Heatwave in the City

 The city had been smoldering for days. All that concrete, all that asphalt, all those stones - absorbing and compounding the heat. All those damned cars adding hot fumes to the hot air.

Those city dwellers who hadn't escaped to the seaside, stayed inside, motionless behind drawn curtains. Only a few masked people dared to venture outside.  One felt infinite gratefulness for any tree offering some shade, for any bush of roses, however lonely,  able to conjure up visions of the Provence in an overheated brain.

But then, at last, the wind picked up and rain started pouring down.  One could almost hear a city wide  sigh of relief,  everybody throwing wide open their windows - in all streets and neighborhoods, from  cramped basement flats to lavish lofts.     


The Sea! The Sea! (or : Escape from an overheating city)

There's more boulevard than sea, in this most urban of seaside towns. But the lines are dizzying - vanishing, whether sinuous or straight, whether earth bound or swirling in the sky. And the light, ah the light - benignly golden in the evening, from a sun  hovering between sky and sea, after a day of mercilessly beating down on us.  

Rain at last - vaporizing on the hot tiles - saturating the air with water. Cooling tempers and soothing frayed nerves. What a strange summer it is, with a heatwave compounding the sense of being trapped.    

Splendour & Insecurity (1)

Through an open window a saxophone pleads wistfully – a sultry sound so well suited to the quiet streets of a city slowly emerging from its lockdown. This day in May feels like a lazy sweltering day in high summer. Restaurants & cafés are still closed – there are few cars. Some people are strolling about aimlessly, or sitting on benches, talking quietly (mostly keeping their distance and often wearing masks), or patiently queuing for a shop, forming lines of people standing still, at 1.5 metres apart. 

This Spring has been strangely splendid – pouring out sun light and bird song as never before, in a quieted down, limpid city.  This Spring has been strangely insecure, with a permanent sense of dread.  
The ever optimist and resolute colleague at work casually mentions at the end of a conference call on Friday “on attend les résultats du test pour ma mère – mas je ne pense pas que ce soit covid , ça fait déjà 3 semaines qu’elle traîne cette bronchite “.  And on Monday you hear her mother died in hospital.

The woman at the bakery shop is as friendly as ever, but she looks tired and her tone is subdued.  “it’s difficult, it’s very difficult – many of our clients are simply gone -  the students, the office workers buying sandwiches – they’re all gone now, at home.  On espère qu’ils vont revenir. On espère pouvoir tenir encore quelques mois”.

While the city slowed down, the parks were lavishly full - of the lushest greens and of so many people joyously skating, cycling, jogging.  And now, people are already eagerly returning to their lives after the easing of restrictions, enjoying whatever is again permitted. (as to myself, in a single week I happily managed to put in a visit, duly masked, to the bookshop, the classical music shop and the old masters museum).
But in the longer run,  frankly, I’ve no idea how fragile or how resilient “we” (our world, our generation, our society) will prove to be.

I don’t know whether history can be a guide here.  In art & music historical terms I‘ve always been astonished by the prevalence of hardship & pestilence in the most glorious art periods – perplexed by this enduring human capacity to paint, write, sculpt and compose works of lasting beauty amidst  plagues & wars & upheaval.  

Was it because the elite (patrons and artists) in those times were relatively shielded from hardship? Or was it rather because of their sheer helplessness in the face of disaster – they could not but  long for another world, they could not but believe  in transcendence, which made the pursuit of beauty and harmony (ad maiorem gloriam dei) worthwhile even (or especially) in the darkest circumstances. 

Our age is so different.  Perhaps we seek less solace in escapist flights of the mind, in creations of great beauty because we feel empowered to analyse and act rationally, because we trust in science and technology and entrepreneurship to improve our material lot.  Maybe, perhaps.

 Fragments from past months’ reading :  

1. The juxtaposition of “Splendour & Insecurity” (as hallmark of a sophisticated yet anguished civilisation) was found in Runciman’s book on Byzantine Style and Civilisation

2. From a book on Titian (Filippo Pedrocco)
« An awareness of impending death weighs heavily on the paintings Titian was working on in the summer of  1576, when Venice was devastated by a terrible plague which was to kill his favorite son Orazio [and himself]» 

3. From a book on Byzantium (Steven Runciman):
«There were ghastly visitations of the plague : the Black death in 1346 killed probably a third of the population of Constantinople.» 
«Against this background of foreign invasion and civil war, of plague and poverty there flourished in Constantinople a civilisation more brilliant than any that Byzantium had known before.» 

4. From a book on the Franco-Flemish Polyphonists (Paul Van Nevel)
« De pest richtte tussen 1438 en 1439 een ravage aan in de Kamerijkse gebieden, waar soms tot tachtig procent van de bevolking bezweek aan de epidemie. De beroemde polyfonist Jacob Obrecht stierf in 1505 onverwacht aan de pest, net als zijn collega Alexander Agricola. In Amiens, de hoofdstad van Picardië, moesten de kerkhoven uitgebreid worden, omdat ‘les gens se moeurent si soudainement comme du soir au matin et souvent plus tost ” » 

« The plague wreaked havoc in the Cambrian areas between 1438 and 1439, where sometimes up to eighty percent of the population succumbed to the epidemic. The famous polyphonist Jacob Obrecht died unexpectedly of the plague in 1505, just like his colleague Alexander Agricola. In Amiens, the capital of Picardy, the cemeteries had to be extended because “‘les gens se moeurent si soudainement comme du soir au matin et souvent plus tost ”»

Time will tell

"At the beginning of the 7th century, the Mediterranean world is in crisis. The pax romana is a distant memory. The invasions, epidemics and wars have undermined the economy, discredited the values ​​of yesteryear and generalized the disarray. Everyone withdraws into the safety of their own community, behind their walls, under the aegis of local potentates. This general decline paves the way for millenarianism. (1)"

In times of upheaval I find it good practice to withdraw quietly in a room, reading a history book - far from raging viruses, be they biological or digital.

But while historical distance may put into perspective the issues of the day, it is not a sure recipe for Olympian calm. Because history abundantly shows that humankind is not that good at managing crises.   So one still needs to comfort one self: we do are better equipped now, aren’t we – with our immense progress in science, in technology. And we do have collectively become more rational, haven’t we?

Taking the historical perspective, one also wonders about the future: what collective conclusions will we draw in due time? Which societal weaknesses will have been exposed?  Which regimes will have proven to be better able to cope?   
Will democratic market economies driven by economic self-interest turn out to be better or worse at managing a collective crisis than centrally planned autocracies?  

Time will tell.

A bookish note:

  1. Pascal Dayez-Burgeon – “Byzance la Secrète” :  one of the best books on Byzantium I have read – telling its story not only as an allegory on the tragedy & transience of power, but also showing the significance of its history, the enduring meaning of how it had organised and represented itself. Not just a vanquished empire, not just a lost civilisation without heirs, but a  1000 years story we can still engage with. 
  2. Original French:
“Au début du VIIième siècle, le monde méditerranéen est en crise. La pax romana n’est plus qu’un souvenir. Les invasions, les épidémies et les guerres ont sapé l’économie, discrédité les valeurs d’antan et généralisé le désarroi. Chacun se calfeutre dans sa communauté, à l’abri de ses murailles, sous l’égide de potentats locaux. Ce repli généralisé est propice au millénarisme.”


Finding our bearings in a mass of data

Ach, who doesn’t wonder from time to time what will remain?  Not just of our individual selves, but rather of what we value, not just of an individual life, but of an entire age with its struggles & beliefs.

Anyone with some interest in (art) history, knows how sheer material contingencies play a crucial role in the survival of cultural artefacts and texts. (1)  The choice of supporting material (stone or organic), a wet or a dry climate, quality of varnish, …  And on the immaterial side – how transient fame can be, how difficult to predict the continued consideration felt for a tradition, or the continued belief in a metaphysically sanctioned message. 

Now, what will still be understood of our digital age, say, 1000 years hence? What posterity will there be for our massive collective,  distributed effort to digitize everything, to put “everything” on line – from fleeting private expressions to commercial banalities  - from a garish dark web to edifying massive online courses,  to scientific networks … 

What will happen with the ever swelling mass of digital data stored on numerous servers? (2) Will all data that haven’t been accessed for some time, at some point be systematically deleted?  (just as even so-called perpetual cemetery plots are finite, if no one renews the lease). Will there be an artificial intelligence able to make sense of the gigantic mass of data? Will “history writing algorithms” assess historical relevance of data based on numbers of views and followers?  So that a make-up video tutorial on YouTube or a contagious 15 sec goofy dance on TikTok will be considered as emblematic for our age?   

In the early days of internet much was made of its encyclopedic scope  - it was compared to a universal library accessible to all, hyperlinking everything  and easily searchable through search machines.  But since no single human is able to digest it all, on the internet the individual mind is  easily outdone by "big data" crunching algorithms. Will artificial intelligence create some sort of new collective mind, a "mind of the hive"?  (Not a coincidence that there’s an AI company called Hivemind).  

How different the 21st C Internet of everything & everyone is from a library purposefully built by erudite and sensitive individuals.  How different the Internet is from the 20th C archetypical library: the Warburg Library;  made up of pictures  & books obsessively brought together by an individual reflecting mind,  continuously seeking meaning, establishing affinities & correspondences between historical images.

 venir en aide à l’historien d’art qui a perdu ses repères dans une masse inerte de données  […] leur donner un sens dans le contexte de l’histoire de la culture […] Warburg n’avait pas de méthode, mais il avait un message » (3)

«  que l’histoire de l’art importe encore non pas en tant qu’accumulation de faits, mais en tant que témoignage des souffrances et des triomphes de l’humanité » (4)

In order to find their bearings in the massively accumulated data, future (art) historians will need the help of algorithms with superior data-digestion capabilities. 
But how could we expect from algorithms to understand the meaning - the aesthetic, moral and emotional meaning -  of the data they crunch?  
How will they be able to convert these big data again into testimonials that at some point in the future might still appeal to organic specimens of humankind?

Artificial Notes

  1) some figures  & thoughts on book production and survival, from “CrossRoads – travelling through the Middle Ages” by Marco Mostert :  

“from the sixth through the eighth century some 67.000  manuscripts were produced in the Latin West […] From the entire eighth century less than 2.000 manuscripts (or fragments) have survived”
 The cost of making books was high so  the early-medieval manuscripts that have come down to us all represent considered decisions to make a copy of a text or to write a text […] That is why every manuscript book from this period is worth studying."

(picture from Wikipedia page with list of key works of Carolingian illumination

2) some figures & thoughts  on 21st C “content production” : “As of May 2019, more than 500 hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute. This equates to approximately 30,000 hours of newly uploaded content per hourwww.statista.com. “More than 95 million photos are uploaded to Instagram every day.” “More than 1 billion videos viewed on TikTok every day”  . 
The trend may be versus more ephemeral social media (such as snapchat, instagram stories)  with eg  programmed deletion of content after it has been viewed – that would help stop the exponential  growth in saved data. 

  3) quoted from the  French translation of Gombrich’s book “Aby Warburg – Une Biographie intellectuelle”.
Translated again into English by an algorithm – which doesn’t understand the meaning of language but is uncannily competent all the same : “to help the art historian who has lost his bearings in an inert mass of data […] give [the data] meaning in the context of the history of culture […]  Warburg had no method, but he had a message “ 

  4) “ that art history still matters not as an accumulation of facts, but as a testimony to the sufferings and triumphs of humanity (also translated by ab algorithm)

Echoes & Affinities (uncovering voices)

Worn out by the day I leafed absentmindedly through the evening paper (1) – with no expectation whatsoever to find there anything remotely soothing or uplifting (2).

 Even before registering the title of the article, the accompanying picture stimulated some optical & memory nerves in my drowsy brain - 4 people standing upright with arms around each other’s shoulders, exchanging gazes : up popped the association with that sculpture of the late Roman Tetrarchs’ embrace, projecting outward harmony in a threatening world. 

An incongruous association (3) so it turned out, when I read the article. Far from being a nightmarish last stand in the face of danger, it was about a truly collaborative initiative from the four nominees for the Turner art prize:  forming a collective in order to become together “the winners”.   

 It made me smile –  a subversive part of me was cheering, happy for once to get the better of my rational self who has been conditioned into admitting that competition can spur people on to excel (2).

 The next morning, waking early and looking for something fortifying in order to brace myself for the day, I turned again to the picture of the "4 winners". I looked them up on the web and soon got fascinated by what I found on Helen Cammock, and more particularly on a recent work of hers: “Che Si Può Fare” (What can be done) - which gets its title from a cantata written by Barbara Strozzi, a Venetian baroque composer.  

 I’m moved when hearing Cammock explain in a video how her projects are about “uncovering voices” and I cherish this particular coincidence. In fact I first read about Barbara Strozzi only a few months ago, in a book on Venetian music (4) , and have been listening to some of her songs &lamento's    (5) over the past months. 

Reading on in the interview with Cammock, I feel grateful for her words on “laments”, which somehow restore the dignity of all those who feel defeated, struggling with loss and longing.

 I think what I  was looking  for was an understanding of lament being about loss and longing – but also resilience and resistance - lament as survival strategy, lament as strength”  

  uncovering hidden notes

  1.   looking back to 2019,  I can note with satisfaction that I managed to curb my day long digital overconsumption of the world’s real time calamities & banalities – finding mostly that reading old news in the paper in the evening  suits me well enough
  2.   it’s  a matter of increasing alienation from a world characterized by competition & consumption and by unmediated sentimentality instead of shared meaning & beauty – well, there it is, my hushed lament
  3.  unless my subconscious pattern seeking mind was associating the  late Roman empire’s transformation with the current predicament of  a fraying traditional western world?
  4. "De klank van de stad - Een cultuurgeschiedenis van Venetië", Eric min & Gerrit Valckeneers    
  5. thanks to the young woman at my favourite classical music shop, la boîte à musiquewho, with infinite grace and erudition, delves up CD’s with even the most obscure music