The Grammar of Culture

My nephew has become seemingly obsessed by Supermarkets, wanting to know how they evolved, when i first visited one, where it was located, what brand it was. My own experience of supermarkets as a child was not radically different from his experience today, although today there is a fundamental shift towards self checkouts or, in the case of Amazon’s prototype work, no checkout at all. The fundamental grammar of the experience is evolving, but substantially unchanged: dynamics of customer, displays, selection, transaction.

The Grammar of Culture

Reflecting on this yesterday, i realised how colonial the grammar of supermarkets is: i can visit a supermarket almost anywhere in the world, and certain signs are common: conventions of merchandising, the conventions of packaging, the rituals of sale. Indeed, it’s not just colours and shapes, it’s the spread of totemic power: the word ‘sale‘ itself becomes endemic. Everywhere i see clothes for sale with random words of english, or Japanese (SuperDry): totemic value assigned through culturally held notions of value. There is nothing intrinsic in these languages: they are imbued by our understanding of this emerging global culture.

This is the new colonisation: not the totems of power, not the artefacts alone, not simply shadows, but rather the fundamental grammar. Organising principles and systems of energy and control. Not mathematically derived constants, but socially determined principles, underlying the expressions of culture. Deeply pervasive, easily transmitted, toxic to local tradition.

Maybe consider these four features of culture: ‘grammar‘, ‘totems‘, ‘artefacts‘, and ‘shadows‘.

Artefacts are those things made by our own hands: physical remnants, books, signage, those things that are manufactured. Artefacts travel physically and can appropriate and represent the progression of power, projected. The AK47 rifle is an artefact, and it symbolises the political struggle between communism and capitalism or, latterly, fundamentalism and the mainstream. Coke cans are artefacts, colonised across the world, carrying their significance with them.

Totems are reflections of this: deliberate attempts to put physical form around cultural significance. War memorials are artefacts, but also totems. Totems deliberately invoke, or seek to invoke, meaning. Where artefacts are the output of culture, totems represent it. Totems hold a type of power: the deliberate utilisation of totems often forms part of aggressive suppression or subversion. When Colonel Gadaffi wielded a gold plated AK47, he invoked totemic power. Similarly, when President Bush stood on an aircraft carrier wearing his old flight jacket, he did the same. Within gated cultures, totems can have great significance for entry.

Shadows are pale reflections of totems: artefacts that have lost their imbued meaning, orphaned from significance, separated from our collective reality, signposts of nothing. Archaeologists uncover shadows when they find the form, but lack the culturally determined meaning.

Sometimes organisations or formal powers try to deliberately turn totems into shadows: renaming cities, banishing symbols, perhaps we can even read it into how, in Germany, swastikas are illegal. By controlling the totems of power, by restricting the symbols, we can perhaps, or at least attempt, to control the power itself. Totems that garner their power through networked authority (as a swastika does) may, though, be simply empowered by our efforts to disrupt the network.

The grammar of culture is complex: there is the thing, and the understanding of the thing. There are artefacts and meaning, both separate. Artefacts have form, but no imbued power or meaning. Totems have meaning, but not measurable in the form. Shadows lack meaning, having had it wrest away from them by time, or through the erosive power of other totems, appropriated to a new cause.

The Romans used this approach: when integrating into a new space, they would seek to understand and adapt existing religions, not simply to bury or break them. Thus, they ended up with hybrids: co-owned by the old and the new. This type of cultural pollution is really what we see today, carried by the major brands and, primarily, transmitted through mass media.

Look simply how generic ‘looks‘ have become: ask any sulky teenager to strike an Instagram pose, and you will likely witness the pursed lips and finger to one side: the way that even poses and body language are transmitted through media, globally. Innovation is replicated fast: how many school children could strike a Usain Bolt arrow pose? The cultural transmission of meaning is well documented.

Organisations often seek to influence or change culture through blunt force trauma: they seek to control it through rules, through education, through the trappings of power. By changing buildings, by changing brand, they think that they have power over culture, and yet the grammar of culture is complex. Perhaps the Romans had it right all along: change through engagement. Neither one thing, not another.

All things change: my understanding of a supermarket will be subverted by technology, by social innovation, maybe even swept away by a fundamentally new paradigm of smart cupboards and drone delivery. Even those things we think are set in stone are like leaves in the wind, when faced with the stiff breeze of time.

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Iceland: Reflections

I’m unsure exactly what my preconception of Reykjavik was, possibly somewhere around the glossy tourist shots of sophisticated bars and famous nightlife, but it was subtly defied by the grounded reality. Everywhere in Iceland, there is a certain understatement, a purposeful and silent foundation. For me, the atmosphere was of warmth, a certain recent growth, and the unmistakable sense of a working port: a busy environment with only the thinest veneer of the ‘international’ overlaid. Certainly once you got beyond the main shopping street (which by any pace would only take you fifteen minutes or so), you are into a much more direct and utilitarian space.

Iceland - Reflections

I enjoyed Reykjavik as much as any of the rest of my time in Iceland, although my time in the city itself was deliberately short: cities are the backdrop to an expedition, not the destination. The two nights in the city punctuated my wider journey around the island. In some ways, that punctuation satisfied: one visit as a stranger, one as a friend, one outbound, one homecoming.

The city itself falls away remarkably fast: not since my time exploring the former Soviet block cities of Eastern Europe have i been so struck by the lack of edgelands, the sudden transition from urban to rural. In the latter, it’s a result of central planning, whilst here, it’s because the landscape dominates. The city is carved from the land. Where you stop carving, you are straight to nature. And here, nature is a landscape of ice and fire, stone and water.

I find myself obsessing over tractors.

They settle, like particularly fat migrating birds, everywhere. Not one or two, but dozens, often three or four together on a farm. I can only suppose that they each serve a specialised purpose, that farming here is particularly labour intensive, or that nobody ever throws anything away. Or possibly a combination of all three. I rarely see a new tractor, but i see plenty of middle aged and well maintained vehicles. Just shuttling around. Periodically, i encounter a rusty dinosaur: rubber stripped from metal wheels, paint rusted away, gently oxidising to the earth from which it crawled.

Iceland - Reflections

One day, i follow drive through a small town, little more than a harbour, a few warehouses, two dozen houses. Unloading takes place from a bulk carrier: on the dockside, a bright yellow JCB hauls wide fabric bags of something from a boat. From the illustration and my pigeon Icelandic, i surmise that it’s horse related. Food supplements maybe? Whatever: many times a day i pass farms that seem to carve their subsistence from horses (although i never quite fathom out how, despite an in depth conversation with a farmer who tends to them) I am unclear if they are exported, ridden or eaten, or in what ratio of the three they exist.

Through the rest of the day, i pass the loaded lorries, distributing this new found bounty down impossibly narrow roads. Motoring from farm to farm, they follow a predictable choreography: the lorry simply stops on the road, the farmer trundles down in his selected tractor, and greetings are exchanged. The slow process of transfer pays scant regard to any other traffic and my one attempt to engage with a smile and wave is quietly ignored. They’ve seen it all before.

Everything is shut: we are in the shoulder season. Not the midwinter nighttime of the Northern Lights and perpetually optimistic tourists, nor the midsummer days, keeping you wakeful through the perpetual dawn. Rather, the edge: mid days, mid nights, rain, sun and snow. A gentle season of holidays and shuttered shops: tea rooms boarded against the snows, a season of repainting, regeneration, restocking, and renewal.

Tourism sits gently upon the shoulders here: rarely intrusive, but clearly the most popular sites are creaking. I see signs of this in the new pathways built through the landscape: desire lines obliterated by carefully constructed walkways and steps. An attempt to impose order upon the wandering chaos. Often ignored.

Each day picks up a rhythm: waking, breakfast, then the map. Maps are abstractions: we learn to read them just as we learn to read books or sagas. We interact with the paper, but visualise the land. Winter hills and mountains, water and slopes. We inch our way across the landscape, one page at a time. In places, the snow is deep upon the road: in places, the only sign of where the road runs is the yellow markers, religiously set up for just this eventuality. I pick my way carefully.

The map does not capture the cold, does not show the view, does not sense the precipitous wayfaring, showing simply a tinted representation of hills and dales, creased and stapled, fixed in print.

The interior is closed. A harsh statement that puts this country starkly at odds with my own. Here, nature claims the centre, leaving communities to cling to the perimeter. Whilst the map shows a dotted red line crossing the middle, the track is firmly shut. Iced, snowed, rock filled and impassible. Even the peripheral roads in the Western Fjords are shut for much of the winter, until the road crews break through again come the Spring.

Roads here are not permanent, but rather trodden anew after every storm and subsidence. The winter ice reshapes everything. I like the sound of the ‘road crew’, invoking images of rugged Icelanders, carving through the rockfalls and battling the power of the storms. When i finally come across one, it’s something of a disappointment to find them drinking tea at the gas station. Everything changes i guess.

You read a landscape through the cultural filters of your youth: i grew up on rolling hills, ancient woodlands, clear chalk streams. Here, it’s a harsher landscape with few trees at all. I can ‘read’ timber buildings, but the stone structures here elude me, and the the jump from ancient to modern seems to be one single step: there is the old, there is the new, but there is little transition. Almost everywhere i find a town it is steel and plastic clad. Practical, pragmatic, new.

Brands are so endemic, so deeply permeated through almost every culture, that i fail to spot the signs. When i visit the supermarket, it’s not particularly different from the supermarket at home. Sure, the trimmings and trappings vary, but the principle is the same. Mass produced, distributed, plastic clad. Whilst i am spared Starbucks, the infiltration of global brands is clearly a move in progress. Progress? Of sorts i suppose. The generic colonisation of culture strikes me ever more, the more i travel. Brands lead the way, but bring with them language, cultural signifiers, uniformity and, ultimately, evolved identity. It’s convenient, but i suspect our future histories will judge us harshly. Still: you cannot protect culture by law: you have to live it and crave it. Ultimately, you have to create it.

There is a stark beauty here. I find myself more deeply reflective than usual: it’s time out, not simply away from home and work, but away from my everyday reality. Removed from comfort, both spiritually and physically. This is a harsh landscape. But a deeply satisfying one. A place to explore. Not, i suspect, for the last time.

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Iceland: Transitions

Transitional spaces seem to have particular importance and prominence on islands: harbours, estuaries, and airports being the touchpoints between the island and elsewhere. Both functional and metaphorical, they are the gateways. It’s from these spaces that all roads and rivers lead. It’s through these spaces that all goods flow, immigrations occurs, and emotional farewells are had. These nexus points are typically hubs of activity, something of particular prominence on my own circular journey.

Iceland - Transitions

As i drive around the island, the pattern repeats: a port, a town, provisions, coffee, hotels and petrol, then remarkably fast, back into the wilderness. There are few edgelands in these tiny towns: you are in, or you are out. An occasional goods yard, a snowplough, a fuel station, then away. The urban barely flickers from the rural, many of these tiny stops housing just a few hundred people, little more than docks, goods yards, loading points, and home to a few.

Iceland - Transitions

The gently familiar lulling of the open road, the town, the open road, leaves days blurring, as the everyday loses relevance, replaced instead by exploration, by transition, by curiosity and the endlessly unfurling view.

Other patterns emerge: late afternoon i become familiar with the outbound lories, only two or three, carrying a shipping container, some farm supplies or white goods, completing their journey.

Shipping containers carry their quiet revolution everywhere: once their useful life at sea is done, they rust in farmyards, the final resting place of redundant fencing and decrepit machinery.

Containers revolutionised the transportation of goods, in many small ways, enabling pallet bound delivery, and the aggregation of multiple goods into one load: they moved prominence to distribution centres. The goods we convey make their transition safely out of sight, but still they transition: between ships, from ship to shore, across jurisdictions, their accompanying chits doubtless digitised now, or so i imagine.

Documentation forms part of transitions: records, logging, passporting, a combination of observation and control. A historical record of the most mundane of everydays.

We love to measure relativity: imports versus exports, in and out, back and forth. My own journey is circular, not simply around the island, but through the entry and exit. I transition. I am in transit. Islands in constant motion, bound by air and sea, insular. Bounded.

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Iceland: Abandoned

I made the trek out to the plane wreck to take the iconic photos: aluminium undimmed by age, bright against the black ash, silhouetted by the distant mountains, decaying under a clear blue sky.

Iceland - abandoned

There were no casualties when the aircraft came down in the Second World War: iced up, it ditched just behind the beach, and i imagine some very relieved men walked away, abandoning the wreck to the elements and, later, the ministrations of tourists and souvenir hunters. At some point, the tail section was cut off and dragged away. The wings are missing beyond the engine pods. The cockpit stripped of all but wire. The desiccated remains picked over and inspected by occasional visitors and bewildered locals, who seemingly remain perplexed by interest in the site.

Iceland - abandoned

We abandon things when they have served their purpose, when they lack use: when they become purposeless. Shape and form without purpose. Spent potential. Design without application: spent of energy, unable to rise from the ashes. When those things are too big to move, they remain where they sit: slowly decaying, eroded of intent. Buildings become abandoned when their purpose is lost, especially when something innate in their form leaves them unadaptable, unable to find a new purpose, unable to find new meaning. Cars are left to rust, steam trains abandoned in sidings, old farmhouses rotting down grassed up lanes, themselves littered with broken refrigerators.

Landscapes erode, whilst the seemingly perfect artefacts of man decay. Mountains were never intended to be perfect, engineered to millimetre perfection: they have no design tolerance, no quality control. An aircraft, by contrast, is designed for perfection: prototyped, crafted, perfected. It is build for purpose, and only actualises through it’s purpose: on the ground, it lies crippled, unable to be. Form only a shadow of it’s motion. But in the air, it soars and realises not what it can be, but truly what it is: aloft, defiant, perfect.

The landscape is ancient and weathered, and yet shows no sign of decay, whilst, in geological terms, the plane is youthful, and yet, stripped of purpose, lies pointless. It’s apathy made all the more sorrowful by the occasional tourist who climbs atop to have their photo snapped, serving simply as dramatic, iconic, listless backdrop.

Whilst i enjoy my trek out, and dutifully snap my photos, the experience is wonderfully pointless: it has significance only for it’s abstracted interest. I do not see many wrecked planes up close, and there is a certain terrible beauty in seeing that elegant form stripped of glamour and potential. We are somewhat drawn like crows to carrion to watch closely the tangled wrecks of ships and planes. They lie out of their water, out of their sky, abstracted from the elements that gave them purpose and life.

I walk away, leaving the silent aluminium to it’s decades asleep.The black ash crunches under my boots: i walk away, not relieved, as the pilot must have been, but rather bemused, both by the surreal nature of the encounter, and my own inexplicable enjoyment of it. A plane that cannot fly: an expression of dramatic futility in a landscape of overwhelming ragged beauty and scale. An unresolved dichotomy. Abandoned, and yet somehow unresolved.

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Iceland: The Battle Of Fire And Ice

Systems seek stability, a levelling of energy, an erosive calm. Heat sinks towards the temperate, erosion claims the highest peak. The fire and fury of the eruption is ultimately frozen as ragged rubble, fractured and tumbled, lying calmly in the dying sun.

Iceland - Glacial

I realise that the lava fields are new to me: a type of landscape that i have never before experienced, at least not in this raw form, this un-eroded state. I am used to clouds: staring from airplane windows at rolling white vapour fields, gently undulating from wingtip to horizon. There is a similarity of form: the surface of the fields around me mirror that undulation, but instead of ephemeral mist, this landscape is condensed from stone, spewed forth in fire and cooled to jumbled calm.

The landscape lies like a grey duvet, but each rolling mound is split: evidence of escaping gases and temperature gradients. What, at first glance, at the macro level, looks like stillness, is, in the detail, almost uncrossable: fissured, distorted, a parody of motion. I become fascinated by the pseudo craters: as roiling lava crossed waterlogged fields, the trapped moisture becomes superheated, bursting through as superheated gas, creating mini craters, some with the look of gigantic blunderbusses, cannons split open by the force of the ejection.

More used, as i am, to stone a silent sentinel, this vision of stone as ice, of stone captured in the instance of creation, is unsettling, strange and alien. Where i come from, volcanoes are the stuff of books: creation is a distant memory, and the predominant force is erosion. Here, the landscape wears it’s heritage closely to hand. The signs of creation are writ for all to see.

As i become familiar with the crusted lava, it’s replaced by moss: a verdant carpet of green that softens the landscape, whilst retaining that sense of frozen energy. It’s not just a patch of moss: it’s an entire landscape. Whether this is a feature of simple age, or the gradual taming of the stone, a transitional phase towards soil and pasture, i am unsure. Clearly something trips parts of the landscape to grow: so as memories of magma and vented steam recede, the land becomes slowly green once more, albeit on a raggedly disrupted base.

At the grandest scale, the battle here is between fire and ice, between stone and water.

Whilst the foundations are laid in rock and ash, the sculpting is done by water and ice.

Glacial cut valleys bisect mountains and flow around cinder cones: broad sweeps of paint brush aside almost everything in their path. Glaciers scour and grind, they exert tremendous force, literally carving and distorting the crust as they do so. Once the grand glacial force is spent, it’s down to the trickles to become streams, streams into rivers, and rivers into torrents of water that wend and buck across the stone: whilst their motion is light and rapid, it’s time that turns these rivers into art. The never ending stream carves across valley floors, down canyon sides, gouges out ravines impossibly tight and steep, and delivers the final form to the everyday landscape.

This volcanic land is locked in a constant cycle: the fires of creation damped down by the frost and erosion of the ice. And through it all, the verdant force of life that colonises, softens and circles back from desolation to pasture. Whilst all landscapes are similarly shaped, it’s here, in Iceland, that the bones of tectonics and the raw force of entropy seem closest to the surface, somehow untamed and more immediate. The landscape exists at the meeting of two tectonic plates: a liminal zone, an edgeland, a zone of creation and loss. To carve a living here is to exist in the middle space: neither new nor old, neither permanent, nor lost, Neither the old world, nor fully the new.

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Iceland: Endlessly Flowing Through Forms

The sunset casts a brilliant, low, light across the landscape, smearing silent shadows from my boots across the beach. In my hand, a hundred years, a thousand years, a hundred decades of precipitation, frozen in the form of a diamond, a crystal clear commemoration of precipitation. A rugged chunk of time, a temporal crystal, a frozen saga of storms and silence.

Iceland - Glacial

Iceland is enigmatic: uniformly beautiful, unendingly fractured, utterly captivating. After a long day driving, down roads and gravel tracks, this beach, beside a glacial lake, offers an unexpected surprise in the form of these clear ice boulders, these glacial gems.

Tress set down rings as they grow each year: with ice, it’s more about deposits of rain and ash, successive layers of wisdom, frosted one upon the other, dateable, differentiated, delicate. Most notably, the silent records of eruptions: black layers, imperfections that melt early as they suck the heat from the sun.

Glaciers are neither silent, nor motionless, despite their sedentary reputation, they are an awesome force that simply scales out at a different tempo. They shear and shatter, calve and cave, spewing forth a jumbled field of shattered time that gently drifts to the far shore, finally alighting in it’s last minutes upon the beach. Accelerating towards it’s liquid end.

The water is shockingly cold as i reach in: grasping the slippery ice gives it weight and meaning. I lift it up, watching the light catch, distort, reflect. Other worlds splintered into view as the heat of my hand causes cold rivulets to through my fingers, falling through to my boots below.

Iceland - Glacial

As the sun sets, a fiery red glow suffuses the sky, reflected back at me from ice and water. I turn my back, black rock crunching underfoot as i head for the road. On the beach, i leave behind the history written in ice, sculpted by the wind, a story frozen in time, ending one cycle, starting the next. Endlessly flowing through forms.

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Mutiny! A Matter Of Trust

I spent today prototyping a game around trust: I thought I’d just share a narrative of the experience, is it really got me thinking about how complex trust is within groups. The nature of the game is that it’s played with six people, all of whom are on a pirate ship, some of whom are mutineers. You don’t know at the start how many, if any, of your crew mates are mutineers. All you know, is whether you yourself are (it’s decided when you are dealt a card at the start of the game). I don’t worry too much about the detail of the rules, but rather the experience of playing.

Mutiny - a matter of trust

It turned out in this prototype game that two people were mutineers, and four of us were loyal crew mates. I did not guess who the two mutineers were, indeed, I had a strongly held view, forged over the five rounds of the game, that two other people were guilty.

One thing that was very interesting was how we all, in the discussion phases, picked up on the tiniest details as we scrutinised our crew mates to try to determine who was guilty, and who was innocent. One person was judged guilty because they use the word ‘we’ a lot, and it was felt that they were trying to ingratiate themselves to others. One person was judged guilty because they were quite quiet, and we felt they were trying not to draw attention to themselves.

It was fascinating to see the way that looks were traded, the ways we desperately trying to think of ways to test whether people were loyal, the ways alliances were formed.

Trust is complicated, is not outwardly visible, is easily misread. Playing the game today may be recognised that no matter how much research I do, no matter how carefully we map the Landscape of Trust, trust will always be complex, and we may never know who the mutineers are until it’s too late!

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