders a new estate in Spijkenisse, a suburb of Rotterdam.  The first six bridges have been completed, beginning with a red Romanesque bridge from the €10 note and an orange bridge in the Renaissance style from the €50 note.  These were followed by the €20 Gothic, €100 Baroque and Rococo, €200 iron and glass and €500 modern bridges, each tinted in the distinctive colours of their respective banknote designs. 

Robin Stam's Bridges of Europe

For Stam, the proposal began as something of a playful joke until the enthusiastic Local Authorities in Rotterdam encouraged him to realise the project.  This whimsical demonstration of the direct influence of art on life, however, is not a particularly new idea.

Leonardo da Vinci may not have invented the helicopter but he did draw the first picture of one.  Unrestrained by humdrum practicalities, artists and writers have long dreamed up countless theoretical ideas, situations and inventions.  It stands to reason that eventually many of them will become a reality.

It is often observed how writers of Science Fiction have informed much of our science fact.  Carl Sagan, the noted scientist and writer of Science Fiction, reflected eloquently on this relationship in Pale Blue Dot, a non-fiction book that explores the place of humanity in the universe:
"As far as I know, the first suggestion in the scientific literature about terraforming the planets was made in a 1961 article I wrote about Venus. The idea was soon taken up by a number of science fiction authors in the continuing dance between science and science fiction - in which the science stimulates the fiction and the fiction stimulates a new generation of scientists, a process benefiting both genres."
Conceptual pioneers from Da Vinci to Sagan not only inspired technological advances but also the language and look of the future.

The proposed Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid and its fictional inspiration, the Tyrell Building
from Blade Runner (1982).  The Mega-City Pyramid is currently awaiting the sufficient technological
advances to allow its construction.

In a similar but vastly more ambitious example of a fictional architecture made real, the Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid is a proposed project for the construction of a massive pyramid over Tokyo Bay in Japan. If completed, the structure would be 14 times higher than the Great Pyramid at Giza and would be the largest man-made structure in history.  The design is directly inspired by the iconic headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation as featured in the 1982 science fiction film Blade Runner.  That such a real life act of unrestrained hubris could be inspired by such a fictional depiction of unrestrained hubris might even be enough to make some more paranoid purveyors of fictional dystopia just a little more careful with sharing their nightmare fuel in future.

Science Fiction, of course, is often intended to be prophetic by design, yet the influence of art on our real life extends much further than mere design.  Countless academics have explored the complex relationship between art, perception, imagination and reality.  The ideologically driven architecture of the Bauhaus school pretty much invented the modern cities of the late 20th Century whilst  Leibniz's theory of Possible Worlds posits that if we are capable of imagining something then it must exist – at least in a parallel universe.

I find the most subtly compelling of these theories to be the philosophical position of Anti-mimesis, which holds that art actually has the power to dictate the way we see and understand our world.

Anti-mimesis holds that art does not imitate life but rather sets the aesthetic principles by which people perceive life. What we observe in life and nature is not what is truly there but is instead that which artists have taught people to find there through art.  A famous proponent of this theory was Oscar Wilde, who noted that although there had been fog in London for centuries, one only notices the beauty and wonder of the atmospheric phenomenon because "poets and painters have taught the loveliness of such effects...they did not exist till Art had invented them."

All of which brings us back to Stam’s bridges.

Robin Stam's 200 Euro Bridge,

To avoid any unpleasant surprises, Stam asked the Dutch Central Bank and the European Central Bank in Frankfurt whether they had any objections to the project but they gave him their full approval, unconcerned that these universal European symbols would soon be Dutch.

Nevertheless, there have been some dissenting voices who have suggested that the construction of the bridges in Holland is contrary to the original intention of European solidarity.  I would argue quite the opposite: that Stam’s project actually adds another, more enriching layer of universal meaning to these symbols.  To me, these fictional vistas that have been conjured into existence may now serve to celebrate the power of our dreams and ideas, remind us that the function and form of the world is not preordained and serve as a reassurance and modest inspiration for all those who long to see our world change shape and move forward again toward something new and better.

Perhaps I’ve given too much credit to the symbology of money but to extrapolate a quote from the great Saul Williams: words, ideas and dreams matter because words, ideas and dreams are matter.  Or, as Pablo Picasso put it more succinctly, “everything you can imagine is real.”

Surely that’s a better thing to celebrate than the musky nationalism of old dead white men and the baleful antipathy of weary monarchs?

Monday, 4 March 2013

Coming Home to Comics at the London Super Comic Convention 2013

My attendance at the inaugural London Super Comic Convention last year was primarily inspired by curiosity. I had never been to a comic convention before and the LSCC had been advertised as the first American style event to hit these shores. A rare transatlantic appearance of the legendary Stan Lee as headline special guest and the fact that the Excel conference centre is only fifteen minutes away from where I live didn't hurt either.

With the appropriately named Jack Kirby as we celebrate 
pulling off another successful Con over fat stacks of comics.

At that time, comics were very much a thing of my past.  Although rural North Yorkshire in the late eighties was not the best place to follow the latest American imports I had somehow managed to become a casual comics fan following the discovery of an amazing little comic book store in my grandparents town. It seemed wildly exotic to me at that pre-teen time.  During each family visit I stocked up on all the precious issues I could afford and built up a fractured collection featuring Swamp Thing, Guardians of the Galaxy and McFarlane-era Spiderman. Those few comics, with barely a handful of complete stories between them, offered a colourful and intoxicating escapism. I read and reread these books repeatedly, totally captivated by the unrestrained imagination of the storytelling. 

In the absence of a reliable supplier and in the midst of the many other real world distractions of growing up, my collecting faded away but my love of the medium remained; smouldering in the warm glow of nostalgia. 

I would reacquaint myself with comics again in college where the demands of a more mature readership were satisfied by three future indie classics: Jeff Smith’s Bone, Garth Ennis’ Preacher and Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise. These books - alongside the Alan Moore triumvirate of V for Vendetta, From Hell and Watchmen - made me realise that I could now appreciate a vicarious return to childhood thrills as a legitimate art form!

As life kept moving on I once again drifted away from comics for an extended period, pretty much until this time last year and the very first London Super Comic Convention. Now, just twelve months later, I have started buying regular comics again and I have found myself attending this second London Super Comic Con as a fully-fledged fan reborn.  I am not sure why this renewed enthusiasm for comic books has occurred. Perhaps I am drawn back to the reassuring constancy of these little worlds at times my real life is unsettled. As I move house and adjust to my thirtysomething drift, it feels good to know that the anthropomorphic and metahuman menageries of DC and Marvel are still out there fighting the good fight, in a world where good always triumphs over evil and no one ever really dies. Philosophical reflection aside, the LSCC encapsulates everything ridiculous and wonderful I love about comics, all under one conference centre roof.

This year I was once again weakly channeling a geekish version of Dr Gonzo to my friend Jack Kirby’s Raoul Duke as he covered the event in a press capacity for the Blogomatic 3000 website. Although our invocation of Fear and Loathing extended to little more than some early afternoon contraband drinking, it did give us an excuse to launch into conversation with guests and creators alike – not that anyone in this most sociable of crowds needed an excuse. In fact, for future journalistic reference, drunken waving of plastic beer cups in the midst of a convention celebrating a largely paper based artform probably makes people more wary of you.

The extended Mat-family for the weekend also included my friends Ami & Aman.
They are far more softcover hardcore than me.
Nevertheless, many notable comics creators in the sizeable artists alley gave us a moment of their time for a brief exchange, an autograph, a print or a sketch.  

Comic legend Neil Adams charmed us with his self-assured confidence: a square jawed real life hero looking as if he had literally stepped from one of his own Silver Age panels. George Perez pimped me a print of a characteristically voluptuous superheroine ensemble. Cult indie creator Tim Seeley was a more rock and roll presence but still thoroughly aimiable. This was a relief as Revival – a self-styled rural noir somewhat in the vein of a more hipster Stephen King mystery story – is one of my favourite current comic series.

Perhaps the most popular special guest was serving Spiderman scribe Dan Slott, whose marathon signing sessions seemed to last from dawn to dusk on both days. His current celebrity status is likely due to the fact that his tenure with the webslinger has seen Peter Parker killed off and a vengeful Doctor Octopus take over the body – and the mantle – of the Superior Spiderman. This new status quo is unlikely to last but it has started the new series with a bang and it seemed that everybody and their Aunt May wanted a copy of the exclusive LSCC Varient cover Issue 1 of Superior, signed by Slott and artist Adi Granov.

The LSCC (Clockwise from left): Rogue cosplay on the Underground,Neal Adams, Batman with beer,
The Cat, The Bat, The Mat and...er...Bane plus Brian "Pants" Christman from Comic Geek Speak

Alongside these established names were also a multitude of Independent Creators. Here you could find Christian, Blaxploitation, Gay or Heavy Metal themed comics - amongst many others - sitting side by side, with their creators all mostly getting along famously.  There are few other places where such a diverse spectrum of politics and personalities can be brought together by a common interest in telling stories through the juxtaposition of sequential pictures and words. 

New discoveries this year included the fantastic fanservice of Yasmin Liang's gorgeous illustrative prints and Timothy Winchester's very funny People I Know comic. Winchester was also notable for an effective but counter-intuitive sales technique whereby he refused to sell me anything until I had gone away and come back later after a cooling off period. I recall this was something to do with the fact I don’t like Game of Thrones but, whatever the reason, it worked and I returned at the end of the day determined to buy his book regardless. His webcomic also features a dinosaur whose best friend is a talking slice of toast, wizards and a hybrid unicorn-cat. If that isn’t a recommendation, then I don’t know what is.

In addition to new discoveries, the LSCC is also a perfect opportunity to catch up on just about any other titles you may have missed. The trading floor was huge and covered just about every taste and genre of comic you could think of.  With this once-a-year shopportunity in mind, it was ironic that we seemed to spend most of our crate-digging time in the longboxes of our friendly neighbourhood dealer Orbital Comics. They may not have had the biggest stand but they are the nice folks and it was good to support our local shop.

We spent some time on a panel with Brian "Pants" Christman and Bryan "Bryan" Deemer from the Comic Geek Speak podcast (and co-founders of the whole event). Specifically, it was a broken wall panel that we were helping to hold in place until technical assistance arrived, but it did give us time to peek behind the convention curtain at hard work and the sheer force of will required by the small team of organisers to hold everything together.  Entirely coincidentally, this also allowed us to peek behind the curtain into the Cosplay competition.

In my mind - foam claws aside - this man is as close to an actual real life 
Wolverine as you'll meet
There appeared to be a renewed enthusiasm for Cosplay this year. The many colourful homespun highlights, included a gingerbread Punisher, a gang of very well made Megacity Judges and a rather intimidating Red Sonja. 

The Bat family were probably the most abundant characters, although with just a single lonely Bane among them. As a result of his isolation, I guess his unwillingness to indulge in any trademark whimsical banter was probably understandable. Most importantly, our favourite hard drinking, hard living Wolverine had also returned.  He had intervened last year when innocent cosplayers were being mocked by some drunken city boys and proved himself as close to a real hero as you'll meet.

The Cosplayers capture that sense of the Convention as being more than simply artists, traders and guests. Everyone plays a part in making that sene of community and this is a pretty great and unique thing. In seeing families in attendance, with parents and children sharing equal excitement at the colourful happenings, I was again reassured at seeing characters I’ve loved in the past are still capturing the imagination of new generations.

I think this again evokes that warm fuzzy feeling of stability and continuity that I find so seductive in the medium.  Maybe this is what Frazer Irving alluded to when, in a panel “Celebrating 50 Years of Marvel's Greatest Characters”, he revealed that his favourite characters were the X Men as they were representative of “perhaps the longest mythic storytelling in human history”

Whilst the glow of escapism is still strong and there is still much artful storytelling to discover, it is that joy of being part of a community of enthusiasts that is most attractive. In difficult and unfriendly times to be around people who are brought together by an unashamed love of stories is a wonderful thing and I am proud to feel I am part of that community. 

I will, however, be expecting a forceful intervention if I show even the slightest hint that my renewed enthusiasm begins to extend to Cosplaying.