‘For your next assignment, I want you’, intoned the professor with characteristic bombast, ‘to re-imagine the world from first principles. I presume you all think yourselves capable of devising a better world than this one and I would ask you to think very carefully about what this would entail. There are those of you’ she continued ‘who may think they can rush straight in, with red planets and alien creatures; I’ve seen it all before and, while imagination is to be encouraged, by far the more intelligent way to proceed would be to first study the world as we know it, or think we know it. Be objective. Use your lens as a microscope and I assure you that, once you have begun, you will never see the world in quite the same way again.
‘In considering the geography of your new world, you would be advised to study the tectonics of this one – the shifting landmasses and the cataracts flowing between them, the engendered identities and the enmities of nations – in order to determine whether dividing terrain in this way is perhaps more trouble than it’s worth. Try to visualise the wind as it travels across the plains or as birds slipstream through its thermal currents. Study flora and fauna before you decide which laws of nature to accept or reject. Question the relevance of everything – how attached are you to rain, for example, or to gravity for that matter – and carefully consider the implications of the changes you propose.’
The space in which she spoke to them was uncharacteristically empty, devoid of the visual aids the professor normally invoked; but the class found many images materialising. On a white board at the back of their minds, she had written INVISIBLE and NATURE in squeaky black marker as she spoke. Pausing to allow the thoughts of the class to catch up with her, she wrote RANDOM? and resumed:
‘And what of the creatures criss-crossing the surface of this planet? Which forces are pulling them in different directions within this dynamic tapestry? It may interest you to know that, when this exercise was conducted by last year’s group, it yielded some speculations on the nature of fate; but, we will leave that until we consider your findings. For now, I would refer you to the study of Brownian motion you conducted in the first semester…’ (at this, a collective brain envisaged delicate golden particles being constantly shunted around a conical flask as larger liquid molecules bombarded them on all sides) …‘and ask you whether sentient flotsam has more or less volition than flecks of pollen.
‘Consider the idiosyncrasies of humanity at this stage of its evolution, in anatomical and physiological terms. Dissect the mechanism of articulated movement, its wonders and limitations, and ask yourselves whether this species could function more effectively if it had appendages that are yet to be devised. Maybe you would engineer a new race of humans without greed or anger? Or perhaps you will imagine that an entirely new life form would be better suited for the purposes that you determine.
‘Human beings have created a world that dwarfs them and you will need to scrutinise this closely to understand their folly. Emerging from the same amniotic depths as ourselves, other people remain mysterious to us and need to be thoroughly analysed before determining whether we are to reproduce this experiment or to replace it with another. In examining why and how humans interact with the world around them, try to take account of their motivations and anxieties. Be sympathetic to the trauma of inhabiting a place for no defined reason, and ask whether you would leave more specific clues next time around.’
Scrawling REASON in sloping capitals under HUMAN and BODY, the self-appointed Professor Emerita of Subliminal Intervention turned to face the dedicated group that had found its way to her and softened her voice by way of conclusion: ‘Please be aware that this is not intended merely as a rational investigation. In time, I hope, you will come to see the beauty of interactions between the animate and the inanimate; the warp and weft of pathways will dissolve into an abstract pattern and random encounters will begin to appear choreographed. With luck, values will emerge in this world, transcending time and space, which must be maintained. I leave it to you to decide what to keep and what to rebuild anew. I understand that this is a big, open-ended project that will require a state of constant refinement. For this reason, I am giving you the rest of your lifetimes in which to complete it.’ And, with that, she dematerialised.
Commissioned by Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow for the ‘Invisible Fields’ exhibition, 2005.