concept

on the concept of the script


Question your teaspoons.

Georges Perec, Species of Spaces

In his afterword to George Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, Marc Lowenthal writes that the text is “open ended enough to allow readers to bring whatever baggage they wish, and to leave with anything they wish – from a cellophane wrapper on the pavement to an unseizable, overflowing world [...] Perec is chipping patiently away at time, second by dying second.” “Tighten your fingers around a teaspoon, feel its metal pulse, its mistrustful warning” writes Julio Cortaz├ír in Instructions for Life. “How it hurts to refuse a spoon, to say no to a door, to deny everything that habit has licked to a suitable smoothness.” It is our habituation to the culture and objects that surround us that these writers interrogate, and it is this habituation that we too question through this film. The demand is the critical modernist call for full engagement with the world in its materiality and temporality.
The basis of the script in user manuals, transformed through the few permitted grammatical changes, is typical of an Oulipian strategy (Perec was a key figure in the OuLiPo, a group founded in 1960 for exploring constrained writing). Our use of the constraint here is to highlight subtexts in the language of instruction –specifically, how they have changed over time, and how they habituate us to particular relationships with objects and matter, time, and one another.

As long as writers are thought of as artists and user manuals as works of art, neither professional writers nor engineers are likely to produce usable manuals. The key is to think of manuals as devices.

Edmond H. Weiss, How to Write a Usable User Manual

The superficially prosaic nature of the language of instruction belies its complex, highly codified nature, which developed in step with the consumer society. On offer are what seem to be mere cellophane wrappers (per Lowenthal) – the words discarded, the manual binned as soon as we open the box of the shiny new device. Whereas what is actually being offered is the entire overflowing world, unseizable, unsizeable – a world in which most of the signs point the wrong way, leading us into walled gardens and follies, making us free through servitude to a dream, a utopian promise of perpetually deferred fulfilment.

Smaller. Faster. Obsolete.

Hacker t-shirt, early 2000s
This work uses manuals as devices to throw another light on the nexus of material, energetic, cultural and economic dependencies that our appliances and devices embody. How do the assumptions, threats and assurances made in manuals affect our world-views, our habitual unthinking daily lives? Generally our approach is allusive and indirect – there is the prosaic script, refracted through the delivery of the voice artist, and there is the contrapuntal sound and image, which weaves a neo-expressionist, tech-noir tale around the script. And beneath the surface of the script, there are subtexts and themes including:
-    a history of gender relations
-    the rise of the overzealous legislator
-    the transformation of the engineer from creator of modular, fail-safe systems to designer of obsolescence
-    an increasing awareness of natural resources as limited
-    a changing relationship to time (for work, for leisure)
-    anxieties: of competence, status, hygiene, morality, and personal security
-    the changing status of expert authority.

Recently, as our devices and appliances have become more ‘intelligent’, the manuals have become longer than ever, bloated by disclaimers and license agreements, yet instructing far less. Increasingly, product manufacturers increasingly rely on consumers to discover and invent ways of using devices, while they attempt to rein in the more extreme abuse and maintaining some control on brand identity and the profit stream. As devices become more akin to service portals, so the instructions and restrictions shift to the realm of ‘immaterial’ – intellectual property, computation time. In the later scenes, the film extends the idea of the artist Linda Hilfling’s Gate Peepin’ work to the ‘Internet of things’. Gate Peepin’ modifies the content of (for example) social networking websites by interweaving phrases of their terms and conditions with the user generated content, allowing us to peep into the otherwise hidden layers of regulations governing the use of ‘democratic’ webspaces. A New and Exciting Experience does the same for the objects of our daily lives.