Tag Archives: Britain

You know, actual curation

Patrick Keiller's 'Robinson Institute' at Tate Britain

Everyone’s going on about curation these days. We’re all curators now. But yesterday I witnessed some of the old-fashioned variety, the kind they do in art galleries, and I was blown away.

I took two of my kids to Tate Britain (four different modes of transport: train, tube, boat and bus – I suspect that’s what they’ll remember about the day). First I dragged them round Patrick Keiller’s ‘Robinson Institute’ which, in truth, was my main reason for schlepping across London (like I said, four modes of transport…). I love Keiller’s films (although I haven’t seen Robinson in Ruins yet) and I was really excited to see what he’d come up with in an art gallery. It’s a stunning exhibit – works from the Tate’s collection are brought together with passages from Keiller’s films, books, film stills and artefacts of his own (over 120 works in all).

This is curation as storytelling as art. The connections Keiller makes are provocative, funny, illuminating. Nineteenth century romantic and picturesque imagery (landscapes, landowner portraits, animal pictures) interleaved with documents of resistance to enclosure, maps, signposts and other inscriptions made by humans on the landscape. Also those Keiller signature images of mysterious and desolate scientific and military establishments and quite a lot of post-war conceptual art. And the persistent Robinson cosmic entrainment stuff is here: meteors, geological patterns, lay lines and other psycho-geo tropes. It’s magically done. A situationist people’s history. A visual poem.

And the designers have done simple things to parenthesise the content – the works are offset from the gallery walls in a kind of linear zig-zag that gives the choice a kind of scrapbook-feel. The Tumblr/Pinterest generation will get this. It’s a cheeky, delirious intellectual walkabout.

Next (after the compulsory visit to the cafe for cake, obviously) we walked through to the Clore Gallery and caught what I learn was the second-to-last last day of another beautiful specimen of the curator’s art. David Blayney Brown is the man behind the wonderful ‘Romantics‘, a show that mashes up the work of the Clore’s anchor tenant, JMW Turner, with that of his contemporaries to tell the story of Romanticism in a way that was hugely and pleasurably engaging for an art history pygmy like myself (I notice that the broadsheet reviews for the show when it opened nearly two years ago were pretty snooty about the accessible format – I think this kind of curation with a personality will put critics’ noses out of joint – it seems to be straying onto their territory).

This is (was, sorry!) a highly-visible kind of curation – opinionated and full of information about the period and the context. Big, assertive statements about the context and the work are printed in huge type alongside pictures grouped together in ‘pods’. It’s a really vigorous narrative, full of energy and ideas. I came away with a sense of the flow of events and the interaction of personalities that I’d never have got from the mute curation of the old school. Gripping storytelling about art.

And the whole experience (not the cake, obviously, or the boat) was a quite bracing reminder that this curation business is really not about pointing, in a sort of dilatory way, at stuff we like the look of (I called it ‘the curatorial twitch’ in an earlier post), but about the hard graft of assembling artefacts, information, context and inspiration to tell really important stories (see the previous post about Radio 3’s awe-inspiring week of Schubert output for an example of how to do this on the radio).

You may think you want the death penalty but you don’t have the stomach for it

Surveys suggest that a majority of ordinary Britons want a return to the death penalty for the most heinous crimes (this online poll on The Sun’s web site has 80% in favour). And, thanks to the government’s rules for e-petitions, our legislators may soon be obliged to debate the topic again. Some of them may even vote for it. I’m opposed to the return of the death penalty and I find the pop media’s pro-execution rhetoric to be chilling and inhuman but I’m certain that it will never happen. Britain just doesn’t have the stomach for the cascade of secondary decisions that we’d have to make in order for it to become law:

Who will do it? A court-appointed executioner? How about a group of ordinary citizens pressing buttons at home, none of them knowing whose button actually does the deed? Or the victim’s family? I’ll suggest that executioners are drawn by lottery from the list of people who’ve expressed support for the new law. That sounds logical: it surely can’t be OK to vote for the death penalty and expect someone else to despatch the condemned, can it? If there’s a chance that you’ll have to squeeze the syringe, will you still vote for it? And, once appointed, how will the executioner cope with the attention of the media? Will he or she be allowed to sell the story of the condemned’s last moments? Or will the law mandate anonymity? And what will happen the first time the family of an executed criminal brings a civil case against the executioner or the prison or everyone involved in the deed?

How will we do it? A lethal injection? Electrocution? Hanging? None has a great track record. None is humane. How will we decide? It’ll take a decade. High-tech solutions will be proposed (shot into the vacuum of space? Instantaneous robotic dismemberment? Nanoexecutioners?). The debate will rage. Campaigners on both sides will mount judicial challenges. It’ll be chaos and, as soon as the first horrendous screw-up happens, it’ll all start again.

Will we do it publicly and who will observe? I’ll argue that judicial killings should be streamed online from multiple angles (in 3D) and that a panel of ordinary citizens should be obliged to observe from close quarters – selected by the jury service process, perhaps.

And will a doctor be present? Someone will need to ensure good practice and certify death. Does the Hippocratic oath permit that? Will the BMA? And if they don’t, will rogue doctors show up to do the honours or will we have to create a new class of state-appointed ‘execution doctors’?

What will we do with the body? Will we consign the dead to a secure prison graveyard or permit shrines to arise in public cemeteries? How about mandatory cremation and scattering? Will we forbid elaborate funerals and celebrations of the lives of the wicked deceased?

What will we do the first time an innocent person is executed? Will the new law have provision for automatic compensation? Will executions cease while standards of evidence are examined and investigations reviewed? Could the death penalty actually survive a mistake? Or would we be back at square one?

And what about death row? Will there be a single, national facility (designed by a rockstar architect, perhaps, with an atrium) where the condemned work through their decades of appeals? Or will each prison keep a mini-death row of its own? Will the inhabitants be allowed access to the media, web sites, Twitter accounts? Will there be a reality TV show?

There are other questions: will we execute young people or people with learning disabilities? Will we execute mothers of young children? Will we execute foreigners? Will the new law require derogation from international human rights law? Will Britain become a pariah once it rejoins the club that includes all the most hideous regimes on earth (and the United States)? Will the first executions for nearly fifty years bring about civil unrest? Can a civilised state tolerate the introduction of state-sanctioned killing? Will it dehumanise us and our children? Will MPs even contemplate the prospect of another nasty and divisive debate about the grimmest of all subjects? Who will draft the bill, draw up the regulations, implement the policy? Will civil servants and prison officers who object be forced to implement the law? Will employment tribunals consider the dismissals of conscientious objectors? And so on. And so on. Like I said, we don’t have the stomach for it.

Googlification vs picklification

Before I get my teeth into the BBC Trust’s service review (I feel obliged to sooner or later) I enjoyed the collision of cultures (or contrast of cultures I guess) evident in two announcements made last week. In the first one Google announced that the company’s personal health platform thingie Google Health now works with medical records systems at various US hospitals (they started in Cleveland).

Obviously this is just another step in the advancing Googlification of Everything but it’s also interesting because of the way it contrasts with the second announcement, which was from mega-government IT contractor Fujitsu (which used to be ICL) that they’ve got into a terrible pickle and have finally had enough of the vast and (by the sound of it) out-of-control government IT disaster-in-the-making that is the NHS medical records system.

The former (Google and the hospitals) says: use light-weight, consumer-grade tools, put control in the hands of users and not administrators and concentrate on incremental methods, standards and interoperability. The latter (the £12 Billion NHS system) says: build grim, centralised and monolothic systems on a military-industrial scale, exclude open, incremental or agile methods because of your 1950s risk model and hope for the best.

So the big question is: how many of these epic, national-scale contracting disasters do we need to see before we change our approach and try building important national systems by assembling existing code and services in a smart, non-dogmatic way? My guess: at least another ten years. Contractors (BT In particular) are queuing up to replace Fujitsu in the NHS job because the money is just vast. A real web 2.0 type approach to the project would cost 10% of the bid price for the whole thing and would get dozens of executives fired.

In the meantime, I think everyone involved (at the NHS and Fujitsu at least) should read this fascinating presentation about the re-engineering of the BBC’s online identity system from Brendan Quinn and Ben Smith (thanks to Jem Stone for the link). To quote:

1. Each project must have a clear customer and a real benefit
2. Don’t repeat yourself
3. Be as simple as possible
4. Be as open as possible
5. Start simple, then iterate
6. Don’t optimise prematurely…
7. …but build to scale
8. Test often
9. Evolve
10. Let it die

If the BBC, which is a pretty big institution—although I’ll acknowledge it’s an order of magnitude smaller than the NHS—can build like this then the NHS could too. I wonder if there is any radical thinking of this sort going on there or is it life in the bunker for all concerned?