CARNE Y ARENA

December 6th, 2017

In retrospect the whole process of actually getting to experience Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s situated VR installation CARNE Y ARENA at the Fondazione Prada in Milano now looks like a privileged white man’s version of what the protagonists of the installation have gone trough: The almost overwhelming uncertainty if i would ever manage to get there (the result of overwhelmed web servers that could not keep up with the demand for the microscopic amount of tickets available), the realisation that a group only travels as fast as it’s weakest members (an object lesson taught by a group of Filipino women who boarded the flight to Milano with way too much carry on luggage causing the worst boarding mess that i ever experienced) and the ability of those whom you have entrusted with your fate to extract extra compensation (the taxi diver who needed to be bribed into accepting payment by credit card).

carne y arena

While CARNE Y ARENA is primarily described as a possibly genre-defining Virtual Reality experience, the actual VR element (as in the 3D environment projected through the headset) is probably the least interesting bit of it, even though the cinematography is stunning and the choreography of the actions unfolding around you is equally master-full.

Rather it is the use of the supporting sensory triggers that both makes and breaks the illusion created by the VR headset (the whole experience was probably helped by the fact that as a result of my hurried attempts to get there in time i was thirsty for the duration of the experience): The coldness in the holding cell crates a feeling of being out of control that primes you for the desert scene. The cold, rough desert sand and the unidentifiable scent immediately situate you in the desert. As long as you are “alone” in the desert (and later during the helicopter overpasses) the wind machines complete the illusion created by the VR headset.

Once the exhausted migrants appear the illusion starts getting strained. For me this had little to do with the the fact that they were clearly identifiable as rendered characters (as the Verge complains), or even the fact that you could walk into the characters (according the NYT review this seems to be a feature that i did not recognise as such) but rather the fact that i was unable to physically relate to them within the parameters of the simulation. As the group came under attack by the border patrol my urge was to get closer to the other protagonists and to somehow protect or comfort them. But my attempt to hold on to the foot of a frightened child broke the simulation as there was noting to touch and no-one i could comfort.

In the end the very limitations of the simulation amplify the message. Regardless how much i wanted to identify with the the harassed group of migrants, and as much as i experienced the sensory overload of being alone in the dark desert at the mercy of armed men, the limitations of the technology reminded me of my real status as a distant observer. That divergence between your desire to relate, fuelled by the state of the art manipulation of your senses and your inability to completely escape your situated-ness in the real world creates (or at least it created for me) a very profound understanding what it means to be the other (in this case one of the migrants).

Contrary to what i had expected it is not the technical perfection of the installation that constitutes the empathy machine, but the fact that you are reminded that you are indeed only “virtually present” that delivers the message. As confronting as the last scene, where the simulation finally acknowledges your presence and the border patrol officer approaches you shouting and with his assault rifle aimed at you, may be, it was the fact that i could simply leave that brought home the point that for the migrants this option does not exist.

Still, leaving the desert scene left me shell shocked and i spend a long time watching the video testimonials of the migrant protagonists in the decompression room that constitutes the last part of the experience. It is impossible to tell if these were so captivating because of the state i was in or because of the fact that i was alone with them or because of the accomplished videography and performance or because of all of these aspects combined.

In the end the most interesting question is how this way of story telling can ever scale in any meaningful way. The way it is set up in Milano (individual 15 minute slots) the total capacity is somewhere around 5000 visitors in half a year. There are currently 3 instances of CARNE Y ARENA (the other ones are im Mexico City and in Los Angeles) which seems utterly insufficient to reach anyone beyond a very determined part of the global cultural elites, who are likely the ones who are least challenged in their belief systems by the urgent social message encoded in this technological masterpiece. It is not me who needed the exposure to the desperate realities of migrants fighting for their dignity under the conditions of massive global disparities, rather it is someone my above mentioned taxi driver (who was not even aware of the fact that the Prada foundation is a Museum and not the seat of the eponymous luxury goods company).

Election Day (2017)

March 15th, 2017

as i am writing this i am on a flight from Strasbourg back to Amsterdam. At the same time people back in the Netherlands are voting in one of the most contested elections of recent memory. There is a real (although increasingly unlikely) chance that the xenophobic, populist and anti European PVV of Geert Wilders will become the biggest party and that the rest of the political spectrum will splinter into 15 or more parties. The dutch elections are seen as a first test for the future of a united and democratic Europe, to be followed by the French presidential elections in a month where the Front National is currently leading the polls.

Much has been written about how this is due to fact that much of the populations feel ignored, left behind and threatened by immigrants and other outsiders. Looking out of the window of the plane this is somewhat hard to reconcile with the landscape passing 8000 meters below. The regions between Amsterdam and Strasbourg (Alsace, Luxembourg, Limburg, Brabant, South Holland) are some of the richest and happiest on earth. You can see that from above, the fields are lush and green, the tractors draw their GPS guided straight lines across the landscape, the roads and other infrastructure are well maintained, the dutch waterworks proudly face the expanses of the North Sea and the villages and small towns are orderly clusters of individuals houses, surrounded by patches of lawn and other greenery.

To anyone who has ever looked out of a plane window when flying approaching airports in South America, Africa, the Middle East or Southeast Asia this will look like paradise. There can be no doubt that Europe is one of the most fortunate places on earth and there can be no doubt that we have the resources not only to support those who have the privilege to be born here but also those who are looking to come here for a better future.

The political crisis that we are facing and that is driving much of the electorate into the arms of xenophobes and populists like Wilders and Le Pen is clearly not the result of resource scarcity. Instead it is a crisis of resource allocation. The fat, rich landscapes passing below us can easily support many more than just the lucky few that are already here. As Europeans this requires us to understand that we need better, fairer ways of sharing our collective wealth…

Hans van Balen reading Mark

Meanwhile in the seat next to me: VVD MEP Hans van Balen reading the biography of his party leader and most likely election winner Mark Rutte

Terrorism and Urban Planning

January 16th, 2017

From the novel i am currently reading:

Back in his hotel room he remembered that Mohammed Atta , the famous World Trade Center hijacker, had been a student of urban planning in hamburg in Germany. Was there a connection between the two things – terror and planning? It was possible. Atta in his religious way, had wanted the perfect religious city &emdash; his thesis was on Aleppo in Syria. In the end though his urge to design took a different form &emdash; het took down the twin monstrosities of the towers over Manhattan, and there, in a single day he accomplished what no other planner could have, erasing the cold shadows of those vile boastful buildings of the sun-filled streets of the city.

While “the association of small bombs” is a work of fiction it appears that the fact that Mohammed Atta has indeed written his thesis on Aleppo is not. Given this the recent events in Aleppo, which have lead to the almost complete destruction of the city, feel like the completion of a circle of violence that has been started by Atta and his companions on 9/11. It is probably vain hope to expect this to be the end of the circle, but with the whole geo-political situation changing quite dramatically, nothing seems impossible these days.

Live broadcast of russian drone footage monitoring the evacuation of civilians from Aleppo in december 2016.

Live broadcast of a russian drone-feed monitoring the evacuation of civilians from Aleppo (15/12/16).

Related: the place where the twin towers stood used to be ‘Little Syria

A new era

November 9th, 2016

When I went to sleep yesterday night I was expecting my daughters Yuki and Mika to wake up in a world where three of the most powerful persons are women. Instead, we woke up to a world in which a misogynistic, ignorant, racist, fear-monger was elected to be the next president of the United States of America. That makes it pretty likely that they will grow up in a world that is considerably worse than the one I grew up in.

breakfast with vodka shot

2nd breakfast of the morning: double espresso + vodka shot

But this is not about my daughter’s role models (we will find others), this is about the end of an era. Most directly Trump’s victory will affect the US. While this can play out in many ways, it is hard to imagine a way in which this will not cause a lot of hurt to the most vulnerable people in society: (undocumented) immigrants, minorities and generally all those who can’t or don’t want to come up for their own interests at the expense of others.

Trump, and more importantly the extremist right wing networks and strategists who have enabled success, will have the full political apparatus (both houses of congress, the presidency and the supreme court) aligned to turn back progress that has been made over the last decades. America will become a worse place to live for lots of people, and that fills me with dread.

Even worse, Trump will inherit the targeted assassination machine built and employed mercilessly by President Obama[1]. From the perspective of those killed and maimed by drone strikes and other assassination methods it does not really matter if the strike was authorised by Obama or Trump, but it does not take a lot of imagination to fear that President Trump will be even more indiscriminate in unleashing the hellfires.

An uncertain future for Europe

Closer to home, Trump has questioned the traditional security alignments between the US and Europe. At the same time he has shown remarkable affinity with the Russian President Putin. If this leads to a strategic new alignment between Russia and the US this may very well have far-reaching consequences for peace and stability in Europe. Much of the uncomfortable but peaceful co-existence between the European neighbours of Russia and Russia itself is based on military hegemony of the US that is backing us up. We may soon find ourselves in a drastically different environment characterised by a degree of instability and danger that is unknown to most of the European people of my generation (with the exception of those who witnessed the self-destruction of Yugoslavia from close by).

It also looks pretty certain that the era of free trade fundamentalism will come to an end. TTIP & TTP are effectively dead as of this morning 08:29 CET and while that is not necessarily a bad thing, it makes me wonder whether the system that put free trade ahead of pretty much all other considerations will be replaced by something better. I have been somewhat hypocritical in enjoying the perks of being in a privileged position of the ever more interconnected world produced by this system, and I can’t really imagine being thrown back in a world that is much more focussed on nation states, but this seems to be where we are heading.

Standing up against populism at home

Closest to home, the most worrying thing about this morning were the triumphant tweets of Geert Wilders (the racist and nationalistic populist who fancies himself the equivalent of Trump over here) in which he predicts to “win back the Netherlands“. If we have learned one lesson this year it is that we have to treat a Wilders’ victory during next year’s election as a very real possibility.

wilders tweet

While most of the developments I have described are out of my realm of influence, this morning made something crystal clear for me: If we do not start doing everything we can to prevent a Wilders’ victory from happening, we have only ourselves to blame and then we will be in even deeper shit when we wake up on 16 March 2017.


  1. If Trump really wants to install a special prosecutor to go after a member of the Obama administration, this prosecutor should not go after Clinton (who has misplaced a couple of thousands of emails), but after President Obama (who has assassinated hundreds of people).

Best library ad ever…

August 28th, 2016

My friend Melanie send me this screenshot from her Facebook feed. An advert for the Public Library system of Villeurbanne in the style of a promotion flyer for an african healer. Not surprisingly i find this utterly brilliant…

Maître bibliothécaire Magic BIB

The intriguingly strange motor cycle product names of Pakistan

July 25th, 2016

one of the most intriguing things that i noticed during my short visit to Lahore, Pakistan last week were the product names for the local motor cycles. In Lahore the Honda 70 (and its various knock-offs from local brands) is a near ubiquitous motor cycle that seems to be the primary means of transport for the cities less affluent inhabitants. At some point, while walking through the old city i noticed that the product name of the Honda is Cash Forever 70 (or CD70). As it turns out all of the knock-off versions als have cash-themed names. Cash Forever (Road Prince), Hot Cash (BMC) and Urgent Sale (United):

cash deposit
cash forever
hot cash
urgent sale

BMC gets extra points for appropriating the BMW logo for their brand.

x-mas in the desert

December 22nd, 2015

sitting here:

desert view

and reading this:

[…] The tourists come for the desert’s skyscapes and crumbling adobe buildings, its mysticism and tequila and Instagrammable earth tones. I’m a tourist, too, of course, even if I’m moving at a pace of years instead of days. When people ask me how long I plan on staying in Marfa, I answer vaguely: “It’s not my forever-place.” Whatever that means. Between the fancy grocery store and Amazon Prime, Marfa is hardly a place of deprivation. But even with kale and art openings, the desert is hard. Trash snags in the scrubgrass. Only rich people have lawns. Last week, a pack of stray dogs chased me down the street, and today the wind is so strong it feels like the house is under attack. When I go back east, I always get a little emotional the first time I see a cluster of trees—the easy abundance! All that green![…]

summer reading tip: water, knifes, pistachio nuts and the tragedy of the commons

July 23rd, 2015

Here is a suggestion for a bit of summer reading: The first thing that you need to read (in order to polish up your knowledge of the water rights issues connected to the Colorado river, a.k.a the law of the river) is this New Yorker article from back in may: Where the River Runs Dry – The Colorado and America’s water crisis by David Owen.

Once you are done with this you need to aquire a copy of Paulo Bacagalupi’s new novel The Water Knife and find yourself a place with a swimming pool full of crystal clear water and amper supplies of bottled spring water (you can of course read this book in any other setting, but it is much more enjoyable that way). If you want to maximize your reading pleasure/guilt even more you should also make sure that you have a bowl of pistachio nuts at hand.

the water knife

So why the swimming pool and the bottled water? That is because The Water Knife is set in a dystopian near future where the lack of water has lead to ecological disaster, civil war like unrest and massive human suffering in American south west. States like Texas have become uninhabitable with their populations fleeing into neighbouring states which try to keep the refugees away while struggling to provide water for their own populations. Against this backdrop powerful water barons fight over water rights that grant them the rights to tap water from the Colorado river to provide water for giant, fully enclosed private real estate projects. The novel follows the story of an enforcer of one of these water barons (a so called ‘water knife’) as he becomes entangled in a mesh of conspiracy and mistrust in the dying city of phonic, Arizona.

For me The Water Knife excels both at creating a credible near term dystopia and as a thriller (i even liked the ending which is a rare thing with thrillers).

To increase your reading pleasure i would suggest that once you are about two thirds through the book (around chapter 39 or so) you take a break and listen to episode 640 of NPRs planet money podcast: The bottom of the well, in which the planet money team examines the economic effects of the current drought in California. As i listened to the podcast i was rather surprised to find out that some of the elements of Bacagalupi’s novel (public relief pumps, water consultants hawking state-of-the-art technology to reach deeper and deeper into dwindling aquifers) are already a reality in parts of California.

The planet money episode makes it painfully obvious how our economic system (a.k.a. capitalism) is set up to create the economic incentives to deplete scarce water resources in drought stricken areas for private gain (this is the moment where you want to reach for a hand full of pistachio nuts) and is possibly the most vivid explanation of the concept of the tragedy of the commons that i have come across to far.

victims of digitization….

December 27th, 2014

guess who?

dead stencil cutters

Berlin before the internet (part 2)

November 11th, 2014

from a Guardian piece about digital exiles in Berlin: Another reference to post fall-of-the-wall berlin as that strange place where the internet did not exist yet:

But then, it is the blink of an eye. It’s 25 years since the wall came down. And, in a strange historical collision, 25 years since the world wide web was invented. When I first came to Berlin, the internet didn’t exist and I was still some years away from sending my first email. In a historical time frame, the evolution of digital technology, its capabilities, the never-going-back cultural cataclysm that it’s precipitated, has all happened while most of us, a single generation, were working out what to have for dinner, or who to marry, or how to earn a living; a microscopic sliver of time that has changed not just the world at our fingertips but, we’ve discovered since Snowden, the secret world beyond our fingertips. What is known about us. Who we are. What our records say.