Astonishing Science. Spectacular museum.
Tony White approached his writer's residency as an opportunity to use fiction as a 'kind of laboratory', a place to experiment and reflect on the kinds of stories that the Science Museum tells the world about itself and its collections. The focus of his residency was to write a short story that responded to Listening Post by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, an acclaimed artwork which displays uncensored fragments of text, sampled in real-time, from public internet chatrooms and bulletin boards. Tony's story was published in spring 2009 as Albertopolis Disparu, a limited-edition publication branded as 'A Science Museum Booklet', in keeping with the Museum's classic imprint from the 1960s.
In Albertopolis Disparu, White tells of his apparent discovery in the Museum's collection of papers 'by author unknown' that form a draft introduction to a hitherto uncatalogued work by the late science-fiction author James Colvin. This now lost work of Colvin's tells of a top-secret telegraphic 'listening post' that was situated in Museum buildings during the First World War, and of its destruction in a mysterious zeppelin raid in 1916.
As part of his residency White also held a series of creative writing workshops, which took their cue from a suggestion by Hansen and Rubin that their Listening Post begins to turn chatroom communication into 'a giant cut-up poem'. During the workshop sessions participants used writing techniques such as the cut-up, developed by writer William S Burroughs (1914-97) and Bryon Gysin (1916-86), as a means to create new works of fiction.
Read Albertopolis Disparu, a selection of the workshop participants' stories and a statement by Tony White
Tony White (born 1964) is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Foxy-T (Faber and Faber), numerous short stories and the non-fiction work Another Fool in the Balkans (Cadogan). His recent novella Dicky Star and the Garden Rule (Forma) was specially commissioned to accompany work by artists Jane and Louise Wilson.
White wrote the interactive SMS based drama Ivy4Evr with Blast Theory for Channel 4, which was shortlisted for a BIMA Award, and in 2012 he was commissioned by Situations and Bristol City Council to create Missorts a permanent public artwork for the city.
Albertopolis Disparu, a selection of the workshop participants' stories
'Albertopolis' was the affectionate and satirical Victorian-era nickname given to this part of South Kensington. The area was purchased specifically to continue the legacy of Prince Albert's Great Exhibition of 1851 by becoming home to all these great, Victorian-era, cultural and educational institutions. As I wandered around the Science Museum’s great halls, researched in the Museum collections and wondered what kind of story I could write here, I found myself revisiting a science-fiction genre called 'steampunk'. To generalise only slightly, 'steampunk' is based on the assumption that mechanical 19th-century computing technologies such as Babbage's Difference Engine created our contemporary information age a century or so early.
With so many steam engines, flying machines and 'infernal devices'(*) of all kinds housed in its collections, the Science Museum feels like the genre's spiritual home. Babbage's Analytical Engine and the original Difference Engine No. 2 (which took until 1991 to build from Babbage's drawings) are also housed right here in 'South Ken'.
To mark the completion of my residency the Science Museum published a limited-edition short-story book, Albertopolis Disparu. The booklet was available free to Museum visitors while stocks lasted, from a purpose-built display near the Listening Post exhibition on the first floor.
In Albertopolis Disparu I tell of my discovery in the Museum's collection of papers 'by author unknown' that form a draft introduction to a hitherto uncatalogued work by the late science-fiction author James Colvin. James Colvin was in fact a pseudonym created by the celebrated author Michael Moorcock when he was editor of the hugely influential New Worlds magazine in the 1960s. I'm grateful to him for allowing us to invoke Colvin's name here!
I also wanted to use my residency to create free opportunities for other writers to come here. I devised a series of writing workshops, and optional follow-up sessions so that participants could offer each other feedback and continue working on their stories up to publication, and take part in a launch event in the Museum. All of the resulting stories reflect - in their own unique ways - upon our contemporary information and surveillance societies. So we're delighted to be able to publish a selection of those stories on the Museum website as downloadable PDFs.
Tony White March 2009
(*) The title of US author K W Jeter's classic 1987 novel. Jeter also coined the term 'steampunk'.
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