Friday, 30 January 2009

"You'll never be better than a spider"

Public lecture time. Very cool format – a ‘conversation’ between Richard Wentworth (artist, curator and teacher based at the Ruskin School of Fine Art in Oxford) and Mark Lythgoe (Director of the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging at University College London and prolific science communicator). 

The audience were distinguished looking folk and I immediately felt like a scruffy pleb. I was sat next to a very smart looking woman who I promptly elbowed while taking off my coat. 

We were in an enormous hall usually reserved for graduation ceremonies. Right at the front, dead casual like (this was a conversation after all), were some brown leather arm chairs and a tiny projector screen.

Richard Wentworth kicked off by showing some photos. 

I would have said “this projector screen is too small for this room”. 

Richard Wentworth said, “we are defeated by the combination of pre-war confidence and modern technology”. 

This is why I am not an Oxford Professor of Fine Art. That and a few other reasons like being shit at art.

The conversation was about images like this one:

Since the mid 70s Richard Wentworth has been making a photographic documentary of aspects of everyday life that interest him in an ongoing project called ‘Making Do and Getting By’. 

It’s about the fact that we are not really very suited to our surroundings, but we ‘make do’. We innovate with whatever materials we have to hand, and we're really quite good at knowing exactly which chocolate bar will best silence an alarm, for example. 

If you grinned a bit at the alarm bell image, then that’s the bit that Mark Lythgoe is interested in. He wants to know what happens in the brain when people experience that warm satisfaction from seeing a piece of improvisation or ingenuity, an elegant bit of engineering. Just generally the recognition of brilliance in others.

He believes that it’s a form of reward, and there is growing evidence to suggest that in the same way memory consolidation is improved during stress (so we get better at avoiding those situations in future) it is also improved during reward and may be enhanced by positive emotion (so we are better at learning nice solutions to tricky problems). 

What Richard Wentworth does is record the things that make us feel like that; capturing a problem and a solution simultaneously. 

The way they were talking about coming at the same concept from completely different angles was ace. Especially as it developed into an in-depth discussion on the nature of creativity in which they both agreed that "maintaining awareness of the periphery is essential". Which I took to mean “it’s ok to fart about on the internet instead of doing actual work as it will somehow lead to increased flowing of creative juices”. I’m pretty sure that’s what they meant.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

"I only went to get a piece of cake..."

Found another one to add to the (frankly very short) list of Reality TV Shows I Quite Like: Million Dollar Traders

In Spring 2008 (well before Sterling became more useful as kindling) hedge fund manager Lex van Dam gave eight ordinary people a million dollars, a fortnight of intensive training and two months on the trading floor in the City (with a capital 'C').

I'd avoided it because I assumed it would be confusing, loud and stressful. And depressing. I watched it last night and it's fascinating. The whole process had previously been a TOTAL mystery to me.

I think I had in my head that traders were telepathically linked to the market and need only to shout "BUY!" or "SELL!" and it would be so.

But they actually pick up a phone and go

"Alright? It's Karen"

"Alright mate?"

"Yep. I'm looking at Titanium Industries, that's TIT, 'T' 'I' 'T'"


"Yep. Currently 343.6"

"Yep. I'll buy 100"


"Ok you've bought 100 at 343.6"

"Alright cheers bye"

Done. Actually now I've written it down I realise it's a process that's absolutely no clearer.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Big Deal

The annual parade of fragile egos that is Celebrity Big Brother is on at the moment, along with shouty ads asking for auditionees for Big Brother 2009.

With each year that passes I am more and more frustrated by Big Brother. I was a big fan. But now it's just a big summer-long audition for people desperate for 'fame' at whatever price.

I really liked Dead Set, and many of the parallels were so spot on I found myself nodding at the telly like a loon. A few inaccuracies, which were necessary for the story, included the intelligence and common sense level of the housemates, which was too high. And also the nasty producer chap.

I really don't think the producers are nasty or deliberately exploitative. I think they don't have enough confidence in the format, or the fact that the relationships of the average person are endlessly fascinating to other average people. They don't have even nearly average people as housemates, and feel in order for it to be good telly they need to torture, starve and upset the housemates. It's boring. It's just so obvious. It's like human emotions by numbers. Make housemate A do something devious and nasty to housemate B and see if a negative reaction occurs. BORING.

Proof that the viewing public just like watching normal relationships form between normal(ish) people on the telly, as if it were needed, is provided in the form of both Come Dine With Me and Deal Or No Deal. Both of which I adore.

Come Dine With Me is probably a closer relative of BB, as total strangers very quickly find themselves in quite intimate company, that is, throwing little dinner parties for each other. Grudges that develop as a result of refusal to eat the pastry of a Beef Wellington ("It's just not civilised") are far more interesting than those that develop as the result of being forced to pick the housemate with the biggest ego (as recently occurred with Terry Christian) then having it aired in front of said ego (Ulrika).

Come Dine With Me triumphs by exposing the subtle differences that crop up when seemingly innocuous domestic routines collide. And it's just as good when people unexpectedly form wonderful friendships. And all this with absolute minimal manipulation from the producers. People get comfortable. Big Brother tries really really hard to make people feel uncomfortable, so they end up doing crazy things like shoving a wine bottle up their chuff just to get some attention.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, what with Celeb BB on in place of Everybody Loves Raymond of a morning. And I used to think that Deal Or No Deal presented a similar argument. It's fashionable to turn your nose up at Deal Or No Deal but I think it is a work of bearded genius. Yes it's exactly the same every single damn day. BUT it's the people that make it what it is. Just normal people but, crucially, the SAME people.

They get put up in a hotel in Bristol, all together, and often end up spending several weeks in very close quarters, filming every day. There are characters, relationships between characters, and Noel makes sure the audience knows this. He plays it up, he amplifies aspects of people's personalities, creates a mythology around certain players if they have a history of always having a box with a high number. He makes it his business to know the players really well because really he knows that's why people love it.

It's overly sentimental, as are the relationships, with incredibly intense bestest bestest ever friends forming within weeks. Mascots and photos with accompanying nauseating stories are encouraged. I used to think it wouldn't work without this. That Noel and his 22 boxes (just one question) was further proof that relationships between people can make even the dullest format interesting and therefore BB should a) leave well alone and stop engineering upset and b) use normal people.

Until I was in America a few months back and saw this...

That is how they open boxes American style. Beautiful ladies. This is one of the most popular Deal Or No Deal ladies...

This is Brooke. Brooke opens box 15.

Can someone please explain this to me? Why does anyone give a shiny shite? Every other game show on the planet relies on our interest in other people's skill, or knowledge, or problem solving abilities.

I just don't get it. And it kind of suggests that I'm completley wrong about why people like Come Dine With Me and Deal Or No Deal, and that I will in fact just watch any old crap.