Thursday, 15 August 2013

The Contents of the Book

The development of the structure and aesthetic considerations of the book moved, necessarily, hand in hand with the development of the content. Each, indeed, informs and directs the other two. In some senses, it makes little sense to talk about them separately, except to avoid an over-long, rambling and unnecessarily complex stream of verbiage. 

It will be necessary to consider the matter of content section by section. First, this seems as good a time as any to discuss the matter of DS Blake. Mentioned briefly already on this blog here, DS Blake is one of the aspects of the final book that I have the least confidence over; I have included and excluded him several times, and still harbour doubts both about his necessity, and the strength of his execution. DS Blake was originally created as a simple pseudonym, in order to separate my work as a 'fine' artist from my forays into speculative illustration; much as 'Idle Toil' creates a degree of separation between my work in a commercial capacity and my work in a conceptual capacity. The intent was not to hide the fact that I am interested in science fiction, fantasy and horror out of a sense of embarrassment, but simply to acknowledge the distinct strands of my work, existing in different traditions and for different purposes. If I were to conceptualise my practice in terms of music, DS Blake would be a side project of the main band. The main practical purpose was to create two separate 'googleable entities' so that people searching for 'Simon Cardew Art' would not be confused by what they found.

The decision to bring DS Blake in as the fictional illustrator of Utopia/Dystopia came about during the struggle to locate an appropriate visual style for the illustrations in Heaven/Hell. Initially, I had a lot of trouble with this; my first thought was to continue the style embodied in the chapter headings; stark, heavy black and white. The expansion to include greyscale widened by possibilities somewhat; the first pieces of artwork that I completed that are still in the finished book are the images of the Utopian and the Dystopian that form, with newly coloured backgrounds, the centre of Culture/Nature.

The use of this particular style of semi-naturalistic digital painting suggested the style that characterises much of my work as DS Blake. The next images I created, the portraits that appear at the beginning of the non-visual essay sections, were an attempt to branch out into different styles, each portrait being rendered in a fashion suitable to the subject. However, this gave no inroads towards a visual style that would be appropriate for the majority of any illustrations that would be necessary. Since I already had a style I could use, I decided to bring in DS Blake, playfully crediting him as a co-author and creating a bizarre fictional biography inspired by underground culture. In the end, the majority of the illustrations I ended up creating for Culture/Nature were not distinctly those of DS Blake, and many of the illustrations for Magic/Politics were more distinctly those of Simon Cardew. In the end though, I still consider the claim of dual authorship appropriate, and I find the conceit enjoyable in any case.


Heaven/Hell was the first section of the book, and the first section I began seriously working on. As previously noted, in the section on structure, very little of the initial outline actually made it into the final work. The use of the portrait of Blake at the beginning, and the extensive quotation of him at the end, is the ghost of this structure; at one point, a discussion of his work would have featured much more heavily. As it is though, I find it sufficient to suggest his influence. As can be guessed by my choice of pseudonym, I consider Blake (for all his faults, and he had many) to be in some sense the spiritual father to the loose artistic tradition of idiosyncratic British mysticism to which I would like to consider myself belonging, alongside other obvious touchstones such as the Pre-Raphaelites, Julia Margaret Cameron, William Morris, Alan Moore, Patrick Keiller, Iain Sinclair and Peter Christopherson. The fact that this tradition is so amenable to the subject of Utopia and Dystopia is no coincidence.

The subject of this first section became, eventually and perhaps necessarily, the development of Utopia and Dystopia as literary concepts, and some critical theory surrounding them, and their relation to history and to broader culture. The text itself is fairly un-cryptic, though the arrangement of the text, the choice of quotations, and the particular subjects covered are packed with allusive meaning. I had no choice but to be selective. The 42 pages of this section were in no way adequate space to deal with the subject in any manner that could pretend to be exhaustive; indeed, neither would the entire 230 pages of the book, or a book twice the size. I could easily have spent two entire years on nothing but preparatory reading and other research, and made this chapter into two fat volumes; time did not allow this. Instead, I followed what I have tried to make the guiding principle of the particular style of writing that characterizes the prose discourse in my books; to suggest and intimate, and to ask questions that may not necessarily be answered. Though there are some trappings of academic style, I do not intend this work to be seen as academic, nor does it make any pretense of the rigor one would expect of purely academic work at the post-graduate level. It is poetry, it is art. I try to make my writing playful, as much about the enjoyment of ideas as the ideas themselves. I hope to some degree I have succeeded. There are certainly ideas in this section that I did not encounter being expressed in my reading on the subject that merit further thought, from me or perhaps from someone else. The decision to parcel this section up into sub-sections, named after parts of the Divine Comedy, came early on, and I have tried to use it to inject a degree of tension into what might otherwise have been a rambling and unreadable stream of consciousness. 

The illustrations in this section are purely DS Blake, and the artistic thinking behind them deserves some discussion. In my digital paintings, produced under this name, my primary artistic influences are the German expressionist Otto Dix, and the pre-Raphaelites, particularly William Holman-Hunt. By using the capacity of the computer to zoom in and work on the smallest details with the same techniques and tools that one uses on larger areas (an utterly unique facility of the medium), the aim is to create a sense of 'hyperreality'; not necessarily in the strict Baudrillardian sense, but in the sense that the images are simultaneous more than and less than real; figures with subtly disjointed, cartoonish or expressionist proportions, and totally unreal landscape vistas are rendered in extremely fine detail, using vibrant and over-saturated colour. Some elements stand out as almost photorealistic, take for example, the cigarette and the spot in the cheek in the following image.

This image, particularly, stands out to me as succeeding with what I set out to achieve with this style, which is why I chose it for the catalogue image.


For this section, I decided on a complete change of tack, using a structure (as previously noted) that I previously used successfully in Vectis. Since I had explored Utopia and Dystopia in a literary aspect in the first chapter, I decided to explore the subject as a visual phenomena in this section. The textual essay is fairly straightforward and self-explanatory, as are the in-line illustrations. The simultaneous visual exploration of the symbolism used to denote Utopia and Dystopia, on the other hand, was an extremely difficult gestation. Finding a visual style for this section was extremely difficult. My initial decision not to run with the digital painting style used in Heaven/Hell was as much to do with a wish to vary my working practice somewhat and escape the computer; I decided instead to try creating some looser, hand-drawn illustrations. These illustrations, the styling of them, and their content went through an enormous number of iterations. Take, for example, four versions of the same picture, showing a slice of this development.

At first, I was attempting to produce a body of work in an array of hand-rendered styles. This was in keeping with the first body of work that I considered a part of the DS Blake identity, a personal project inspired by the cult computer game Dwarf Fortress. The over-wrought, gothic style of these illustrations, however, would have been over-much for the subject of Utopia/Dystopia. I tried a range of other approaches, experimenting with digital over-working of hand-drawn illustrations, but the results were never satisfactory. Eventually, I alighted on a very simple, iconic style, somewhat reminiscent of stained glass windows, which seemed suitable for the focus of the illustrations on exploring visual symbolism. Initially, I tried hand-colouring these with watercolour, but after a process of development, I alighted on block digital colour, combined with overlaid textures taken from photographs. 

At first, I planned on creating six illustrations exploring the symbolism of Utopia, and six exploring the symbolism of Dystopia. However, this never quite seemed to work out; the need for so many images spread the ideas too thin. Instead, I eventually decided on a sort of loose narrative sequence that explored the intermingling and mutual destruction of both concepts, ending in the obligatory mushroom cloud of apocalypse.


This section is looser than the other two similiar sections, both in terms of content and terms of approach. Initially I had intended this section to be fairly similiar to Heaven/Hell, though concentrating particularly on the politics and occult aspects of the subject. My first stab at it was the production of a fairly lengthy informal essay on the subject of conspiracism, reproduced here, as well as some tentative illustrations.

 This proved itself to be inadequate, and for a long time this section was basically abandoned as I worked on the rest of the book, being in fact the last part of it to be completed. When the right time came, it seemed almost to assemble itself. It is certainly the most cryptic section, as is perhaps fitting for its particular concern with the occult. 

The Visual Essays

It is in the visual essays that the initial streams of consciousness survive. Take for example, this initial outline for Sex/Death:
Marquis de Sade. Pasolini. 120 Days of Sodom as a satire of intentional communities and utopian projects (specifically Rabelais)- The first dystopia? Sadean thought and Malthusianism; intimate relationship between sex and death in political economy.  Transhumanism. Critiques thereof. Donna Haraway. A Cyborg Manifesto. HP Lovecraft - cosmic horror vs techno-utopia.  80’s science-fiction literature and general culture; the intimate connection of the concerns of the time with nuclear apocalypse. Neuromancer. Blade Runner. Akira. The Japanese relationship with the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as expressed through science fiction, particularly with regards to mutation, birth defects etc. Eroguro Nansensu.  Contrast with the visions of the American ‘Atoms for Peace’ initiatives of the 1950’s: atomic cars, atomic jetliners, atomic landscaping; the visions of those who perpetrated the bombings versus those who had them perpetrated upon them. 
As you can see, most of the ideas bought up here end up in some sense in the final product. This holds largely true as well for the other sections, though Order/Chaos was written up from the beginning in more detail. Generally, the visual essays gave space for ideas that were outside the aegis of the other sections.

The actual layout of the visual essays; particularly the way in which the 'Note' section, the actual visual essay and the list of image sources reinforce and play off each other, is a formal experiment that I consider to be broadly successful. The essays play off the parallel formats, with each medium supplying information that it would be difficult for the other to supply. The most difficult of the essays to complete, naturally, was the first one, Sex/Death. Once the format had been established, the others were relatively easy to complete, though of course the selection of images presented some difficulties. With Sex/Death, this was particularly difficult as the visual essay portion was initially created from the short stream of consciousness above, after which the longer text was written after a long process of changing and re-ordering the images, a process made more lengthy by the cutting out process, which required detailed and careful work in photoshop. Overall, 77 versions of 44 seperate images were compared before the essay was complete.

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