Short Films that will blow you away, and other thoughts on The New Scientist afternoon at Sci-Fi London

bg_headerI can’t remember the last time I was blown away by a short film — actually I can, because it was Robots of Brixton which if you don’t know you should watch immediately — but one of the sets of shorts at the afternoon hosted by Simon Ings of the New Scientist had some of the best things I have seen in ages. Like this:

The Centrifuge Brain Project from Till Nowak.

Nothing beat this short for laugh-out-loud, jaw-dropping, fear-of-heights-induced-eye-covering and thought-provoking action. I think it might have been a mistake to open with it, because nothing else quite lived up to its awesomeness.

SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe (Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene (2014)) did come close, as the enjoyable film is only the tip of the iceberged project of much deeper, more amazing, and a longer concentrated effort.

It’s an exploration of the past, of the Mexican Revolution and its use of the railways in armed uprising, of the birth of villages along the route where the trains needed to take on more water and coal, of the history of nationalisation and then decay — an exploration of all this things through the physical landscape using a special earth-and-rail-running vehicle crafted as a space exploration probe, collecting stories and interviews along the way.

I am filled with unbearable loss that I could not be part of such a amazing thing that brings together the social, cultural, political, physical nature of hopes for the future and their ruins. I look forward to exploring it at length.

The three other shorts that followed were all enjoyable and thought provoking. Growth Assembly by Daisy Ginsberg and Sacha Pohflepp (2009) explores the potential of engineering new commodities to be grown as plants (products will no longer be shipped, only seeds which then can be grown) through the use of seven different plants to create a herbicide sprayer — an obvious irony I know, but this is clever. Studio Swine’s Hair Highway looks at the uses of human hair in unexpected ways, beautifully done. The final one, Magnetic Movie by Semiconductor shows the wonder of magnetic fields around us, and they are wondrous indeed.

A few other shorts stood out, making me worry that I do not spend enough time seeking them out. Like The Afronauts by Cristine De Middel (2013) about Zambia’s space program, and The Moon by Pavel Klushantsev (1965) about all the things humans will build on the moon once we get there, you don’t need to speak Russian to understand its awesomeness. The other films, however, were more artistic and ranged from actively annoying to vaguely interesting for a few seconds and then boring making you wish they were even shorter — reminding me of why in fact I don’t like most shorts. I was bit embarrassed to laugh at the man kicking the robot dog for example. Still, 7 brilliant ones I had never seen made up for the rest.

Discovering things like this is why I love eclectic afternoons put together like this one, exploring the Science Fiction Future. It had opened with a lovely keynote from Alastair Reynolds, who I confess to not having read but that shall be remedied. I love Gerry Anderson references and space, the call for a critical SF that retains a sense of fun, but that also engages with the world and goes beyond shiny gadgets (but keeping shiny gadgets because let’s face it, they are SO cool). But what most made me think was a comment that obviously referred back to the whole sad puppy debate in the US, the efforts of right wing and exclusionary people to control and define the genre. He noted that all of this was a spillover from the American Culture Wars but that it was having global effects. All my academic work has been looking at race and the city, the physical and concrete aspects of these culture wars that I argue underpins them — the awfulness of that impacting on world culture hit me like a blow. How much more vital that we understand it, do what we can to fix it though sometimes I despair of that.

The first panel on Museum exhibitions and ‘Unreliable Evidence’ contained Doug Millard, who talked about Russian space exploration and the upcoming exhibit at the Science Museum which I am looking forward to immensely. But then there was the Lost in Fathoms project, shown at the GV Art gallery — an exploration of the sudden disappearance of the fictional Nuuk Island. The pictures were nice, the thought of standing in the rift in Iceland and touching two continental plates amazing. Still, the anger such an abstracted look at climate change, geological shiftings, oceanographic explorations (all those glass containers of water from around the world, collected at different depths. What a great use of collaboration with the oceanographic international community!) runs fairly deep. Possibly because the oceans are rising, causing the non-fictional loss of entire islands, their states, their people forced to seek new homes. Possibly because sands are spreading causing desertification, similarly forcing people from their ancestral lands and contributing to instability and violence in places like Mali, Chad and Nigeria. Such luxury and privilege to ignore these things, what a message that in itself sends.

I was also a bit puzzled about the field of fashion forecasting, though I did rather like the idea of fashion as clothing that has been mediatised, narrativised.

The second panel also had moments of deeply interesting ideas and a lot of moments without…Pat Kane’s giant head on skype from Glasgow was very charismatic though surprisingly academic. I really enjoyed thinking about the opposition between the politics of nudge and behaviour modification, and the politics of play. The one controlling and patronising, the other seeking to create spaces of openness. I would love to help create this world where play is respected, where shorter work weeks and citizen’s wages allow more time for us to explore our worlds, to honor our efforts to create meaning, to engage with the physical world around us and to have autonomy in how we do that. This is what is needed for a full life, and I think we should demand it.

Sadly no one else really engaged in this call for a revolution in our political economy.

I will, however, be checking out the game Ingress, that creates a virtual game reality layered on top of the city. That sounds cool.

At this point our heads were full, and if revolution wasn’t on the table (which it didn’t seem to be) we were pretty done with this programme. It was nice to share a room with so many people though, giving up a Saturday afternoon to explore things like this.

Sci-Fi London still has a few days left, check it out.

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