In and out of the digital world (2020 – 1960)


Recently I was obliged to prepare a short presentation limited to about 20 slides which was, as far as I could tell, supposed to tell a story about my development as an artist. Maybe that wasn’t the actual official goal but, notwithstanding, I went ahead with that idea.

I began the story of my development with a reference to my earliest memories concerning some of the aesthetic features of the world around me in Singapore. My father, for example, drew my attention to the ‘scarlet hibiscus’ and the ‘creamy-white frangipani’; I was shown the astonishing designs and decorations of the Chinese temples and I was fascinated by the intricate complexity of Chinese writing. I even heard ‘the twittering of the birds’ as my parents played Mah Jong.

I contrasted these aesthetic moments with the sheer grad-grind greyness of my subsequent late 1950s life in the UK. Then in my presentation, I focused on the excitement of the emerging cultural ethos of Britain in the 1960s. This was a time when an alternative culture was getting into full swing; film, music, theatre, literature, art, politics and the social sciences were combining to generate a liberated ‘mind-expanding’ perception. It was (for me) a great time to be alive and the world seemed to overflow with possibilities and potential. What’s more, the songs of the 60s’ culture were terrific …

As I prepared my slide presentation I realised how different the new digital world has become: here, I was creating something that operated in a new modality – and something embedded in a new post-industrial culture. The sheen and glow of the ‘screen’ constitutes and supports a new aesthetic. Nonetheless the memories of those alternative ideas in the wonderful years of the 1960s had a strangely liberating effect upon me.

Then, not long after my presentation had been completed, Lady Gaga appeared on the television. She had organised and curated a marathon broadcast to support the World Health Organisation that had been streamed ‘live’ over several hours the day before. But in the UK someone had decided to condense much of this into a two-hour show featuring a few of Lady Gaga’s original live-stream performers and some additional inclusions from the UK. Amongst them were the Rolling Stones and I was delighted to watch and listen to their stylish rendition of ‘You can’t always get what you want.’ Once again, Mick Jagger’s legendary star-appeal was apparent. The song, ‘You can’t always get what you want’ featured on their 1969 LP ‘Let it bleed’; it reminded me that the song is more than 50 years old!

Then, as the UK television programme unfolded something astonished me: a majority of the songs chosen by the artists were composed, recorded and broadcast in the 1960s. This was ‘my’ era. And the songs I heard were the ones I had listened to on tiny transistor radios or record players with 45 rpm records or 33 rpm albums. Once again, I realised that I had had the irreplaceable cultural privilege of being young and unconstrained and educated in the 1960s.

The performers of these old songs included the brilliantly gifted Billie Eilish, the wonderful John Legend, the huge Rag ’n Bone Man and, of course, the unstoppable brio and genius of Lady Gaga. The only thing which detracted from the UK television programme was the unnecessary and tendentious appearance of the Beckhams. In a time of crisis (such as the one we are living through) we do not need to hear from these confections of the media. Instead, we need to hear, once again, from the alternative and counter culture – a kind of update from the 60s.

Here are some of those perfect songs from the 1960s:

John Legend and Sam Smith – ‘Stand by me’ (1961)
Jennifer Lopez – ‘People’ (1964)
Rag n Bone Man – ‘The times they are a’changin’ (1964)
Billie Eilish and Finneas – ‘Sunny’ (1966)
Michael Buble – ‘God only knows’ (1966)
Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello ‘ Wonderful world’ (1967)
Paul McCartney – ‘Lady Madonna’ (1968)

The Rolling Stones – ‘You can’t always get what you want‘ (1969)

Post script: The presentation to which I refer and that I was originally making is something called a PechaKucha

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