A 21st Century

The Value in Meaning

‘There is something bigger than fact: the underlying sprit, all it stands for, the mood, the vastness, the wildness.’

Emily Carr
Whenever Bill Drummond, one half of the 80s – 90s electro band the KLF, went fishing, he would walk to his chosen fishing spot following such a route, which if drawn on a map, would form the outline of a fish. Whilst some might discard this gesture as an eccentricity or form of OCD. Others would attempt to explain the action as part of a ritual performed to give the event more meaning. Drummond himself explains it this way: ‘As far back as I can remember I have had a habit of trying to create patterns in the games I played or the things that I was doing.’1 Here, wherever we look for the patterns, we also increase the chance of stumbling across what we perceive to be deeper meaning as well.

In 1889, Paris held a World’s Fair to celebrate the passing of 100 years since the beginning of the French revolution. The Eiffel Tower, was to become the city’s great emblem, symbolising what technological progress meant to the leaders of Europe at the end of the 19th century. To some, it proffered an era of unlimited control over the world and all its wealth.

Popularly nicknamed the ‘Guardian of the Future’, the tower was a huge act of propaganda designed not by an architect, but by an engineer named Gustave Eiffel. The tower’s role transcended that of architecture or even that of pure symbolism. To those with crooked necks who gazed up beyond its lower haunches, it opened their eyes and stretched their imagination. So much so that it awoke deep within them a new sense of possibility.

With this icon firmly imprinted upon the minds of the next generation of engineers, it inspired the building of the skyscrapers which would one day come to fill the Manhattan skyline. Gustave’s gift, not just to France, but also to the world, was more than just a symbol of Western freedom: it represented a new pioneering spirit, which was set to claim the fully vertical.

As the 20th century unfurled, with both poles reached, the summit of Everest conquered, and even the surface of the moon falling to the sole of an astronaut’s boot. The very edge of the frontier being pushed by the human pioneering spirit had to be repitched as a race to all the same things again, but this time to find out who could do it the fastest. It was the Futurists who first celebrated speed with their manifesto in 1909. But capitalism took this idea forward in the guise of the competitiveness of the ‘free market’, and meanwhile self-titled ‘adventurers’ turned the exploration of the world into one giant time trial.

Once all the record books had been rewritten, and the same flags replanted with their PB’s attached, the game became who could get there again, in the most inventive fashion. On a unicycle, going backwards, whilst juggling three GPS receivers and a satellite phone. The spectacle of the competition itself kept us entertained for a while. But where amongst this pantomime was the formation of new symbolism or meaning that would one day prove useful to society as a whole? And where, beyond the boundaries being pushed by the individual or technology alone, was the new frontier that also pushed the envelope of human discovery in its purest form? Adventuring into the truly unknown, not necessarily outside into the big wide world, but deep within ourselves, inside our own internal ‘human spirit.’

Illustration – When all corners...

As humans, we tend to form narratives around our actions and add meaning to our lives, because this process helps us justify our actions, and to take everyone’s story to a logical end, helps us believe in the importance of the longevity of life itself. Charlie Parker might as well be talking about life’s virtues when he says that ‘music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.’2 But instead we live our lives spending inordinate quantities of time looking for what we think might be the right music to play.

Some of these thought processes even have names. One of them is called the ‘Ebbinghaus Curve of Forgetting’, in which the memories of details attached to an event in the past tend to fall away over time. Within our brains the facts get edited, distorted, exaggerated, sometimes manipulated by the mind as we form our own fully personalised narrative. Yet this same method of editing also helps us extract deeper meaning from otherwise unmanageable amounts of data. Our little micro stories become different productions of essentially the same master-play unfolding over time, over and over again. Wherever and whenever we add our own values and context, it can lead to very different and very unexpected results. Fascinating ideas can come out in even the smallest details.

Hunter-gatherers thousands of years ago believed everything to be connected. Nature was both a mother and a father. Streams and rivers were seen as living spirits. Tangentially, the concept of food as a ‘gift’ from a higher power has largely withstood the test of time. Today in Japan, it is said you eat with your eyes, whilst Americans are often said to get ‘hangry’ when they think with an empty stomach. Japanese carpenters pull their planes and wood saws towards them to reduce the risk of injury to anyone sharing the same workspace, whilst Western carpenters’ tools are made to be pushed away, paradoxically to protect the individual woodworker instead.3 We are forever rationalising and post-rationalising even the most everyday of situations, and the meaning created remanifests itself entirely in our next activities. To take this all back one step further, every word was once an idea that ‘left human minds, and entered the physical world.’

So now that all corners of the planet have already been discovered and conquered many times over, perhaps the next place of true discovery lies in taking longer, deeper looks not just at the world around us, but also inside ourselves. A new surge of technology frees us to requestion our own sense of place within the wider world. What will be the new patterns that begin to emerge? Here lies the potential to reorganise ourselves (and our thinking) in a different way which makes more sense of the developing strains.

What will be the new principles that we can imagine for living more harmoniously within the Earth’s natural systems? How do we fill these new ideas with meaning, in order to add value to whatever we build next? Here the Sustainable Movement offers us the new frontier that we’ve been so patiently waiting for, and everyone gets to be a pioneer of this new thought space. But only if we manage to make it feel bold and beautiful, and only if we define it in a way that proves to be more meaningful than the alternatives.

Here, even the choice of individual words is important because they represent the very ideas by which we live and act. Within the making of the Sustainable Movement, a new territory demands a new language, where emerging words wrap themselves around the things we are doing, bring their ideas to life, and give them wings to spread and be shared. Scientists recently proved that the words we use have the ability to reshape our brains; they have certainly always shaped our actions, and remain fundamental to how society evolves in the future. Words, just like tools, require constant updates in order to keep pace with change, and at best help shape it.

Acts of symbolism can therefore sometimes hold greater significance than acts of pure engineering, design or architecture alone. For example, how many Modernist buildings built during the 1960s have already been torn down, whilst the Eiffel Tower still stands proud and tall? Today we are witness to remarkable new feats of engineering, such as giant 1,500GW solar farms stretching for miles across our deserts. (The Datong Solar Farm not far from Beijing in North East China is even shaped like a panda bear.) But we are yet to stumble across new defining symbols as evocative or as uniting as the Eiffel Tower, which by becoming part of the daily landscape that citizens also inhabit, settled somewhere deep within the subconscious.

Eno highlights the value that can be added to our endeavours when he says: ‘new ideas are articulated by individuals, but generated by communities.’4 Gustave built his tower, whilst a whole community of architects went back to their drafting tables and sketched out New York. Iconography rarely lives to span centuries like this, unless it is taken less for what it looks like, and more for what it represents or symbolises. Adding meaning to the things we make therefore adds value by reappearing in the next actions we take. For the conscious artist, and within the context of the Sustainable Movement, it doesn’t get any more wonderfully circular than this.

Next ︎
Chapter 22 —
Be more Tree

Credits & Notes

John Higgs
The KLF: Chaos, magic and the band who burned a million pounds
Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2012)

Duston Grinell
‘How we learn a skill:  The journey from novice to master’, eureka.criver.com
(20 Mar 2012)

James Fox
The Art of Japanese Life Episode 1: Home
BBC Documentary (2017)

Brian Eno
John Peel Lecture
BBC Radio 6 (2015)


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