2016 in review

(A little late, sure, but … as is the custom in these parts.)

For me, 2016 came in three distinct lumps, not easily reconciled.

The first block ran from January through mid-April. Having seen in the new year from the roof of a Jaipur apartment block, I returned to Gujarat for a second round of fieldwork (part of my doctoral work on infrastructure, cities, and socio-technical change). This proved signifianctly less frictive than my 2015 attempts at similar, with enough breathing space for a series of short side-missions elsewhere in the west and northwest of the country.

In mid-April, I returned to Brighton, where I spent a month transcribing and digesting a stack of scrawled, often esoteric field notes before flying to Boston, for a three-week circuit of the US west coast and a swift loop of Cape Breton Island. Arriving back into Brighton to vote in the EU referendum, the ‘Leave’ victory knocked me off-balance. I sleepwalked through July and August, chipping away at a paper for my first big academic conference, in Barcelona.

September pushed a reset button, with the scale and heightened emotion of 4S nudging me into a whole new equilibrium. Strange Telemetry, the research company I co-manage, graduated into a physical location, taking a couple of desks alongside friends and co-conspirators in Somerset House Studios. I spent a week in the Netherlands, visited Wales for a cwrdd organised by Cardiff’s Future Matters Collective, and ran a series of missions with my housemates, traversing Brighton’s sewers and much of the Thames Estuary. I took a short teaching job at Vienna’s University of the Applied Arts, running tutorials and acting as an emotional support Englishman for students enrolled on Anab Jain’s more-than-industrial design programme.

Seeing out December with a triple-whammy of my own doctoral work-in-progress paper and seminar, Vienna student presentations, and a few days of house-hunting in Yorkshire’s Calder Valley, I ended 2016 with my reserves thoroughly depleted, and have seen in 2017 from the Netherlands, where I am currently hiding from the reassertion of real time.

Having picked through a year of archived tweets over the past few days, the three-act arc co-exists with a time-fuzzed volley of sensory imprints.

It was the year I helped launch a fishing boat, straining for purchase in the coastal gulf’s sticky mud. The year I was conscripted into videotaping an informant’s cousin’s eighth birthday, committing guttering candles to film moments before having cake smeared into my then-ample beard. This was the year I was chased from the uppermost floor of a sixteenth-century fort by an aggreived langur, and self-bootstrapped from an uncertain fate by jimmying the jambed lock of a Delhi en-suite with a tightly-packed bundle of incense sticks. The year the jewellers went on strike, and the city government shut down the internet to prevent would-be accountants from cheating on an entrance exam. A year of improbably large antique padlocks, bootleg whisky, improvised kite-repair, early-morning Jeep trips, and autorickshaw cartels.

But my two-thirds grasp of Beginners Hindi had a half-life, quickly dribbling from my ears.

Turning up 40 minutes late to a PhD supervision in South Mumbai, having refused to foot the toll for the singular urban cheat code that is the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Far too many hours with ebooks on the Kindle at the Wagh Bakri Tea House, and at Philosophy Club, Ahmedabad’s only Spanish-style vegan café. Two weeks with ES in a penthouse on the city’s periphery, above a notorious chicken restaurant. Figs, eggs and toast on the terrace, against the ululations of the Muslim call to prayer.

Somewhere down the line, the central argument of my doctoral thesis made the leap from the dank and draughty recesses of my skull to a stack of dog-eared index cards, later homed in an early-1900s oak card file.

Lungis, ferries, and rows of plastic lawn chairs occupied by communists. Chinese fishing nets at the brackish confluence of Kerala’s backwaters and the Arabian Sea. Garrulous homestay hosts, sheet lightning, and Panandian’s razor-sharp ethnography of the Tamil film industry. The company of a friend from sixth form, sacrificing her week-long break from a classroom of four-year-olds for jetlag and culture shock. A day in the wind-buffetted Ponmudi hills, a lazy afternoon wandering the streets, canalsides, and coir factories of Alleppey.

Hot afternoons and cold brew coffee in Boston, New York, and DC. Dinner with someone moving into New York as another diner was leaving. Pancakes, bagels, doughnuts, and banter with Tim and Sava. Turtles and a Jagellonian in Central Park. One of the greatest walks of my adult life, fending off oversized dogs and a gathering gloom to track down the Capitol Stones in DC’s Rock Creek Park, before trekking back to the ample skies and manifold foodways of Silver Spring. Meeting RM for the first time at a punk gig at the Black Cat, as a cosplay burlesque played out upstairs.

Timber slave houses, craft beer, and a waxwork tobacco factory employee in a familiar corner of North Carolina. Words hastily transcribed in the basement of Duke University Library, and a second run through Eno River State Park, hot on the heels of a particular black labrador. That Game of Thrones episode starring Ian McShane in a friend-of-a-friend’s packed house in suburban Durham, and the realisation that, yes, everyone’s television rituals have always been unfolding in parallel.

An all-night climate-themed arts event in Minneapolis, finishing in Balinese shadow puppetry, a nocturnal library, gathering thunderclouds, and a more-than-human-scale plush coral reef. More bikes than you can possibly imagine. A day-long walk through the Twin Cities, looping through raised flower beds, and past lakes, lingering for a time in a coffee shop built on the ruins of a 1900s-era infantorium, where slack-jawed amusement park attendees subsidised the warming of premature babies. Sake and noodles, science fiction paperbacks, a herd of VR buffalo, and the scripted sound ghosts of plausible art museum visitors. A painted Ghanian coffin, circa 1993, carved to resemble a lobsterthe notion of which my mother vetoed over WhatsApp as “prohibitively expensive.”

From the rippling aftershocks of the Orlando nightclub shooting, a marginally more strident queerness—as expressed, perhaps, in Black Mirror’s San Junipero.

Wire loops hawked from the roadside, as a low-tech means of preventing motorcyclists from being garrotted by glass-coated kite strings. An invite to India’s National Festival of Innovation, at Delhi’s Rashtrapati Bhavan. Suit trousers and shirt, sleeves rolled, waiting in the sweltering sun for those sufficiently important to ‘launch’ the hangar of novel crop varieties and pedal-powered water pumps.

Chicken hakka noodles, pani puri, maska buns, chai, and vada pav. A subtitled screening of 1964’s L’Homme de Rio in the Ahmedabad branch of Alliance Française.

A leisurely walk across Boston on a summer evening with design educator SH. A seemingly unpiloted drone, tracking collegiate rowers on the Charles. Tonic and tortilla chips in the home of internet friends before their resttlement in Rhode Island. The MIT Press bookstore.

A store on the Portsmouth harbourfront, stitching tote bags from used canvas sails. Lobster rolls in varying sizes and configurations. A plan, a catamaran, and a road through a moonlit forest. A couple of hours down by the lake with travel companion DC, our Airbnb hosts’ petulant hound, some loons, Jupiter, and a solitary Nova Scotian firefly.

An unexpected folding of Firewatch, a first-person mystery set in the Wyoming wilderness, and a walk through one spur of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The unearthly croak of a bullfrog, spectres of moose and coyotes.

A two-minute cable ferry across St. Anne’s Bay. A motel room just outside Bar Harbor, Maine, and the (unlikely) opportunity to check in with a friend made while studying Hindi in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Two exhibitions. Power and Protection at Oxford’s Ashmoleon. Victorians Decoded at the Guildhall Gallery. Submarine cables and talismanic shirts.

Within the corridors, courtyards, and corner rooms of Somerset House, at various points, a nineteenth-century Naval Comissioners’ Barge, a phalanx of African sculptures, an ice skating rink, snooker tables, small-scale fogponic agriculture, an archive of Soviet user-centred design, a floating poker game, the Mayor of London, and a hackerspace-produced replica of the control room from Chile’s Project Cybersyn.

Monica Bryne’s The Girl in the Road. Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station. Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space. Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles, pre-sombrero. (In a moment of incongruity, my mother’s book group tackles the 2016 Clarke Award winner.)

Turin Brakes’ Lost Property on the Swarna Jayanti Rajdhani Express. Steve Mason’s Meet the Humans. My ass saved, repeatedly, by @hoverbird’s Warm Focus RadioFolk musicians practising in a community-owned Yorkshire pub. Field Music. Spotify playlists and a flurry of music recommendations from a friend in the Gulf. South Korean three-piece Idiotape in Shoreditch, playing a full 90-minute set to a deliriously excited crowd, without pause.

A profoundly alarming experiment in sea kayaking, paddling ineptly around Brighton’s West Pier. (I may have capsized.) Tentative gestures at shape note singing in the church hall where we normally vote. Act IV of Kentucky Route Zero, played on a summer evening, after a small-scale barbecue on the beach.

Ben Wheatley’s High Rise. DC’s Postal Museum. More Chileans and Malaysians than I might have expected, and more Guitar Hero than I’d care to admit. Pebbles of bottle green sea glass, liberated from Glace Bay, in the shadow Marconi’s early experiments in wireless telegraphy. A 45-minute circuit of the Pitt-Rivers. Meteoric iron, gifted by a thickly-accented Bavarian artist. Losing my shit with excitement over BuckleyWilliams’ Amazon Echo.  A five-year-old tweet construed as a racist threat by a business columnist with too many followers. A handwritten tortoise hibernation update spotted in Hove. The full stomach following a commiseratory post-referendum vegan Chinese takeaway.

A half-day simulation of the European Reformation, in which I inadvertantly handed victory to the Cathoics by prematurely forming the Schmalkaldic League. (It happens.) Glimpses of an offshore wind farm under-construction, through a pair of Brezhnev-era Soviet-produced binoculars rescued from my childhood bedroom.

Halt and Catch Fire. A local open-air performance of Much Ado About Nothing. Tetradhedral kites at Alexander Graham Bell’s old stomping ground, and the flickering ghost of an as-of-yet unbuilt Welsh tidal lagoon. A bike ride through the Dutch countryside. The slowly spreading sweat of dragging wheeled luggage through central Brussels while fielding WhatsApp messages from my brother. A pop-up shipwreck museum in a shipping container.

Rewilding on Countryfile. Autumn and winter walks through Stanmer Great Wood and Stanmer Park. A crowdfunded, English-language French Revolutionary Calendar. Redeye flights from Gatwick, and morning walks along the Donaukanal. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy. Pot plant catfishing on the Austrian equivalent of Freecycle, and an 80cm diameter, student-made geodesic sphere.

From my vantage point in the here-and-now, 2017 is plotted out to April, after which the fog begins to creep back in. If everything hangs together, Emma, Al and myself are moving to Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, at the end of this month, as the primary component of a pre-Brexit reappraisal-of-all-the-things. We found a house on a hill, and we’re getting a dog. I’m stepping back from (most of) my commitments with Strange Telemetry through April, to break the back of my PhD, even as I pick up some teaching work back at Sussex, running seminars for a Masters-level module on infrastructure and innovation. I anticipate spending a fair chunk of time in Manchester, and will be working hard to put down some roots in the region. So if you’re local, with strong opinions about innovation policy, infrastructure, anthopology, and/or documentary photography, and won’t draw attention to my Sussex accent or multiple words for mud, drop me a line.

Cheers,

— Justin

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