Creativity's Rainbow

By Benedict Seymour, 8 December 2009

- It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow


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Captain Thomas Powderdry was poring over the GPS mappings of the Russian front.

Since 2015 and the fourth Dip it had become almost impossible to get hold of decent kit. The merger of the DCMS and the Ministry of Defence had changed all that. Now Powderdry had access to the best that War could buy, and a brand new space of artistic endeavour.

‘Creativity is the best defence', as Commander Brulé had put it back in 2009: ‘A country of able bodies is better than a land of layabouts.' Such talk had seemed anachronistic then, yet somehow it had become the climate in which they lived.

Through the VewEm goggles Powderdry traced the movement of the flares and suddenly these lines from Apollinaire floated up into his mind:

Feu d'artifice en acier

Qu'il est charmant cet éclairage

Artifice d'artificier

Mêler quelque grâce au courage.

All that was long since dissolved, melted into the digital. But he could still catch a whiff of cordite, that first futurist pang lingering in the pixels. One rose explosion cited another until there was no original, only an infinite precession of fireworks and their lethal semblants. A perfect circle, mused Powderdry, like a serpent eating its tail or a ring of carbon atoms in a derivative of benzene. Or was it a spiral, each twist raising the precursor to a higher power? And which end up was up? Was he ascending into the heavens or racing toward the bottom of the night?

‘Ah, Powderdry, knew I'd find you in here. It's toxic out there this evening.' Lilo D'Aurevilly gestured to the door of the bunker through which she had just entered. ‘Toxic in here too', she added. ‘Fucking Chinese drywall. My lungs are bleeding!'

After the second Dip, The Olympic Media Centre was never completed – in the end they had to fall back on crowd-sourced commentary from unemployed journalists and the ‘Camcorder Nation' – ‘The world's first open source Olympics', they boasted. But the basement at least had been dug before the workers were deported. When Defence merged with the DCMS to form the Dept. of Culture Media & War, D'Aurevilly had been quick to seize the opportunity. The only cultural funds left were going straight to celebrating the project of ‘peaceful rearmament', and with the Olympics just an unpleasant memory, most of the artists who could get on board were lining up for a chance to hymn, or at least deconstruct, the new martial programme.

After the tendering scandal around the DCMW, the fourth great corruption scandal of Uncle Dave's second term, the subsequent creation of the Dept. of Sex, Sport and War had given D'Aurevilly a boost. Russo-French in origin, she had taken her mother's maiden name after the London community of ex-pat oligarchs fell out of favour. She had been rocking the aristoporn look for several years and blazed the trail for the New Objectification's authoritarian destructivist wing. Lady WarWar, they called her, and laughed at her Weimar/Brideshead/Neofolk fashion mash-ups. But the contract with English Apparel cemented her hegemony. She was the flavour of the month, and the month was something like August 1914.

‘Look at this Lilo,' cried Powderdry, ‘the Necrotoids seem to have reached Georgia. Either that or it's just a vernissage...?'

Powderdry lifted his goggles momentarily and gave D'Aurevilly a quick glance. He would have liked to sex her up over the warboard but there was too much going on and he was tired of fighting harassment suits.

'Could be, Tom. Or maybe they've got some real weapons this time?'

Powderdry and d'Aurevilly had done their homework; no one was as prepared as they were for this new field of operations. The whole creative schtick had never really appealed, too populist (for Powderdry), too nebulous (for D'Aure) but when the Destructive Cities programme was announced they were quick to see the angles. They easily beat out the competition, and were awarded a £2 million grant (almost £5,000 in pre-dip money) for research in the newly established area of devo-repro. It had to be matched with private scratch, of course. A couple of art-collecting oligarchs who'd snapped up the remaining British supermarket chain Budgenfield Testrose sprang for a further £45,000, and this was topped off with £100,000 from a ‘private' company. Saturnica, the ‘company' in question, now ran the UK public sector, but it was still nominally a commercial concern. The profits were private, the money was the taxpayers'.

As the Dept. of Sex Sport & War were demolishing the legacy housing on the Olympic site, the new destructive quarter was being inaugurated. Recycling some of the hoardings and sections of the blue fence, a new cordon militaire had been raised up around the empty pit of the media centre. A lead lined box was sunk deep into the earth and a concrete block some 20 feet thick lowered into place over it to form a bomb-proof bunker. The only way comms could come in or out was through Uncle Dave's bespoke Twitter channel, and everything was double encrypted to the highest wartime specifications. The prattle resembled the communications in Cocteau's Orphée, poetic in its vacuity. Only naffer.

D'Aurevilly had slid off her leather coat and was lounging resplendent in white dirndl and stockings. ‘I love you in those goggles, Tom', she laughed, taking in the tall figure as he leaned into the virtual panorama of the Russian front.

‘So beautiful', he murmured, palms moving over the plasmex warboard. He was locked into a Duchampian game that he alone knew the rules of. If indeed there were rules.

He had always wanted to create a game of his own. Not so much Debord's Game of War (board games bored him). Rather a perfect reenactment, the exact repetition of futurism's hubris. He would realise that which remained virtual in the first iteration. A futurism for a world which was eating its future, as the economy had devoured its securities.

If the fireworks looked pretty from a safe distance, how did they appear from the trenches? Apollinaire was mostly behind the lines. Powderdry was too, about 2,000 miles behind. The fireworks were the feu d'artifice of digital artificers. But the compulsion to restage that scene, to complete the futurists' bloodily botched wedding with nature was strong. The R-Gerät, the reenactment machine, could double and triple the wars of the previous century, and what its multiplication produced was a pristine subtraction, a hygiene the like of which had never been seen. Not one or two bombs, but a rhizomatic network of nuclear atrocities, a global acupuncture purging the planet of its painful surplus and resetting the game. It was the artist's role to reboot the machine, and Powderdry was ready for his historic task.

‘Shame they don't let you fire anything yourself, eh?' Lilo's caustic tone cut through his reverie. How unapologetically posh her voice seemed these days, the clippedness of the vowels a kind of provocation in themselves. She had dropped the trustafarian mockney of her youth. The mature D'Aurevilly was purged of proletariana. As the scum started to look like they might do something their charm quickly faded. Nowadays the talk was all meta-Mitford and porno-Riefenstahl, salon reenactments of Mosley's top speeches, styles of radical will. The Kibbo Kids were just the tip of the iceberg. Others abjured any form of socialist retro and instead talked of the need to tame the lower orders. A return to decency, hierarchy, and hard work for the hooded horde; the medieval virtues. Slavery was increasingly tolerated, with many hipsters adopting migrant love-work accessories as dogs became prohibitively expensive to keep. A man with many workers will soon be rich, a man with many servants will soon be poor, as Adam Smith had observed. A man with several Rumanian girlfriends will have something to fall back on when the graphic design work dries up.

‘You know you could probably make a fortune if you'd just do a range of furniture, spin something off', murmured D'Aurevilly, contemplating the collection of plasmex devices and imipolex objets clustered around Powderdry like phalli. ‘That's all they want at Frieze these days, you know. Research is so pre-dip.'

‘I'm not catering to the private market', said Powderdry. ‘It's all state subsidised anyway. The money is just a means to an end, and the end is nigh.'

Powderdry wasn't interested in furnishing the palazzi of the new Doges, he wanted a slice of the action up in the control tower. Or down in the bunker, to be more accurate. But War wasn't interested in giving them real weapons. Always the radical, Lilo had dreamed of the chance to command her own team of grunts, finally to walk through the fourth wall and onto the battlefield. She and Powderdry had fought ferociously over it. He and the aesthetes denounced her Destructivist position as sheer instrumentalism, calling for an altogether less practical interpretation of the new aesthetic economy. The art of war must be an art pure, they would beat the swords into ploughshares, turn the weapons into conceptually lethal but practically harmless toys.

Powderdry's idea was elegant and provided the common ground on which they both could work. If the games market had been a spin off from military technology, a ploughsharing of combat into culture, the new art form must be pointless combat with real effects. Their practice made perfect the segue from cultural to military economy. They would join in the march to war by miming the lockstep of Cameron's Commandos, but with a certain overemphasis, a kind of aesthetic goose-stepping that the art writers would perceive as a funny walk, a sly mimesis of the world's war-ward lurch. ‘Overidentification', as they used to say.

But Lilo knew that wasn't enough. They would take it further than irony, a final, total act of überidentification merging pastiche with veneration. To push weapons technology forward to a point of total fusion with the art object, undoing the distinction between creation and destruction, instrumentality and futility. The perfect weapon, the perfect work of art.

They would launch the rocket from here in the underground bunker below the old Olympic site. When the balloon went up, when the ashes settled over the ruins of St. Petersburg, forming a satellite image of entropic growth like Dust Breeding, they would hold the copyright on all future reenactments. Not that either of them expected the future to last very long.


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- Explosion first, then the sound of approach

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow


Up on the surface things were much more mundane. The press releases DCMW used to put out about the Destructive Cities project declared that demolition would bring new life to the post-bubble Barratt burbs. As ever, art would be the zest of a new urbanism, this time built around the eradication of old and useless tracts of housing, downwardly mobile condominiums and deserted malls. Destructive Cities promised to give the collapsing new buildings and sunken flagships of regeneration-past a helpful shove, folding all that fictitious froth back into the British soil. The (commercial) paper houses had never been meant to last in the first place. And in the empty spaces, the bountiful new blanks, they began to build a new breed of factories, not warehouses but warhouses. Staffed by the unemployed (though each was paid a nominal sum for compulsory attendance) this was ‘Not workfare but warfare!' as the jobschools put it.

The Pathfinder project – the programme for destruction of housing begun when the crunch was just a twinkle in the sub-prime eye – had been true to its name, a harbinger or pilot for the bigger programme. This was the unnamed attractor to which the artists were gravitating, consciously or unconsciously. Having served the cult of creativity, pawns in a game of real estate and digital money, they were now the vanguard of demolition. Matta-Clark and Smithson were their heroes, though some preferred Albert Speer with his preemptive ruins. Indeed many of them had joined the army as other sources of public sector funding dried up and restaurant work vanished. The shocktroops of gentrification were finally just shocktroops. This was a double dip avant gardism. The creative city would become the Raketen-Stadt, the Hacienda would be unbuilt.

The official cultural programme was all ploughsharing, dysfunctional weapons sent back from Iran and Afghanistan turned into public art and adventure playgrounds. State approved artists lower down the feeding chain in the ‘martially engaged' sector got their share of spent shells and mangled prototypes. But the source of this flotsam was not officially acknowledged in the government reports. The shadow factories dated from around the third Dip. They had begun to spring up in every former business park and ex-creative quarter, decommissioned loft conversions and livework spaces gone military-industrial. The TG logos were just to keep the hipsters hanging in there, but the overall mission was clear to initiates: to build the war machine, but keep it in its cultural chrysalis until the last moment, until everything was ready, until the new forces of creative destruction could be unleashed in earnest.

The media laid the ground without breaking the real story. Cover features about conscription in Monocle, warsex photoshoots in Vice, the CEO of American Apparel going down on a Latina marine in a double page ad (‘I support our girls in Iran! Revolution from below is not just a phrase with my new lycra bodybags and camo-panties...') – that was just the beginning. Soon the currency had pictures of heroically self-sacrificing warriors on every coin and idealised nudes on every (rapidly depreciating) note. Powderdry kept the first 50 pence piece with a soldier carrying his dying comrade on it as a memento of the tipping point. He kept the first ‘Jordan' (the retro pornstar nude on her deathbed, with a face value of £50) in case the internet succumbed to cable-saboteurs. From then on, war and porn would grow and intertwine like nucleotides in a DNA spiral. Ryanair would roll out the in-flight ‘personal services' and fast-track deportations, the budget for schools, hospitals and housing would plunge as the army grew tumescent with new destructive forces the like of which Powderdry had never seen. Sex was added to the whole culture like chilli to a dish of rapidly diminishing proportions. It filled out the absence with frisson, and numbed the pain of amputation.

Powderdry had been keen enough to get his share of the new militarised arts budget. The additional funding and higher grade tech provided the necessary tools for his practice and helped him cover the service charge on his crumbling brutalist high rise. But soon his residual liberalism had started to gnaw at him. Wasn't there something unethical about all this? It seemed ignominious to serve the state, the corporate-military machine. What of aesthetic autonomy? Yet if corporate was state and state was corporate, the distinction merely semantic after the socialisation of the debt, his own stagflation-withered trust fund made it clear he had no more choice than any of the other passengers of the EasyState. He must grasp the nettle or abandon his career.



So Powderdry had made his peace with war. Art would remain autonomous because, like a ballistic missile, it could only serve its masters for part of its trajectory. A bomb that flies straight, or a locative project where one immediately and efficiently destroys what one locates, is no fun. The whole interest is in the wavering, the way the weapon goes astray. Given the way the world worked these days it shouldn't be a problem to find a place in the command-control network where he could husband entropy. After all, artists were better at dysfunction – if the creative economy years had taught him anything it was that.

‘You're just a fetishist', Tom, snarled D'Aurevilly, jolting Powderdry out of his wardreams, 'A pervert hunched over a map of Armageddon as it unfurls in real time.'

But Powderdry didn't take the bait. He was silent, his whole attention captured by something on the screen. For a moment his body seemed to have frozen and merged with the plastic warboard.

‘Lilo', he started. ‘Lilo, come over here. There's something moving on the ground. A crowd...'

She jumped up and joined Powderdry at the screen. Luminous, faintly perceptible, a flood of bodies were rushing in to fill the square of no man's land. Hundreds maybe thousands of figures. Squinting, D'Aure watched as the individual motes surrendered their autonomy, yielding to a pattern at first obscure then increasingly explicit. The crowd was crystallising into a mass ornament, a choreographed calligraphy as sharp and clear as a molecular formula. Letter by letter the bodies formed into words, word by word into a phrase. D'Aure scanned the human sentence:

In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni

So it was too late. The Bellum Lettrists had beaten them to it. A strike, preemptive and surgical; bloodless, but a direct hit.

Still, this was nothing, nothing, Lilo told herself, compared to what they had in store. The greatest work of art of Lucifer would seem a damp squib compared to the Rocket's deadly script.

‘Read it,' she said, ‘and let them weep.'



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Benedict Seymour <ben AT> is a writer, film-maker and contributing editor to Mute

All images by Caroline Heron