Women at Windows, New York City

 

ormond-gigli

“There were models, socialites, my wife (second floor, far right), the supervisor’s wife (third floor, third from left), all wearing their best dresses. I moved them around to spread out the colours and told them to pose as if they were giving someone a kiss. As I was photographing, I noticed some of them were on the windowsills. As these were made of cement and sometimes break off, I shouted at them through a bullhorn to stay within the frames.” ~ Ormond Gigli

Vertical Dancing

Apparently there is such a thing as “vertical dancing”. As far as I knew, pretty much all dancing is done vertically and I was all set to put vertical dance just below “short form journalism” in my list of Best Pointless Terms*. But it turns out vertical dancing is an actual thing and vertical refers to the surfaces on which the dancers perform. It may sound silly, but the effect is absolutely dreamy.

The dancers in this video are from a company called Bandaloop, pioneers in vertical dancing. A few years ago, Bandaloop came and performed in Delhi. They performed against the LIC building designed by Charles Correa, whose shiny surface gave each dancer a mirror image partner. I had no idea any of this had happened, but I did find a video (hooray for YouTube). I’ve no idea how much fun this would be to watch if you’re on the ground, craning your neck to see these seemingly Liliputian dancers dangling in mid-air. On video, however, it looks quite gorgeous. Particularly loved this solo piece:

You can see selected excerpts from their Delhi show here.

*Common sense suggests “short form journalism”** would be the opposite of “long form journalism”…for which, as a matter of fact, we already have a term. It’s known as “journalism”.

**I stand corrected. So “short form journalism” is one of the “new realms of the news and media landscape”, “challenging traditional news models and constantly redefining what news is.” Leaving aside the complicated business of mixed metaphors (how is a realm is challenging a model?), I now know what “short form journalism” is: scouring Twitter and Facebook for trending topics. It’s hard keeping up with the cool kids. 

Rest In Peace

The only thing ‘wrong’ with him was that his six pack wasn’t precisely aligned. When he took off his shirt, it looked like someone had sliced his stomach neatly down the middle vertically and then joined it carelessly so that the cut of muscle on the right was just a little above the left. Is that reason for someone to take their life? Or maybe it was the heartbreak. Except being dumped seems about as coherent a reason for someone to kill themselves as un-aligned abs.

She had her teeth “done” so that her smile didn’t look “out of whack”. Sometimes, her gums bled and she would be mortified by blood staining her teeth. She hated that she couldn’t feel when the red leaked out of her gums and stained her teeth. So with some of her friends, she’d invented a discreet little gesture that we were expected to do if we noticed her smile was taking on a vampirish edge. 

 

Two beautiful people who didn’t know each other committed suicide a few hours ago. They had nothing in common yesterday. Today they have one insignificant thing — me — and one critical detail — cause of death: suicide — connecting them. All of us, the living, we’re left remembering the times we thought we wanted to die. We’re trying to remember what stopped us, what kept us alive; and we’re wondering why something stopped us but didn’t stop him or her. We’re reading the letters they left behind and wondering how all these pages in which they’ve told us about the ones they’ve loved didn’t serve as reminders that would pull them back from the terrible brink at which they were hovering. We’re mourning them and judging them for having given up because that’s all the punishment we can think of for ourselves. We thought they were ok. That they needed a little more time. That they were being dramatic. We complacently thought that the human body is built and programmed to survive, not die. Not when you’re so young and you’ve got abs and the perfect smile.

Meanwhile, at 2am, there’s a delighted, noisy procession made up of a drums, trumpets, synthesisers and god knows what else playing loudly as a massive idol of Ganesha is brought into its fairy-lit lair for Ganesh Chaturthi. Ganesha who is also known as Siddhipriya, or the one who bestows wishes and boons, and Mrityunjaya, the one who conquered death.

The music has stopped. Ganesha’s home. I’m praying that the ancient Hindu sages were wrong when they said the souls of those who commit suicide hover between worlds, wandering with painful directionlessness as they work out how to pay off their karmic debts.

Now there’s silence and I find myself desperately hoping that there is peace and rest for the restless, both dead and alive.     

Made in Godus’s image

At the end of seven days of lording over a few hundred followers, I have to say I’m a rather benevolent god, even if I do say so myself. This isn’t entirely a delusion of grandeur. I’ve been playing Godus, a game that I was introduced to by a gamer friend who was somewhat aghast that I play Crazy City Taxi Rush on my phone before going to sleep. We will leave aside the question of why she thought that a game in which I would get to play god would be a neat fit for my personality. 

In Godus, you start off with one follower, whom you lead into a settlement where this follower, a Builder, is joined by another, a Breeder, and in this way, your congregation grows. Your job as a god is to ‘sculpt’ the earth to make it suitable for your followers, who go from building to farming and mining and probably a whole lot more, but I’ve only been god sporadically for seven days and as a result, I’ve some way to go before I reach omniscience. The most intriguing part about Godus is that you don’t really get a rule book, although there are vague rules. So god, it turns out, isn’t quite omnipotent. There are laws of nature and human whimsicality constraining one’s godly powers. The game guides you in certain directions, but the precise route you take through the landscape of Godus is, I think, distinctive to each player. The map of the world I’ve created doesn’t look the any of the other images I’ve seen while doing a cursory Google search. Which could, of course, mean that I’m playing it all wrong. But then again, I’m the god. My way’s the right way, dammit (at least in my world). 

The currency in Godus is belief, which is apparently a neon pink ball, and you collect it from every home and settlement that you help your followers build. You know how they say faith can move mountains? In Godus, this is literally true. Belief is the source of your power and it is with belief that you’re able to sculpt the land and yes, this can involve moving mountains. The challenge isn’t only to sculpt the land, but to keep your followers happy. So if a follower is ‘blocked’ (i.e. can’t find their way across the layers that make up the landscape), then you could flick at a bit of land and help them out. You can shower a little Rain of Purity over crops to make them grow faster. Drag a finger over a bit of land to beautify it, and it goes all sparkly, making your followers feel smiley-faced. If your followers aren’t happy, they will jump off a nearby cliff and swim across to the nearby Astari civilisation, which is made up of people who appear to wear brown paper bags over their heads.   

At the end of a week of playing the almighty, I have two observations. It’s bloody frustrating being god and there’s no pleasing your followers, some of whom are frequently stupid and infuriating. There’s no telling what will make these followers happy. I’ve given them some lovely real estate, cottages with sea views and/ or trees around them. I’ve sculpted paths over mountains to reach fertile land where they can grow wheat. I’ve put up a fountain, led them to temples and generally done my bit for these ungrateful wretches, but is that enough? Of course not. Their happiness levels are constantly climbing down as though their lives are miserable. You’ve got a green, clean planet! Fishies in the sea! A little lake! And you’re still moping?

photo

What would you do if you had to live in my world, with its traffic jams, depleting natural reserves and sky-rocketing levels of air pollution? You think you’re sad, you little geometric person in a blue or biscuit-coloured tunic? (Builders wear blue and Breeders wear biscuit.) Imagine showering and realising that half the hair on your head is swirling along with your bathwater because even the dead cells that make up human hair can’t handle the grubbiness in the air.

Self-pitying little sods, holding their arms up in the air in despair every other second, for no reason whatsoever. 

What’s most frustrating about being god, however, is that there’s a critical mass of followers who just don’t appreciate or see the work I’m doing for them. For instance, I’ve sculpted a perfectly decent path from Jopville, a farming settlement in the plains, to the wheat fields that are a little higher up, on a mountain. They’ve literally got to walk in a straight line to reach the fields. Simple, right? It is for most of my 800-odd followers, but not for Ms. Lianne Baker. Every time I open up Godus, within seconds, I get a little notification telling me I’ve got a blocked follower and it’s always Lianne, a farmer from Jopville who clearly was made in my own image because she’s outstandingly bad at finding her way around the place. Whether she’s going back to Jopville or to her field, Lianne will lose her way, despite having done this commute repeatedly for many weeks (time moves faster in Godus, so a day is a few minutes long).

The first couple of times Lianne stood at an edge, throwing her hands up in the air, I felt bad for her. So I sculpted not one but TWO alternative paths to her field. I’d flick a bit of land to nudge her in the right direction when she was on her way home. It didn’t help. She’s committed to losing her way and wandering around like a doofus. She’ll be standing just a few feet away from Jopville and will claim to be blocked. EXCEPT I CAN SEE THAT IT’S A STRAIGHT ROAD TO JOPVILLE. SO CAN EVERY OTHER FARMER IN YOUR BLOODY VILLAGE. JUST FOLLOW YOUR STUPID NOSE, LIANNE, AND YOU’LL BE HOME! But no, she’s going to waddle around in the opposite direction and then claim she’s blocked. Or when she’s exactly three steps away from her field, Lianne will, for some reason, turn in the opposite direction and climb uphill instead of walking down. She will actually defy gravity, not see the path in front of her and make her life infinitely more difficult. It’s imbecility that borders on genius, with “borders” being the key word.

The other day, I decided to ignore Lianne’s pleas. I know the solution is staring at her in the face, so really, I’ve done my bit, I rationalised. It’s up to her to find it. I can’t do much more than give her a straight path home and two different ways of reaching her work destination. 

That night, at a rather ungodly hour, I found myself wondering if the gods — presuming, of course, that they exist — do to us what I’ve done to Lianne. By which I mean, wash their hands off us when we’re acting like idiots because they figure there’s only so much they can do when faced with obstinate insistence to not see what’s staring us in our faces. I kept remembering the little figure of Lianne Baker, wandering around, determined to get lost and refusing to see what’s in front of her, and I thought of myself. Not because I’m self-obsessed (well, only slightly), but because I’ve been feeling all growly of late. A lot seemed to be entirely out of whack, from details like how little I’ve read in the past few months to the much larger problem of how alarmingly meh my writing is becoming. The point at which the only thing going for a sentence is the fact that it’s grammatically correct is, well, not a good point, but that’s where I am at the moment and it’s not comforting. 

While the buildings outside my window turned a paler shade of darkness in twilight, I gave myself a pep talk that night. I laid out my problems and my options like tarot cards. I can’t tell my future, but I did take a long, hard look at my present. It helped me remember why I made the choices that are now making me snarl and sniff from time to time. I remembered why I turned away from certain things; I remembered some things that I’d forgotten were within my reach.  

The next time I logged on to play Godus, within seconds, there was a notice telling me a follower was blocked. I knew it was Lianne even before I tapped on the icon that would show me which follower was blocked. Lo and behold, it was indeed Lianne. She was wandering, again. I didn’t do anything to clear her path. This time when I saw her, I had the niggling suspicion that Lianne was quite deliberately losing her way. She will find her way to her field because that’s her job and she knows she’s got to do it. But she’s looking for something beyond that field and looking down at her little figure, roaming the place, seemingly aimlessly, I believe she’ll find whatever it is she’s looking for, even if it means wasting time (that could be used for constructive work) upon getting lost and frustrating her benevolent, not-entirely-invested god.  

WheredoIendandyoubegin

Where do i end sign Old Royal High 001

Where do i end sign Old Royal High 005

Shilpa Gupta, WheredoIendandyoubegin, 2014. Installed at Royal High School, Edinburgh

The beauty of Shilpa Gupta’s text installations, particularly the ones she’s been making using light, is that they seem so darn simple. An uncomplicated sentence or phrase, written in neon — that’s all it is, on the face of it. Often, the complexity in these works appears to be in the logistics. Like, for instance, getting permission to install a work of public art in Mumbai.  Or fabricating something with the split-flap display that we usually see in announcement boards in airports. For me though, I know the work is good when the phrase or sentence that she’s written out refuses to be forgotten. They settle in and suddenly, they seem relevant to a host of situations. You start finding they apply to all sorts of things, from mundane moments in your life to the news that’s reaching you about the world at large.

One of my favourites is Somewhere Else. The first time I saw “TRANSMITTING SECRET MESSAGES”, my heart stopped for a moment. Maybe it was the fact that it looks like an airport announcement (or maybe I really do have terrorist tendencies, as my mother has maintained for decades), but I thought 9/11. Then I thought of all the film that have that grand romantic finale in Grand Central (let us ignore the fact that my mind smoothly leapfrogs from terrorist attack to boy and girl snogging in reconciliation). Then I thought of John Le Carre’s George Smiley. It went on and on. “Transmitting secret messages” and the sound of the clattering split-flaps in Somewhere Else pops up at the most unexpected moments.

I don’t know if WheredoIendandyoubegin will prove to linger quite as persistently, but it looks rather beautiful, perched atop that ye olde building in Edinburgh. The neon makes it visually spectacular against a darkening sky. But it’s not just how striking this work is as an image. That line, flickering between statement and question, has stayed with me for the past two weeks. In a world that’s increasingly connected through networks that aren’t tangible but are nevertheless very strong, that sense of being woven into many lives is something that’s true for so many of us. Secrets are shared between strangers, information is shared between familiars you may not recognise if you bumped into them on the street. We carry so much of other people with us just because they’ve shared parts of themselves online. On a completely different note, I also remember reading about Gaza and Shilpa’s line flashing in my memory. Where indeed does one end and another begin in that part of the world, where violence and trauma are phoenixes that keep rising out of their ashes?

Shilpa told me that she’d come up with the line when she was pregnant, which I found sweet and intriguing because not for the life of me would I have connected it to pregnancy. Here’s the weird part though: I showed the photos that I’ve put up above to a colleague and the line immediately made her think of a mother and her child. When I told my colleague that it made me think of Gaza, she was shocked. “It’s such a pretty picture and such a beautiful line about togetherness!” my colleague wailed. “Why would you think of a war?” I pointed out that she hadn’t thought of a particularly happy-happy-joy-joy phenomenon. Pregnancy and childbirth are bloody, violent stuff.

My colleague has since concluded that I don’t possess a biological clock at all.

Whether or not that is true, it turns out that my description of pregnancy is actually pretty scientific. This fascinating article actually describes pregnancy as a “war in the womb”.

When scientists tried to gestate mice outside the womb, they expected the embryos to wither, deprived of the surface that had evolved to nurture them. To their shock they found instead that – implanted in the brain, testis or eye of a mouse – the embryo went wild. Placental cells rampaged through surrounding tissues, slaughtering everything in their path as they hunted for arteries to sate their thirst for nutrients. It’s no accident that many of the same genes active in embryonic development have been implicated in cancer. Pregnancy is a lot more like war than we might care to admit.

We don’t know enough about the workings of pregnancy, but from the little we do know, pregnancy seems a bit like Alien and Species all rolled into one.

Cells from the invading placenta digest their way through the endometrial surface, puncturing the mother’s arteries, swarming inside and remodelling them to suit the foetus. … These foetal cells are so invasive that colonies of them often persist in the mother for the rest of her life, having migrated to her liver, brain and other organs. There’s something they rarely tell you about motherhood: it turns women into genetic chimeras.

I’m not entirely sure what it means to be a “genetic chimera”, but it doesn’t sound like a good thing. The ancient Greek chimera was not a happy puppy. (Primarily because she wasn’t a puppy at all, but a creature with a lion’s head, a serpent’s tail and a goat’s body. That’s quite a menage a trois.)

According to the article, “about 800″ women die of complications arising from pregnancy or childbirth every day. No wonder it takes most people a while to get pregnant. It’s just a woman’s body trying to protect itself.

That’s not all.

Genomic imprinting, and the maternal-fetal battle behind it, have been shown to account for gestational diabetes, Prader-Willi Syndrome, Angelman Syndrome, childhood obesity and several cancers. Researchers suspect that it may also underlie devastating psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism.

Good bloody grief.

Suddenly, “wheredoIendandyoubegin” starts sounding rather sinister, rather than sweet. The lack of gaps adds a certain ominous quality — the security of the no man’s lands between the words is gone. It’s all coming out in a rush. The line of light is a beacon in the darkness and with that article swirling in my head, it’s now as menacing as it is beautiful.

I need some chocolate now.

(If you have the stomach for it, the entire article is here. Highly recommended. There’s little more on WheredoIendandyoubegin in The Scotsman.)