At the airfield: Introducing Richard Wilson’s “Slipstream”

The renowned sculptor's new work, an aluminium procession of twists and somersaults, is currently being installed at Heathrow's new Terminal 2 building. Last week the aerobatics pilot Paul Bonhomme attempted to illustrate its curves above an airfield in E

We watched as the plane rose vertically, then stopped. It seemed to hang in the air. With a quick tip of the rudder the vehicle swung out like a leaf and flipped onto its back. On the ground there was a light breeze. The grass was damp from rain the previous night. We stood in groups and looked up as the sound of the engine died away. The plane rolled and fell to the ground.

“No flight ever goes the way you want it to,” the pilot had explained in the hangar that morning. “It’s beautiful in that way.”

Paul Bonhomme was born to fly. His father and brother were both commercial pilots. His mother was an air stewardess. His prize-winning plane, the Zivko Edge 540, is a light aerobatic aircraft capable of rolling 420 degrees per second and climbing 3,700 feet in less than a minute. Last week, on a small private airfield in Saffron Walden in Essex, Bomhomme attempted to imitate a flightpath dreamed up by a computer. It seemed impossible, looking at the plans. His model was a procession of twists and somersaults devised by sculptor Richard Wilson to form the basis of his latest work, Slipstream.

In the sculpture world, Wilson is renowned for large, mechanistic works of art, and like his best-known pieces, Slipstream is about transformation. His project 20:50 was essentially a tank of reflective sump oil, now housed in the basement of the Saatchi Gallery. It takes time, upon entering the room on a raised platform above the oil, to realise that the floor isn’t solid. “You’d be arrested if you put a teaspoon of it down the drain,” Wilson said. “It’s hazardous, it’s waste – and yet people come out of that room talking about ‘beauty’ and ‘space’.” Another famous work is Turning the Place Over, for which a section of façade was cut from a neglected Liverpool office block and put on a rotating spindle.

The building was set for demolition, neglected by those who passed by. Heathrow is not. It is seen regularly. The new Terminal 2 building is expected to host 20 million tourists a year when it is completed in 2014. The courtyard where the sculpture will hang from four central pillars is roughly the same size as the turbine hall at Tate Modern. In 2010 Heathrow set up a competition to invite proposals for the space. Slipstream, the winning entry, is constructed of 23 independent bespoke aluminium sections, weighs 74 tonnes, is 70 metres long and is held together by 3,000 rivets. It is being driven from Hull, where it was manufactured, and is being installed over the summer.

A computer-generated impression of the finished work.

“It’s a metaphor for travel,” Wilson explained, waiting for Bonhomme to take off. “It’ll move and tumble from A to B just as the passengers are doing: they’re getting on a plane and getting off in a very different situation.” And here, if anywhere, is the dark note. Slipstream is a large and expensive piece of public art, but it is not pure ideology. It smuggles in a little of the inhumanity of the long-haul journey: the lack of control, geographical blindness and absence of time felt by passengers who step on board a jet in London and wake up 14 hours later in Hong Kong.

Heathrow has attempted to catch the attention of travellers before, to make them notice the activity around them as they wander through. In 2009, Alain de Botton became the airport’s first Artist-in-Residence. “While punctuality lies at the heart of what we typically understand by a good trip,” de Botton wrote in A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary, “I have often longed for my plane to be delayed - so that I might be forced to spend a bit more time at the airport.” He might be the only one. From the austere grey corridors to the tacky brands, bad attitudes and endless queues, airports are astonishing for their capacity to make us indifferent to the miracle of flight.

Bonhomme landed his gyroscopic jet to dense applause, and with his safe return to earth came the train back to London, to work. Another journalist asked Wilson if he would be going up on the next flight. “I’m not that into flying, actually,” he admitted. “I prefer motorbikes. It takes a few drinks to get me up in the air.”

Early sketches for Richard Wilson's "Slipstream", which the aerobatic pilot Paul Bonhomme recreated in Essex last week.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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