Richard Powers, in the early 1980s, was working as a computer programmer. Upon seeing August Sander’s photo Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, he quit his job, lived off savings and wrote his first novel, Three farmers on Their Way to a Dance. Thinking this would be pretty much his only opportunity to write freely, after which he would have to return to the workforce, he crammed pretty EVERYTHING he knew into it. 


It contains three intertwining narratives:

  1. Our narrator encountering the photo for the first time, spurred on to discover what is happening inside it, the relations between the subjects along with their relationships with the photographer and the outside world, their relationships with the viewer, the reader. In this thread, we are taken on and implicated in essayistic tours of history and photography, philosophy for and reconstruction of the twentieth century: “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, 1914. The date sufficed to show they were not going to their expected dance. I was not going to my expected dance. We would all be taken blindfolded into a field somewhere in the tortured century and made to dance until we’d had enough. Dance until we dropped.”
  2. A reconstruction of the possible lives of our three farmers. From the photo, Powers (and one of his characters, although…) develops a potential narrative of three young men at the beginning of (and going through) the First World War.
  3. The tale of Peter Mays, a technical editor for an Electronics Magazine who becomes infatuated with a woman, following a pseudo detective tale leading him to, among other things, the photo in question.


The way the three tales listed above elide is fascinating and intricate, as those lives of the three farmers. And what we also have is a history of certain parts of the Continent during WWI; we hear of the Peace Ship: Henry Ford, unhappy with the world’s efforts toward peace, decided to take a ship filled with celebrities and common folk alike, from the US of A to Continental Europe, in order to stand between the armies in question and force peace between the warring nations. We also hear the great story of all Parisian taxis being called to take French soldiers to the Battle of the Marne.

However, this is not a tale of the past, it is one of our relationship with it. The three farmers are not just looking at the camera or the photographer, but their gaze is also directed toward us, the viewer, the reader. We are implicated in their tale for more than one reason, none of which i will state here for fear of destroying some of the enjoyment of reading this book.

The photo itself is one of a series entitled Face of the Twentieth Century. Wikipedia tells us

In this series, [Sander] aims to show a cross-section of society during the Weimar Republic. The series is divided into seven sections: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People (homeless persons, veterans, etc.). By 1945, Sander’s archive included over 40,000 images.

His plan was to map out the century via the faces of people. From the novel,

[Sanders’] plan makes Peter think of maps. Photographing society reminds him of making maps of unknown terrain. It provides a key, a way of looking over a place without having to go there. This man’s plan—to build up a document of categories and subcategories, even more precise and encompassing with each new photo—is like increasing the scale of the map. One mile to the inch is clearly better than two to the inch: more detail, and truer to the real estate. Perhaps this fellow on the bicycle, as incurable as he is about posing, might, by taking enough photos, improve the map of the Man of the Twentieth Century to the scale of a few hundred yards to the inch, a few hundred faces to the photo.

But Peter does not take this hope of increasing exactness to its logical conclusion. A map of one inch to the inch, which cannot be spread without covering the countryside, shows nothing that the place itself shows just as well. In order for this encyclopedia to become completely authentic, it would have to include a print of every living face…


All our laptops and monitors, external hard drives and usb sticks, midi controllers and broadband dongles: where do they go when die? After issuing their final breaths, it is more than likely they will end up one of the many electronic graveyards in the developing world.


In Guiyu, China, for example, where men, women and children alike are to be found pulling apart old aspects of the first world’s computers, tearing out wires and burning them at night; or during the day working for next to nothing w/ little or no protection handling e-waste which contains among other varied substances, dangerous metals like lead, cadmium and mercury according to Time. In Environmental Helath Perspectives, we read findings that seem to demonstrate that children in Guiyu have elevates blood lead levels.

China has long been a place for the West to export a great deal of its potentially recyclable (and not so) waste to. In Shanghai Journal: Dump Trash, Add Scavengers, Mix and Get a Big Mess, we read

Each morning, on average, 6,300 tons of garbage arrives by barge from the central city. Mr. Kearsley-pratt’s company, Onyx, won an international bidding competition in 2003 to replace an old municipal landfill next door, which had observed almost no environmental precautions, with a state-of-the-art dump — a fenced-in area slightly larger than New York’s Central Park.

There are towns in China which are literally covered in trash of all forms, the streets are lined w/ garbage and the locals “make a living chopping up and melting down toxic plastics and metals out of the mountains of trash.”

[courtesy of our old friends, the nytimes]

Look here where we have a multimedia look at e-waste (including a variety of its exports), a site with various texts, a doco and interactive maps chronicling various aspects of what now seems to be termed eDumping. I would be very interested in seeing some sort of data visualisation showing countries exporting waste and those importing, perhaps in terms of weight of refuse, type of refuse and time of transport. Perhaps senseable city lab’s New York Talk Exchange, which visualises ways in which the inhabitatants of New York communicate with the world, could be used as a model.

[screenshot of the new york talk exchange]

O course, the procuring of such data could be a touchy subject, especially if intended for the purposes of making more clear exactly how much waste the world outsources.

Watch the above before reading on. I was naively (or not so) under a certain misapprehension: i thought that Daito Manabe, the star of the above video, was triggering sounds using his facial muscles. That is, the objects attached to his face were some sort of motion sensors (perhaps accelerometers would do the trick, my knowledge of complex sensors is lacking here) and thus the apparent blink of an eyelid or twitch of the upper lip would send out a digital signal and voila!: hook up a computer and these facial movements could easily be converted into midi (and/or osc) signals to trigger live audio and/or video using your music/video production application of choice.

I was shocked by how fascinating the correlation between sounds and movement were and the choices made as to which sounds to attach to each part of the face. Of course this all before it dawned upon me that this is not what is happening. In fact, quite the opposite. Each sounds sends out an electric signal which is evidently hardwired directly to our friend Daito’s face and, in essence, his muscular and nervous systems. An electric shock thus creates a small, highly visible spasm. This is potentially more shocking and less artistically interesting than what i originally thought was happening. But i’m not actually sure. I feel conflicted.

Now what if we had both systems just described working in conjunction: one person using their muscles to trigger sound and these very sounds then translated into electric pulses hardwired INTO SOMEONE ELSE’S NERVOUS SYSTEM. Is this potentially the future of puppetry? And if there were not necessarily a one-to-one identifiable correlation between the twitcher and the twitchees: a cheekflex could result in a flailing leg, a nodding head could create a breakdance.

Could this be the future of DJing? No longer spinning records or even beatmixing MP3s as seems to commonly occur these days, but a disc jockey making music with his entire body and also choreographing the audience’s dance, drum rolls necessarily accompanied by strained muscular pirrouettes each and every time they occur, horn stabs forcing folk to jump in the air, certain digital sounds heard and the whole floor does the robot. At the push of a button the DJ could make everyone applaud… Anyone?

[image: a wedding ring made from bone with
inscription ab intra, meaning from within]

–But baby look at this f**kin’ ring I gotcha, c’mon I sold my wheels for this. Look, look at the size of dat diamond: dat shit’d make yo’ sistas faint!

–I don’t want no goddamn gems no more, muthaf**ka! I WANT YOUR BONE!

This is the way things are: people are getting married and instead of exchanging vows and (semi-)precious metals and gemstones, they are exchanging vows and rings made from their own bone. No shit. See The Modern Wedding: now exchange vows and bones in The Guardian.

How to do this? Well, let’s say 50 cent wanted to give the Mrs 50 cent-to-be a ring made from his bone. Then

  1. 50 cent would first have to get his wisdom teeth removed so that the dentist/biojewellers could stick a needle into his jawbone to extract osteoblasts, the cells which prompt the growth of bone.
  2. [image: 50 cent gettin’ wise]

  3. 50 cent’s biojewellers would then grow bone cells from the osteoblasts in a petri dish on a ring of “bioglass”, a porous substance which dissolves as the bone-ring grows to replace it:

    [image: ring of “bioglass”]

  4. The ring of the supastar’s bone would then be fixed to a metal band et cetera et ceteri, possibly engraved, one may even attempt to insert precious stones.

Eager warriors of the bone may indeed ask how much, how much??! 2000 pounds sterling is the current going rate and this does NOT include the extraction of the wisdom teeth. The biojewellers even have their own website and it’s a good one; you even get to meet couples who have decided to diverge from the path tradition has laid before them and gone the Way of the Bone.

This type of innovation does not occur enough. What it reminds me of is the idea behind putting the following two facts together:

  • Diamonds can be made/synthesised from virtually anything containing carbon.
  • Humans contain carbon. In particular, the ashes of a person who has been cremated contain carbon.

[image: the millenium star diamond 1]

For cases of ashes turned to diamonds, look here.

The idea of turning your deceased loved one’s remains into a diamond and the idea of using your own bone as a wedding ring previously would have both been metaphors, figures of speech, sweet nothings whispered into the nape of a lover. In a sense, they probably still are. However, John Barber’s metaphor is ever so real:

When John Barber thinks about his wife Lynn, who died from cancer a few weeks ago, he remembers her eyes. “She had beautiful blue eyes,” Barber said. Now he’s anxiously awaiting the arrival of blue diamonds, created from his wife’s ashes. (see this here article).

[image: our friends the polar bears and their declining habitat,
the new york times]

Now we all knew that is was really only a matter of time before Richard Branson would offer a $25 million prize to the first person to solve climate change, as The New Scientist reports here. Do not mistake my tone by presuming i mean to trivialise what is actually an amazing act and may indeed prove entirely productive. I just find Richard Branson such a bizarre character i sometimes fail to believe he is real; rather, he seems to me a character Jules Verne would have concocted had he been alive 100 years later than he was.

Anyway, Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge will most certainly summon up a plethora of earth-savers and climate-change crusaders; there are already a whole bunch of seemingly mad-hatter-although-possibly-not ideas out there, among which one may find numbered

  • injecting into the atmosphere millions of tons of sulphur to reflect 1% of sunlight back out there. This would have the added effect of creating acid rain and possible respiratory problems. It was also suggested by a Nobel Laureate, Paul Crutzen.
  • a giant orbiting dust cloud.
  • painting the ground white to reflect the Light!

Check out Physicsweb for a discussion of these ideas. Please do note that Sir Richard is not offering the prize for discoveries of efficient alternative energy sources AND he does own Virgin airlines.

[image: photo of richard branson from the venus transit 2004 website]

[image: photo of the sun from]