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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.’
2013 was a chain of islands in a rough and inky sea.
A gathering together of network-enabled weirdos: in a listed former town hall, an empty office block in Manchester, a Brighton coffee shop, a Dutch art gallery, on an East German fishing boat, at a synthetic biology conference at a London university.
A four-thousand word essay on the open hardware efforts of a Polish-American physics graduate. Twenty-thousand words of MSc thesis, written at speed. A preliminary PhD research proposal. A fast-talking, gin-fuelled podcast on science, technology and innovation. A blog post for The Guardian. A series of slightly-too-long talks on 3D printing, design futures, and philanthropy & appropriate technology.
A day lost in Harvard’s Arnold arboretum. A compendium of surreal Japanese ghost stories, translated by a Greek-Irish journalist a hundred year prior, read from the Kindle in an American burger restaurant as the Snowden saga unwound, in real-time, on satellite TV. A feather from a dead turkey found while walking in the New Hampshire woods.
Sensible questions asked of physicists at the Large Hadron Collider. A day spent pretending to be an African subsistence farmer. A day spent trying to convince people I wasn’t a Cylon.
A Sunday morning in Eno River State Park with a university friend, his wife, their dog, and my hangover. Terrible country music, North Carolina barbecue, and Bomberman on the Wii.
Coffee with a sound artist, with an urbanist, with any number of self-consciously grumpy PhD students. Beer with my brother, my father, former lecturers, and friends. Wine on the roof of a seafront apartment block, after an academic conference, shared with friends on a train. Honest conversations about the future, about family, responsibility, and adulthood in an absence of ready-made scripts.
Private security on campus, and friends on the wrong side of the Atlantic. Skype lag, power outages, and the weight of national borders.
A desk of my own.
The eldritch peaks and troughs of a theremin in the old police cells beneath Brighton town hall, and again, later, layered over field recordings of Arctic wind in the museum’s ice age gallery. A moment of clarity in the middle of an otherwise utterly overwhelming homecoming gig. Mallorcan bagpipes at an ethnomusicology conference. The thrumming of a flatmate’s electric guitar.
Digital photos of Google Maps, postal addresses, and Twitter DMs. Brunch in a diner in Dalston, then a walk along Regent’s canal. A live reading of Jose Luis Borges in a library conference room for Día de Muertos. Birdwatching at Birling Gap.
A stuffed bluejay and a squirrel with an ear trumpet. A fictional court case. The drawing of a fly in the men’s urinals at Amsterdam-Schiphol airport, both in itself, as something real, and again, later, as an illustration of ‘nudge’ theory.
The effervescent froth of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, watched, with colleagues, in a North Carolina movie theatre. One hundred episodes of The Good Wife. The second season of Enlightened; the fourth season of Arrested Development. The second episode of the second series of Black Mirror. Borrowed graphic novels. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour. Welcome to Night Vale. YouTube videos of someone else playing The Last Of Us. Bruce Sterling’s Distraction, read in a half-hearted attempt to ignore the turbulence on a night flight from North Carolina to London Heathrow, as the flight crew talked about David Bowie and danced in the aisle.
The reedy voice of David Willetts, UK Minister for Science and Universities. An incorrect bet on the outcome of the German elections. The ever-present ghost of climate change.
Misgivings, judgements, anxiety, stress and exhaustion. Grumpy emails sent and received. Procrastination. Insomnia. Failure to leave the house. Friends, new and old, who caught me as I fell.
28 American teenagers wandering, baffled, through a $1.2 million smart home. An Indian tourist visa. Christmas carols, e-cigarettes, and the internet-of-things. The sketchbook of a friendly Angeleno graffiti artist encountered at RDU.
Bitcoin sent to the wrong address, a dead mobile phone, and love for a standard issue Zimbabwe bush pump. An improvised Chinese hornet-killing flame thrower. The invisible, propositional contours of an anarchist innovation studies.
A photoshopped image of the author as Winston Churchill, pasted by an unknown student into a collaborative, live-authored spreadsheet. A pulvarised jet engine, spread upon the floor.
‘In contemporary discourse, private and public, technologies are habitually represented by “things”—by their most conspicuous artifactual embodiments: transportation technology by automobiles, airplanes, and railroads; nuclear technology by reactors, power plants, and bombs; information technology by computers, mobile telephones, and television; and so on. By consigning technologies to the realm of things, this well-established iconography distracts attention from the human—socioeconomic and political—relations which largely determine who uses them and for what purposes. Because most technologies in our corporate capitalist system have the legal status of private property, vital decisions about their use are made by the individual businessmen who own them or by the corporate managers and government officials who exercise the virtual rights of ownership. The complexity and obscurity of the legal relations governing the use of our technologies, abetted by the reification that assigns them to the realm of things—all of these help to create the aura of “phantom objectivity” that envelops them.’
– Leo Marx, ‘Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept’ (2010)