Mildly Dystopian

Still-life with incense stick
Still-life with incense stick, water tank, and robot soap

Some days ago I was invited to give a guest lecture to students studying for an international cultural heritage masters degree. It was a nice to be addressing a group of attentive people again. The subject, ‘Authenticity in the Digital Age’, gave me enough leeway to make a broad movement from a philosophical point of view to a very down to earth practical approach. The relationship between physical artefacts and their digital representations, and the often emotional attachments that we have for physical artefacts that are close to the source of their creation, like first editions, signed copies, drawings, was one of the main strands of the lecture.

On my way back home I was thinking about digital born material, the immaterial cultural heritage of the near future. By its very nature it can never acquire the patina of ink stains, the grime of being picked up and put down, the scribbles and markings of a finished page that goes through the editing process. It is forever pristine, until it fades away with the obsolescence of its technological environment.

Back home I looked at the H0 models that my dad created approximately 45 years ago for his train-set, now abandoned and put away in cardboard boxes. Hundreds of lengths of rail, curves, switches, magnetic sensors, innumerable wound ends of electrical wires, and many plastic houses, and other props. I kept some of them in view. The nice thing about them is the complete absence of any economic value, or collector’s interest. They’re not pristine, but were handled many times, maltreated, broken, and repaired. They collected dust and grease, attracted nicotine and were battered by discarded tools.

The landscape these objects occupied was in perpetual development, it was never finished. When the first track, built in the basement, with hills, tunnels, and a real waterfall, was nearly ready, we moved. Then there was the second project, a large platform that covered a whole spare-room, and that could be hoisted to the ceiling because it was suspended. You had to position yourself in the center of the room when the landscape came down. A square hole in the center contained all the controls. The track had several levels and was immensely complex. Far too complex. Everything was controlled by electromagnetic switches that my dad created himself by winding copper spools. The central switch was an iron nail, embedded in a rectangular piece of red plastic. When a train passed a, self-made, sensor, the electromagnet-switch was activated and somewhere a railway point was changed. He spent weeks turning the copper spools and building the switches. Then he created hundreds of signal lights by painting the ink-tubes of empty ballpoint pens, mounting them with a small top piece with two tiny lights and a backplate which he cut from small sheets of metal. It was fascinating.

As soon as the project was finished, he dissembled the whole thing and kept everything, including the trains, in boxes. I suppose the journey was more valuable than the destination. The boxes are now in my care. I cleaned and re-packed everything and kept a few items in view, worthless and priceless.


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