Are smartphones ruining art?

Videos on social media sites are merely dumbed-down replicas.

Earlier this month, James McAvoy stopped a performance of Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios to ask a member of the audience to stop filming it. A bold move that risked ruining the show for those who chose not to view the live event through a 2D screen. And, arguably, any actor less sure of his status as one of Britain’s best wouldn’t dare be so impertinent. But, in principle, McAvoy has a point.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs cottoned on to the annoyance of phone-viewing and posted a pre-emptive notice to their fans banning the use of phone cameras and filming. The Guardian’s Michael Hann has argued that cameraphone footage is infuriating and pointless. Using mobiles and tablets to document a live event is not only annoying to those around them – judging from the comments on Hann’s article, many agree with this point – it’s also detrimental to the production itself.

When you see an iPhone or iPad set to camera-mode during an event, it’s rarely so the owner can enjoy the show over and over again at home: it’s for sharing on social networks. And for artistic productions, this kind of exposure is damaging. Posting self-shot videos and photos of gigs, productions, performances and art exhibitions undermines the integrity of the original. Production teams work hard to create an image for their show, often selecting specific moments during the production to be shown to the press, while reserving others as surprises. Inevitably, if someone documents what they deem to be the best moments of a production and strew them over Twitter, you would be less inclined to bother spending money on going to see the show live.

Take No Fit State Circus, currently performing at the Roundhouse, as an example. Type their name into Twitter or YouTube (followed by the word “live”) and a barrage of pictures and videos taken on smart devices will flood your newsfeed. These aren’t produced by the company, they’re snapshots posted by viewers wanting to share their experience of the show with friends and followers – a fragmented portrayal of the production.

Arguably, footage posted on social media could be deemed as publicity, providing the show with free exposure. Social networks are now well-known for their ability to generate ‘hype’ about a certain product or event. But there’s a reason why institutions like The Southbank Centre have a no filming policy: the joy of seeing a play or visiting an art installation is in the physical live experience.

Your peripheral vision soaks up your surroundings. The sound design creates a three-dimensional scene and you feed off the atmosphere in the space, reacting in real-time to other viewers or participants. None of this can be sufficiantly captured on film. Instead, you’re presented with a cut and paste job, left to make your mind up about whether or not to visit a production based on someone else’s selected clips. Plus, they may well have exposed you to the most climactic point of the piece – this has happened to me – which thoroughly ruins any appetite you once had of going to see it.

I’m not averse to technology fusing with the arts when it is complimentary, as this advert for a new robot demonstrates. We may not be far away from a time where remote viewing becomes the norm and viewers can “visit” exhibitions using robots with iPad conectivity. It may not be the same as physically attending a gallery, but as least you will create an interpretation of the art based on your own experience of it.

However, until the majority of performances and installations are created with smartphone technology in mind, pictures and videos published on social media networks are merely dumbed-down replicas of the original cultural product. Unrepresentative and misleading, they devalue the original production. I would love to see technology further incorporation into the arts, but otherwise, smart-phone filming has no place in artistic performances. In my internet utopia, our cultural spaces would be camera-free, allowing the genius behind every piece of art to remain a mystery.

Put your camera up in the air. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear