Belgian shrimping and a quinceañera

Following the logic of spending all your money on decent matresses, sheets, socks, and underwear (as the things you spend most of your time with), this past week, I took the seamful break of an OS update to re-wallpaper my phone with a couple of memento mori for 2017.

On the left, Mexican teenager Rubi Ibarra (photo by AFP’s Ronaldo Schemidt), whose quinceañera celebrations ‘gained national and international notoriety … after a local event photographer posted on his Facebook page a video of the girl’s father describing a down-home birthday party complete with food, local bands and horse races,’ going on to say “everybody is cordially invited.” ‘Internet users published mocked-up photos of troops of turkeys, backhoes stirring giant caldrons of soup and massive crowds “heading for Rubi’s party.”’

On the right, a Belgian horseback shrimp fisherman, one member of twelve households in Oostduinkerke engaged in this practice, recently recognised on a UNESCO list of global ‘intangible cultural heritage.’ ‘The shrimp fishers function on principles of shared cultural values and mutual dependence. Experienced shrimpers demonstrate techniques and share their knowledge of nets, tides and currents with beginners.’

As archetypes or foci for contemplation, there’s something here about the roles we assume (or have thrust upon us) as active participants in a world in flux. Yes, your fifteenth birthday may suddenly go viral, escaping your control. Yes, the small-scale folkway shared by you and your handful of neighbours may need to be reframed as an institutionally-supported side-hustle in order to endure.

In both of these cases, the local and the particular collide with the enormous ripetides of global structures and flows; but, with a clear-sighted appraisal of what can be allowed to flex and, conversely, those elements which are integral, which need to hold firm, the individuals and communities involved can emerge with grace, more-or-less intact.

There’s also a whiff of something about rythmns and time: the liminalities of a rite of passage, the rise and fall of the tides. (More on that later, perhaps.)

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.


— Justin

2015: The Year in Review

2015 was by turns gruelling and nourishing, and I feel like I’m leaving it as a palpably different person to the man who saw in the year with housemates and boardgames. Slightly late to the party this year, but here’s a run-down of some lingering fragments and mnemonic burrs. (As is the tradition.)

Single-file cattle train (cows following cows following a single cowherd), Kutch.

A collective decision to ban jazz drums from the house, having gone to see Birdman, which used such as a marker for points of psychological transition.

Seven months in India (non-continous), with all the confusion, culture shock, and homesickness that entails.

Picking around the perimeter of Kenilworth Castle in January’s frost, as part of a (wildly hungover) work retreat at a colleague’s childhood home. “And how do you know George?”

An unexpectedly compelling tour of Shoreham Port in the company of a phalanx of retirees, followed by accidentally stumbling onto an informal nudist beach, and, startled, falling down some scree.

The inside of my adopted pol‘s Jain temple, after being bundled in by the neighbourhood kids. An albatross of a winter jacket left (belatedly) in an Indian hotel.

A full-day walk from Greenwich to the Thames Barrier with confederates, co-conspirators, and a borrowed radio scanner.

The inexplicable death of a close friend from school, found next to his bicycle. A missed funeral, an inherited blazer, and a trip to the graveside the morning of a shared friend’s July wedding. Grief as a wave; mounting, cresting, then ebbing into numbness.

The slow assembly of the i360, Brighton’s ‘vertical pier’ (starting at the top, and working down).

Tibetan teens hanging out at a recently-constructed hilltop temple, claiming space by playing American chart hits from their phones.

Hallucinating that I was an enormous sentient spaceship named “after the historical Justin Pickard” (i.e. currently-existing me) having been reading Vernor Vinge immediately before falling prey to a particularly nasty bout of heatstroke, itself the result of an hour-long walk home after dark. The foul-tasting homebrew rehydration salts, pepper and lemon, that slowly ushered me back to health.

New road under construction, Mussoorie

Freshly-laid asphalt in Ahmedabad and Mussoorie.

A Freddy Mercury shower curtain.

The experience of being sandwiched between an American historian and an Italian priest at dinner, while the shipping magnate across the table issues a full-throated defence of capital punishment.

A bicycle-powered horse-shaving device, part of an exhibition of ‘grassroots innovations’ on the cricket pitch of IIM-Ahmedabad, while raptors circled overhead.

The embodied shock that followed my unwitting glimpse of a burning skeleton while getting a sneaky behind-the-scenes tour of a local crematorium. A bucket of implants, pins, bolts, and hip replacements—clumsy weapons in our struggle with senescence.

The second season of The Leftovers, having (still) not seen the first. Pitch-perfect television.

A green Hindi textbook, roughly the size and weight of a breeze block.

Bats under a bridge in Yorkshire, outside a Jaipur dry-cleaners, sensed with a ‘bat detector’ in London’s Victoria Park.

Singapore skyline from Marina Bay Sands

Getting lost and dehydrated in Singapore’s Heartland, and again, later, while hiking on the Downs with housemates on the hottest day of the year—having failed in our search for a bench made by a carpenter friend.

Drinks in a sticky-floored pub with three quarters of 65daysofstatic, a lovely bunch of lads, and the first band I’ll admit to having seen live.

Te fig trees and eel ladders of Sheffield. My brother’s drones, various and plural. A profoundly unnerving shed.

A post-lunch group nap in the living room of an Indian family met while queuing to see a solar-powered plane.

Burgess Park in the autumn. A morning in Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society. The joys of having not contracted a persistent Indian strain of H1N1 swine flu.

Multiple reproduction Venus de Milos, a pharmaceutical wild goose chase, and two murdered lions (highlights from playing through the first ten cases of not-quite-a-boardgame Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective).

Just shy of four weeks at a language school housed in a 1900s church, overlooking a colonial-era hill station, on the outermost edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

A tour of the university town of Wageningen by two cat-owning, smart-grid-studying Dutch research students. A quarryman’s tour of the University of Exeter campus. A heritage walking tour of Ahmedabad.

A Juki sewing machine modded with a mains-powered outboard electric motor.

Brighton beach

Staying up late on a Sunday night to watch the lunar eclipse on Brighton beach, with a hip-flask of gingerbread vodka and a bar of chocolate, flanked by night fishermen and drunk freshers from the local university singing Bonnie Tyler at the top of their lungs.

Three weddings (one as ‘bridesman’). Lightning storms over a Singaporean reservoir. A one-armed monkey.

The warm discomfort of animated comedy and treatise on depression, Bojack Horsesman.

A post-it note stuck to the kitchen clock: ‘Do not trust time.’

An impromptu comic song about fracking, as the musically-minded girlfriend of a Manchester geographer seized control of a pub piano at an Exeter open mic night.

Banks of the Exe

An ontologically alarming couple of days in Haridwar, on the western bank of the Ganges. Hiking and camping in the Lake District with social practice theorists and Lancaster’s energy demand research unit. A near-Elysian early evening walk along the banks of the Exe.

Cold fish and chips in a friend’s North London pad after a connecting train broke down on the Dutch border, and I was forced to escape Belgium by plane.

Being ambushed by the Indian national anthem while wildly jet-lagged in a university auditorium before a lecture by India’s now-late former president (and rocket scientist), AJP Abdul Kalam.

Hiding in the garden of a friend and mentor after dark on Halloween, necking beers, as his teenage daughter hosted a party for friends and classmates from her Dutch international school.

The deranged but internally-rigorous logic of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster.

A post-it note stuck to a cake tin: ‘This cake is, frankly, disappointing.’

Lagana (to be attached), ‘perhaps the most idiomatic verb in Hindi.’

An Uttarakhandi-Lebanese American Thansgiving, where our sole Korean colleague stole the wind from our sails by expressing his thanks for “having completed his 21 months of compulsory military service.”

Chai in a moulded plastic chair in a mountain stream at Dehradun’s Robber’s Cave. A taxi drop-off in the middle of a neighbourhood cricket match.

A giant stone merlion. WhatsApp. House geckos. Tiffin. A monument-scale sextant.

‘No durians on the Metro.’

Kutchi equestrians

Two nights of state-sponsored glamping in the Gujarati desert. Havmor’s orange ice-cream. A motorbike trip to the pathology lab of Asia’s largest hospital.

The six museums of India’s Forest Research Institute (pathology, social forestry, silviculture, timber, non-wood forest products, entomology). Briefly mistaking an oversized model of a termite queen for the real thing, and freaking out.

Vannini and Taggart’s Off the Grid, a creative and improbably-readable ethnographic survey of off-grid living across Canada.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. A Dutch star fort. Walls of sound and light in Sheffield and Singapore.

A trip to the Palace of Westminster to watch a colleague present our work, and the £30 bottle of wine to celebrate having done so.

A phone mislaid in one of a series of fields after drinking with Glaswegians at a friend’s wedding, a phone lifted from a trouser pocket on the Delhi Metro.

Pre-dawn Himalayas, from Surkanda Devi

Original manuscripts from the codices of Leonardo da Vinci, in a climate-controlled Singaporean museum. A series of geographers’ dispatches from the 5th millennium. Sunrise at Surkanda Devi, just shy of 10,000 feet above sea level.

A pub chalk board: ‘Good news, the cloud is back.’


I’ve been in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad since January, laying some groundwork for my PhD research. With temperatures in the city hitting 43ºC (!) at the end of March, I was looking for some respite from the heat. Booking some flights to Uttarakhand, in India’s forested Northwest, I spent a week exploring Dehradun, Rajpur, and Mussoorie. With real estate investment and construction crews starting to encroach on the lush, dense forest of the Himalayan foothills, this seemed like a good opportunity to get in some practice with my DSLR.

2014: The Year in Review

Ten days in Gujarat, four days in Geneva, a week in the Peak District, a week in the Lake District, four days in Linz. Nights in London, Newcastle, Lancaster, Liverpool, Sheffield.


Uttarayan in Ahmedabad; a sky thick with kites, ablaze with Chinese lanterns. African tourists at the Adalaj stepwell. Drinking whisky on the roof of a friend’s parents’ villa.

Fansubbed episodes of Korean reality show The Genius: Rules of the Game.

Dinner in Stanmer House, as part of the department’s 2014 postgraduate conference. Papers on graphene, lab-grown meat, German PV, Dutch biogas, and Irish wind farms.

Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s 20,000 Days on Earth (trailer), seen in the company of friends, in the city where it was shot.


A pair of National Trust-managed cottages in Little Langdale, Cumbria. An electric car in an eight-minute hailstorm. Psychogeography in a flooded quarry. Caviar and white chocolate, lemon posset, tawny port.

Hindi orthography and diacritics. The Brighton Beer Dispensary. The London College of Communication.

Attempting to explain TR’s The Monopoly of Legitimate Use to my parents.

Five months in 7th-century England, courtesy of Nicola Griffith’s Hild (review).


Derwent Reservoir’s solid-masonry dam. Chicken for fifteen in Geneva.

A crisp February Saturday spent walking the length of London’s Regent’s Canal.

A ramble through the strata of post-industrial Sheffield with PGR.


An hour-long night hike through peri-urban Linz. Raurakl, bats, and karaoke so bad we mistook it for a call to prayer.

Trolling children at a wedding in a field, several miles east of Hassocks.

The mortification of being taken to task for speaking too quickly at Austrians.


A company. An algorave. A change of address.

65daysofstatic, Jesca Hoop, John Grant, Nordic Giants.

A helikite over Peckham. A festive origami llama, folded from a map of Ludlow. A shiny new Canon DSLR, purchased on the advice of ES, the direct descendent of a model smuggled out of Japan by my parents in the 1970s.

Sitting in the car at Beachy Head with my brother, his girlfriend, and a thermos of tea, sheltering from the rain.

GV’s Chesterfield sofa. Boardgames. A documentary photography course. Counselling.

The Good Wife, The Knick, The Wolf Among Us.


A couple of hours spent in Lewes’ Swan Inn with GV on Bonfire Night, flanked by costumed pirates, having raced a setting sun across the Downs.

Capture the flag, played with a bunch of strangers in Queen’s Park.

Podcasts, procrastination, hangovers, and the simple pleasures of living with friends.

Brighton Mini Maker Faire 2014

On Saturday 6th September, 2014, a stream of technology enthusiasts, science clubs, hackerspaces, and rogue makers gathered in the Brighton Dome’s Corn Exchange for the city’s 4th annual Mini Maker Faire; “a family-friendly showcase of invention, creativity and resourcefulness … a place where people show what they are making, and share what they are learning.”

Photography/technography: a call for help


As some of you already know, as part of my PhD research at the STEPS Centre, I’m going to be heading out to Gujarat later in the year, to start a period of fieldwork on urban water supply infrastructure. At this stage, I’m planning on focusing on the activity of city engineers, plumbers and field technicians, and people making use of water storage and rainwater harvesting apparatus in their own homes and workplaces.

Building on research undertaken at Wageningen University in the Netherland, I’m framing my research as a technography; something that, at its simplest, can be described as ‘the ethnography of technology-in-use’ (Glover, 2011); looking less what people say (in interviews, focus groups, etc.) than what they actually do — their use of tools, technology and various forms of organisation to work (together?) and get things done.

As part of my research, I’m intending to use photography to create a record of the sequence of activities undertaken by the groups that I’m going to be studying, and with this in mind, have signed up for a documentary photography short course at the LCC in early September. This isn’t going to be conventional portrait or landscape photography, but nor is it story-driven photojournalism. It’s going to require a sensitivity towards those I’m working with, a certain agility and responsiveness, and an ability to filter what’s relevant from what isn’t.

As far as I can see, the only way I’m going to be able to develop this particular (and quite specific) set of skills is through first-hand experience, and I’m eager to get a sense of how this might work before I go. With this in mind, I’m looking for people based in the southeast of the UK or in London; whose work (or hobby) involves making, tool-use, or working with others to achieve specific ends; and who wouldn’t mind a slightly awkward researcher with a camera hanging out in their workspace for a day or half day in late August, or September.

If anyone has any leads, however vague, or if you just want to get a bit more information about what I’m up to, send me an email at <justin(dot)pickard(at)gmail(dot)com>.

‘The Unrecognised Gas Bladder’

The Túnel coach has been further delayed. Ducking into the public bus shelter in the hope of evading the all-permeating liquid mist, you jostle for space with a Swiss pensioner in a dated wearable, two identikit businessmen, a gaggle of furtive students, and a young African woman talking excitedly in heavily-accented Portuguese. Sliding through the headlines, the world sluices in through the periphery of your consciousness — smouldering conifers, rolling brownouts, dead songbirds.

The coach rolls up just as you consider cutting your losses and hailing a car. An exhalation of pressure as it lowers to let the Túnel party faithful on board. The pensioner shoots you a look of unconcealed loathing as you touch your ring to the reader. The light blinks green, and you shuffle to the back of the vehicle. Bags thrown into the overhead rack; arms and legs contorted as you wedge your body into a window seat. A city glimpsed through fogged glass, then a border crossing. The coach grinds to a standstill. Chicken wire mesh fences and floodlights; machine guns; sniffer dogs; berets and Kevlar and heads-up displays. Documents are checked, identities confirmed, and the coach pulls back out into the gloom.

Eventually: ‘TÚNEL.’ The cooperative’s name and logo are the only lights in the fog, the obnoxious, backlit san serif a lighthouse guiding them in to land, each letter the size of a small van stood on its nose. You still aren’t quite clear on what it was that attracted the Mexicans to the former CERN complex in the first place. Perhaps an echo of the aura and prestige of ‘big science’ had lingered, even as the desks, lunch tables, and server racks of yesterday’s scientists and graduate students were consigned to a phalanx of rented skips. Perhaps the company founders were simply suckers for a vintage piece of mega-engineering, or got some perverse kick from filling the pipes and tunnels of what was once a glimmering cathedral of transnational scientific collaboration with a shoal of genefixed Latin American salmon. Allowing for a grim, thin-lipped smile, you lever the bag down from the overhead rack as the coach pulls to a stop, and prepare to disembark.


Bonjour, monsieur. Sorry for keeping you waiting. What seems to be the issue?” Sonja scratches her nose with the iridescent gilt nail of the little finger on her left hand.

“Ah.” The caller looks up. “The house meter isn’t working. The bladder is in the socket, and the seal worked, but your system won’t recognise it.” Cow farts, subvocalized Sonja, mentally consigning the board of Helvetic Biogas to the eighth circle of hell.

She leaves it slightly too long, and the next line of the script flashes up on the prompter. REQUEST TAG CHECK.

“And the tag?” A rustle of papers and fabric, as the caller steps away from their screen. After a brief silence, she leans in: “It should be at the bottom.”

“The light is green. It’s on and broadcasting, and everything.”

“Right. Well, have you tried—”

“I’ve done everything the agent suggested.” He sounds as tired as she feels.

With an audible sigh, Sonja pulls up a map of the neighbourhood; enters some numbers into a cell in a spreadsheet; tucks an errant strand of hair back behind her ear as the route-planning algorithms do their thing. “Right. One of our field technicians is already in the area, monsieur. I’ve added you to her roster; she should be with you within the hour.”

Disconnecting the call, Sonja removes her earbuds, and, with a flick of her wrist, puts the camera to sleep. She glances down at the agency dashboard, a thin strip of translucent white across the bottom of her screen. She’s banked enough calls from earlier in the week to extend her mid-morning break by a good half-hour. Should be long enough to nip down to Denner and get some of the sundries Jay and their neighbours have added to the shared list.

‘Biofortified milk, dried cricket protein, sanitary towels, toilet paper, piracetam.’

Grabbing a coat, backpack, and umbrella, she takes the tiny, rickety lift down to the building lobby. Fliers for ayurvedic medicine, child-minders, distance learning tutors. A handwritten ad for firewood. Putting her bag down beside the letterboxes, she unzips it, reaches in, and pulls out a small shrink-wrapped parcel blazoned with translucent Chinese characters. Ripping through the thin plastic, she removes a protective face mask and pulls it over her head. It’s slightly too small, and the elastic cuts into her ears. Pulling on her rucksack, she eyes the main door. ‘This handle,’ it reads, ‘is disinfected four times a day.’ Sonja isn’t convinced. Pushing the main door open with her elbow, she steps out into the biodiesel-tinged drizzle of Geneva in the spring.

In the skies to the west, against a slate grey backdrop of snowless mountain peaks, a mid-altitude platform cycles through ads for bacterial detergent, solar installation loans, and Catalan electric bikes. To the south-east, far beyond the swings and rusted roundabout of the neighbourhood park, cows in bulging backpacks shift and shuffle awkwardly on a far hillside. If she cranes her neck just right, Sonja can hear the distant hum of surveillance drones, circling overhead. Gritting her teeth beneath the mask, she pulls up the collar on her fleece, and flags down a passing car.


Written by Justin Pickard for Superflux, as scene-setting for their week-long HEAD MEDIA DESIGN workshop ‘FAILED STATES: Tactical Design for Uncertain Futures.’