Talk for TEDx Brighton: ‘Loving the Machine’
The theme of TEDx Brighton was ‘reasons to be cheerful’
A regular speaker at salons such as The Last Tuesday Society, Dorkbot London and David Bramwell’s mighty Catalyst Club, I’ve also appeared at The South Bank Centre (Purcell Room), TEDx Brighton, Off the Page, curated by The Wire and NyMusikk, the Science Museum, the Edinburgh Secret Society, Hack Circus (Interesting 11), the Fortean Times Unconvention, the Green Man Festival, Fear and Loathing in Newcastle, the British Science Festival and many other venues. My talk on the use of birds as primordial, feathered sound recorders was taken on by BBC Radio 4 and turned into the documentary The Bird Fancyer’s Delight.
Here are just a few examples of the topics I’ve covered recently. My talks are very adaptable so do get in touch if you’d like to see a variant of these at your festival or salon – or if there’s another theme you’d like to discuss:
In this talk and live demonstration, I explore some of the stranger obsessions of the early adopters of recorded sound, as I immortalise a voice from the audience by recording it on wax, using an original Edison Standard Phonograph. When he first saw the phonograph demonstrated in December 1877, a journalist writing in Scientific American noted there was a now ‘a startling possibility of the voices of the dead being reheard’. Radios, phonographs and gramophones are transmitters of disembodied voices, a feat that seemed so remarkable to the first users, it inspired some unlikely alliances between scientists and diviners of the spirit world. This event includes tales of ventriloquism, fake psychics, memento mori, the 1920s fashion for ‘ghost radio’ and aerial parties. I’ll perform some live ‘aether music’ on the theremin and play genuine voices from the grave: message records posted by soldiers who were lost in battle in the Second World War.
As seen at: The Last Tuesday Society, The Catalyst Club, Fear and Loathing in Newcastle and the Fortean Times UnConvention (booked for Nov 2011).
We all know we can train budgies to talk – but here, I talk about the extraordinary fashion in the 18th and 19th centuries to train birds to sing popular music on command. Bullfinches, linnets, canaries and other songbirds were taught popular tunes as well as songs written specially for birds. Once trained, these songsters were used as primordial, feathered music machines, delivering music in people’s homes, 100 years before the arrival of the phonograph and the advent of recorded sound. I’ll talk about this curiosity from the archives as I play some extraordinary examples of trained birds, including bullfinches that can sing German folksongs and champion talking budgie Sparkie Williams, a bird who could recite 500 words and phrases.
As seen and heard at The Last Tuesday Society, The Catalyst Club and on BBC Radio 4.
Aided by my uncanny ventriloquial sidekick Hugo, a 1930s doll that was rescued from the attic of a dead magician, I take you on a trip to the uncanny valley – the place where dolls, robots and cartoon characters unsettle us because they seem a little too human. This talk is a feast of uncanny encounters, covering everything from golems and taxidermy experiments to ventriloquists’ dummies. I delve into the science of uncanniness – a hypothesis from roboticist Masahiro Mori that is still open to debate. During the show you are invited to participate in a live experiment where the audience put some claims about uncanniness to the test.
As seen at: The Hen & Chickens, the Science Museum (evening event for adults) and the Brighton Festival Fringe.
This original account of the British experience of The Bomb can be presented as a 20 minute salon talk or an extended show with music, film and robotics. Awarded Most Groundbreaking Act of Brighton Festival and Fringe 2013 – read a review.
In the 1980s, when most people lived in fear of Armageddon, a small band of self-styled nuclear survivalists were preparing for it with relish, just like an extended, underground caravanning holiday. They built private shelters and fitted them out as luxuriously as space, budgets and gamma rays would allow. They swapped tips on best food for the ‘three week survival period’ and on ways to beat the queues in the supermarket if there was an escalating threat of nuclear war. Their magazine of choice was ‘Protect and Survive Monthly’, a periodical which advertised private shelters and ran features on topics that would interest the caring nuclear survivalist: e.g. ‘Will my Pet Survive?’ This talk delves into some rarely seen archives to tell the story of these survivalists. It uncovers the grim truth about Britain’s own preparedness for nuclear attack in the 1980s. During the show, I contrast the distinctly Thatcherite approach of the private shelter brigade to the work of the Royal Observer Corp, a remarkable band of volunteers who planned to leave their families in the event of an attack and staff monitoring stations, keeping us informed of approaching nuclear radiation. The talk includes clips from some rarely seen public information films.
A film show, featuring curious vintage science clips including smoking robots, infrasonic terrors, mind control experiments, time and motion studies and rocket lollies. A feast of scientific and technological curiosities on film, from 1900 to present day. This show includes two astounding films from the UK archives. One is a vision of the future (1955) created in 1935. The other is a strangely prescient film from the 1960s, predicting a world where everyone’s secrets are stored on a giant, global computer network. Many of the films are mute and accompanied by live music from electronic and robot outfit Spacedog.