Friday, July 31, 2009

2 + 2 = 5

From the Pistols! Treason! Murder! soundtrack.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

I Am A Pilgrim

Lynsey and Friends, Glasgow, 2004

My short sequence of photographs, I Am A Pilgrim, has just been published in the online magazine 1:1.

Pilgrim was a project I started as an adjunct to Let Us Burn the Gondolas. Pilgrim consists of a series of 35mm colour slides, whereas Gondolas is primarily in monochrome; Pilgrim depicts friends and family, whereas Gondolas depicts strangers; and Pilgrim was confined to a short period of time, but an open-ended series of locations, whereas Gondolas is open-ended chronologically, but depicts a single location: i.e. Venice. In presenting Pilgrim, I included the original mounts together with the actual images to emphasise the fact that slides - as the product of a very particular, but now obsolete technology - have specific formal properties.

The principal subject of the photo above, Lynsey Wells (she's on the right), has a Franz Ferdinand song dedicated to her, which I mention because my photo was taken at The Chateau in Glasgow during a Franz Ferdinand concert.

(That isn't actually Lynsey in the video, although it's quite a good impression by the actress.)

Thanks to Guillermo Labarca for his invitation to submit to 1:1 magazine.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: The First Chapter

Pistols! Treason! Murder! begins as follows [you can read the entire first chapter, from which this passage is taken, for free, here]:

Gerolamo Vano died in mid-air, on a gallows, between the columns at the entrance to Piazza San Marco in Venice, the site of public executions under the Venetian republic. .... The place where Vano died is now an empty piece of sky, but if you stand between the columns and reach up—as high as you can—your fingertips might brush the spot where his kicking feet once passed, marking out an irregular spiral. Its limits were set by the arc of the rope from which he dangled, and its central, zero point was reached only when his body stopped moving.
What glory is there in a common good,
That hangs for every peasant to achieve?
That like I best that flies beyond my reach.

The final three lines are a quotation from Christopher Marlowe’s play The Massacre at Paris, which was published in an unauthorised, pirated copy in 1593, the year of Marlowe’s murder. Throughout Pistols! Treason! Murder!, many similar fragments of literary dialogue are intercut with the narration (as above), or with quotations from Vano’s surveillance reports.[1] Marlowe, Shakespeare and their contemporaries were also, of course, contemporaries of Gerolamo Vano, which might be reason enough to juxtapose their words, even if there were not striking similarities in tone and theme between the two kinds of source, as yesterday’s discussion of The Revenger’s Tragedy suggests. But I chose this particular quotation because it alludes to Tantalus, who was condemned by the gods to reach towards a goal that will always remain outside his grasp. It may also bring to mind the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden, whose fruit is attainable, but only at great cost. [2]

Juxtaposing this layered image with that of Vano’s corpse on the gallows is not entirely original: the same idea underlies the famous protest song, Strange Fruit. But is it Vano speaking here, overreaching himself fatally in his quest for power? Or are these words spoken by the narrator (also, perhaps, overreaching himself), to whom Vano is the elusive object of historical knowledge? The dual attribution – the words ‘belong’ both to Vano and to the narrator – also suggests a possible comparison between Vano’s relationship to early seventeenth-century political culture and my own relationship to early twenty-first century academic culture. Vano is not only my subject: he is my hero, my exemplar – and my warning.

It is also fitting that the first interpolated piece of dialogue in Pistols! Treason! Murder! (not counting the book’s title, which comes from The Revenger’s Tragedy, as I explained yesterday) is a quotation, not only from a play by Christopher Marlowe – who is compared directly with Vano in chapter 2 – but also from a play that only survives in a pirated copy, probably transcribed from scribbled notes taken by a member of the audience during a performance. As with the doubtful authorship of The Revenger’s Tragedy, the play text of The Massacre at Paris itself embodies the kind of garbled transmission and epistemological confusion that also characterise Vano’s surveillance reports. Indeed, the lines quoted here are virtually the only surviving fragment that rises above the level of clumsy doggerel.

One might reasonably ask whether it is realistic to expect the average reader to be aware of these multiple allusions, but this is the wrong question. It is a principle of good writing - and not only writing: design and illustration also - that it communicates its point directly and emphatically to the casual reader, but that it also rewards sustained attention with additional layers of meaning. In choosing quotations to intercut with my narrative, the rule was that they had to be explicable to anyone who knew nothing of their source, but that they also had to offer additional nuances to anyone who cared to check their original context (which is always referenced in the notes at the back of the book).

Thanks to Dan Hallett, who created the illustration above especially for this post.

[1] See the Design section of my website.
[2] The latter allusion is taken up more explicitly on the menu screen of the Pistols! section of my website.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: The Title

To celebrate the publication of the American edition of Pistols! Treason! Murder!: The Rise and Fall of a Master Spy by The Johns Hopkins University Press, I shall discuss various aspects of the book here over the next few weeks and months.

The title Pistols! Treason! Murder! is a quotation from The Revenger’s Tragedy, a Jacobean potboiler variously attributed to either Thomas Middleton or Cyril Torneur. I first read this play in 1987, in school, in Liverpool, as a set text for my A-level in Eng Lit. In 2002, when I was writing the early drafts of my book and looking for possible literary models, I discovered Alex Cox's ‘cyberpunk’ film version, starring Christopher Eccleston (pre-Doctor Who), which was set – obviously! – in a post-apocalyptic Liverpool. Of course contemporary Liverpool actually is post-apocalyptic, more or less, so for anyone who’s lived there the film's setting isn’t that much of a stretch.[1]

[Left: Christopher Eccleston as Vindice] Unfortunately, Frank Cottrell Boyce's film script alters the mock-hysterical, climactic line, ‘Pistols! treason! murder!: Help, guard my lord The duke!’, which, in the play, is uttered by the protagonist, Vindice, the titular ‘revenger’. Vindice is, directly or indirectly, responsible for the mountain of corpses littered all over the stage at the play's end, including that of the soon-to-expire duke in question (only recently elevated to the position by virtue of the murder of his father). The line might be described as ironic, except for the fact that ‘irony’ doesn’t really do justice to the Machiavellian perversity of the speaker’s intent.

Unlike Cox, I thought this exclamation – with its bug-eyed punctuation and its spiteful, gleeful subversion of the conventional pieties of both morality and generic convention – summed up the play perfectly, and was therefore the ideal motto for my book, whose protagonist has much in common with Vindice. The line is all the more appropriate in that that it comes from a play of doubtful attribution, a problem that also characterises much of the content of the surveillance reports written by my Vindice substitute: Gerolamo Vano, Venetian General of Spies.

It all looks rather cheap and nasty - but that's precisely the point. As Brecht would say, 'Crude thinking is the thinking of great men'.

[1] See here for Alex Cox’s thoughts on the play and film, and here for a review / discussion of the latter.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Giorgio Lotti, interior of the Misericordia with frescoes by Veronese, c. 1968-70

Giorgio Lotti, interior of the Misericordia, c. 1968-70

This image is from a polemical work by Giorgio Lotti entitled Venice is Dying, which was published in 1970, shortly after the record flood in 1966 had raised awareness of Venice's vulnerability. Lotti’s denunciatory rhetoric is emphasised by high-contrast, high-grain printing. I have chosen to reproduce this particular image because its subject is consistent with my own interests, but, in the context of Lotti’s book, it is atypical, since he rarely depicts fully defined spaces, whether interior or exterior. Instead, he isolates – one might say that he fetishizes – details of decaying statues and facades. There is no sense of a coherent urban space, because Lotti’s intent is to stress fragmentation and disintegration. The only photographs in which people appear - and also the only photographs in which the idea of community is invoked - are the final ones in the book, in which protestors are gathered together in a neutral space that can be depicted as detached from the urban fabric: that is, on the Grand Canal. I do not share Lotti’s pessimism, but more importantly, I do not agree with the basis of his critique. This image begs a number of questions, to which Lotti does not provide an answer. For example, where should Venetians install basketball courts, if not here? How should they inhabit their city, and make responsible use of it?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Photographic Views of the Forts of Venice, 1866

Austrian Fort 2

Austrian Fort 1

There ‘is now no ‘lonely isle’ in all the lagoons of Venice. Wherever you go, where once there were quiet little gardens among ruins of island churches, there is now a Sentinel and a powder magazine, and there is no piece of unbroken character to be found anywhere. There is not a single shore, far or near, which has not in some part of it the look of fortification, or violent dismantling or renewing, for military purposes of some kind or another. - John Ruskin writing to his father, 16 November 1851[1]

During the Austrian occupation of Venice, fortifications were built on many of the outlying islands of the lagoon. The two photographs above are from an album of prints created just before the Austrians withdrew in 1866 in preparation for the city’s annexation to the newly-created Kingdom of Italy. The album’s provenance is uncertain, but it was obviously made with the army’s co-operation, and may have been an official commission. With the troops about to depart, someone wanted evidence of their dispositions for posterity.[2]

The resulting images are quite unique in the Venetian context, although they bear a strong family resemblance to photographs taken by the employees of Matthew Brady’s studio during the American Civil War, or to photographs by Gustave le Gray of Napoleon III’s troops on manoeuvres in France in 1857. One difference from the work of Brady and le Gray is that none of the Venetian images commemorate individuals: they are all long shots in which the bodies of indistinguishable soldiers are distributed at regular intervals as a way of articulating the architecture of fortifications, or, in the background of the first example above, the space of an otherwise featureless impromptu parade ground. Indeed, the absence of individuation is precisely the point. These images are records of Austrian military power: apparently authoritative, but about to be rendered irrelevant by the fact of Italian unification.

Fifty years after these photographs were taken, the Lido was full of holidaymakers in bathing suits. One hundred years after that, there is now an association for preserving the remains of the forts as an aspect of Venetian heritage.

[1] Quoted in Sarah Quill, Ruskin’s Venice, 2003, p. 36.

[2] The album consists of 14 individual prints glued into a bound volume, which was until recently held in the collection of the Querini Stampaglia library in Venice. Several of its prints were reproduced in Immagini di Venezia e della Laguna nelle fotografie degli Archivi Alinari e della Fondazione Querini Stampaglia, exhibition catalogue, 1979 (a brief description of the album can be found on p. 94). In 2005, the album could not be located by the staff of the Querini Stampaglia when I tried to find it, so it is possible that the 1979 catalogue contains the only surviving evidence of its existence, just as the album itself contained the only surviving photographic evidence of the forts.