Alien Trilogy (Exploring Paradise Lost)
The text explores the experience
of cross border alienation
through three fragments covering different aspects: the
personal, the cultural and the political. The text is based
on the author's personal experience of a study visit to
the Netherlands which eventually lead to a much longer stay
and a not too successful attempt to build a career and family
1. A Visit From My Partner:
Although the previous month
without her had been both reasonably
pleasant and highly successful, I was desperately looking
forward to seeing my partner again.
My earlier arrival in the Netherlands had been planned but
not organized. I had simply packed a few essential things
(like a sleeping bag and a few pots and pans) and had set
off hoping to finalize on arrival my registration for a
post-graduate study at the university.
Directly after registration and introductions, my first priority
had been to find somewhere to stay. This had been successful
and after sleeping on someone's couch for a few evenings
I had found temporary accommodation in a student flat -occupying
the room of a student away on a short study trip.
The search for more permanent accommodation for the following
month had also been successful. The course was proving to
be extremely exciting and the weather had been marvelous.
Everything seemed perfect, I had obviously made a wise decision
to leave home and explore the world across the sea. The
only thing I really missed was my partner.
My, perhaps foolhardy, lack of planning had unfortunately
precluded my partner from accompanying me on my initial
voyage. Two may perhaps be able to live as cheaply as one
-but finding suitable accommodation might easily have proved
more than twice as difficult!
We had therefore agreed that she would wait until I had formed
some kind of domestic "bridgehead" in the new environment.
One month later, with everything organized, it seemed an
ideal time for her to take time off from her part-time job
in order to pop over for a short weekend trip. During the
coming weekend we could also check out the arrangements
for a more permanent visit. I was to meet her at the airport.
Full of eager expectation, I arrived about half an hour before
her expected time of arrival. Of course, her plane was delayed
-by about ninety minutes, so the information system informed
After nearly two long hours of anticipation, drinking coffee
and chain smoking, another ten minutes were added to her
arrival time, then another twenty five minutes -and finally
Eventually her plane did land. Precisely two minutes after
the last bus had left for our home destination. However,
after another, short, wait for disembarcation, baggage retrieval
and customs check we were in each others arms at last.....
I tried to suggest that we stayed at the airport until the
first bus in the morning but I guess it is understandable
that most people are not prepared to spend hours trapped
in one airport just to spend the night in another one. We
picked up the bags and ran for the last bus into town.
A short while later we were abandoned at a miserably isolated
bus stop -somewhere in town, sometime around midnight with
drizzle in the air and not a person to be seen except for
a bunch of people fighting to offer us expensive hotel rooms.
We declined from a mixture of poverty and fear and romantically
wandered off into the mist together. Direction unknown,
with only our love to keep us warm.
Eventually, we bumped into an all night student bar with
cheap undrinkable beer and nothing to eat. However, we were
cold, wet and hungry and desperately hoping that morning
would soon come -which it eventually did.
As the early morning light swirled optimistically through
the mist, we headed for the bus station and after another
short wait, tired but triumphant managed to climb aboard
the bus. An hour or so later, half worn out, half warm,
only a tenth rested but a hundred pro-cent ready to eat
and sleep -we arrived at the flat.
Yet another surprise!
My rug-sack had been packed and was leaning against the wall
outside the room I'd been staying in. A polite note informed
me that the legal occupant had decided to return home a
little early and would I please leave the key on the kitchen
table on the way out.
Luckily, I had already managed to rent (two) rooms on the
other side of town so that I could move in directly after
the weekend. The bad news was that both rooms were minimally
furnished as I had expected to go shopping with my partner
over the weekend, during her visit.
We had no choice -so off we set on the next leg of our
adventurous dream weekend!
Cold, wet, exhausted and starving we finally arrived at the
new address. Slowly, we climbed the stairs to our attic
and collapsed on the bed, covered ourselves with the only
blanket -and instantly fell into a deep, deep, sleep.
Naturally, we woke up too late to do any real shopping. The
rest of the day was cold and miserable with no heater -only
a simple cooking stove and almost no food. We had no money
for expensive restaurants and I was completely lost in this
part of town, which I had never visited apart from a quick
trip to view and rent the rooms.
Of course the wonderful weather of the previous month had
vanished just as quickly as all the other material comforts.
My partner could hardly believe that I had worn so few clothes
to the airport -at home I had always packed myself in against
inhospitable winds but she was not to know how warm the
last month had been. Every day I had lunched outside and
imagined myself on some luxury holiday -but it seemed that
from the moment she'd arrived -Holland had been magically
transformed into some icy northern wasteland.
The next day we were both glad to return to the airport -for
her to fly safely back to civilization and for me to return
home temporally defeated but nevertheless determined to
have the final victory over my surroundings....
....For various reasons we decided to spend the end of year
holiday separately with our own parents in the provinces.
We would meet up again at the railway station in London,
ready for the return journey and our renewed attempt to
build a communal home together.
I suppose it must have all gone well, because I have no memory
of any problems. The two rooms had been made more hospitable
by this time and had become a suitable refuge for us to
hide in while the fresh new year gradually grew older and
warmer. I thought we were happy together after our arrival
-at least I knew no reason to have doubted it.
That is, until I came home late one night, about a week after
our arrival. I found the note on the table. It simply said
she had gone -and (in case I was wondering) there was no
point in chasing after her because she did have somebody
else already waiting for her in England.
2. My True Exile!
I often wonder when my exile truly
The obvious answer is that it was the early misty October
morning in the beginning of the seventies, when my night-boat
from Harwich tied up in the mysterious flood-lit harbour
in the Hook of Holland.
However, perhaps a better answer is that it didn't actually
start until a few hours later when I presented myself for
enrollment at a fairly obscure institute for electronic
music in Utrecht. Or maybe it had already started much,
Like many serious crimes, it had all began quite innocently.
A chance meeting at a late '60's student party set me on
the road to a consuming interest in the possibility of using
computers to support my work as a young artist. An enthusiastic
young mathematician, hoping for a phd in physics had
spent many hours contemplating my artistic problem and numerous
illicit night time visits to his university's computer had
eventually justified all of our efforts.
I guess I should have realized then that I was already hooked.
Subsequent attempts to continue in this direction, although
they failed miserably, only drove me to search for new ways
to access essential facilities.
In those early years, computers were large, complex and esoteric
-often surrounded by acolytes who served their material
needs like loving nurses, careful mothers or temple servants.
Access was hard to hard to find. I had already been thrown
out of a computer workshop organized by a local college
because of my excessive use of their machine. However, a
small (almost secret) computer arts club was slowly being
developed in England at that time. A quiet conspiricy of
those who were prepared to challenge the contempory romantic
taboo surrounding the use of machines for the production
of art. Unfortunately, this club was unable to provide
access. Further progress was impossible, unless one enroled
for a full-time computer course (directed towards commercial
Because it was completely unheard of to study computer based
art in England in those days, I was forced to search abroad
if I intended to continue developing my bizarre ways and
strange new ideas. Luckily, I eventually discovered a virtually
unknown musical institute in the Netherlands and decided
to explore their exiting new musical computer system, their
inspiring minds full of exotic and esoteric knowledge and
their complex studios full of fascinating (analogue) equipment.
Perhaps it was ultimately the primitive instincts of the
hunter that drove me to face the music and my destiny.
On arrival, the seduction went, as good seductions do, with
irresistable stealth and I was unexpectedly, but magically,
overwhelmed by the wealth of knowledge spread out before
me. My hunger was insatiable. At last, I had teachers who
presented me with amazing insights into possibilities previously
unimagined. The resulting mental intoxicatation can be the
only excuse for my obsessive greed.
On the other hand, I still cannot understand exactly how
I deserved the fate awaiting me.
My country certainly didn't seem to care too much about my
survival at home or abroad, a small grant was given but
a renewal was refused. Previous educational experiences
in English art colleges (both as a student and as a teacher)
had been enjoyable but not madly stimulating. So was it
such a crime for me to cross the border and investigate
musicological theory? Was it so awfully wrong to assume
that constructivist art and serial music were really not
so divergent? That even art and technology could be combined
in some new creative dialogue? Even if my musical knowledge
(and sensitivities) were absolutely zero, wouldn't my visual
training pull me through in these new circumstances? Was
it really wrong to temporally abandon the grammatical
of computer programming in favour of the wild freedom implicit
in the spaghetti like wires of the analogue studio?
These seem such innocent and trivial deviations.
Captivated by my natural pig-headed but enthusiastic ignorance,
I continued to fight poverty and risk starvation in order
to follow the trail. Lost in an Aladdin's cave of fascinating
mysteries clad in a language I could barely understand,
it seemed completely logical to experiment with the relationship
between sound and image -by using basic electronic signals
to control two parallel sensory systems.
How could I know where these seemingly innocent experiments
would ultimately lead to?
Looking back, I'm not even sure if I can remember the critical
moment. Or even if there was such a single moment. Perhaps
my new faith just grew slowly until it became irrefutable
In the beginning, I had believed that we existed in a
world, where communication was supposed to proceed in an
orderly fashion via a process of coded and decoded messages.
If this was true, then my experiments with translating between
sound and image should have produced the same "message"
(when decoded) because both sets of sensory information
had been derived from the same signal source.
Admittedly, there were difficulties in "coding" sound and
image in comparable ways: The institute was full of sound
generators -but what was the equivalent "image" generator?
What indeed was an "image"? How did one know exactly what
one was seeing or hearing, when not relying on many years
of sensory training to shape ones perception?
Indeed, I did have problems hearing what the trained musicians
heard -and they frequently had problems in seeing what I
had seen. The control signals interacted with the video
frequencies and the sound signals apparently interacted
with the perceptual mechanisms within the ear. If the
perception and cognition systems modified the perceived
signal differently within the two separate sensory systems
-then traditional ideas must be wrong. If the medium was
adding its own "voice" to the message -sometimes rendering
the original structure of the message unrecognizable -then
how many problems in human communication were simply the
result of different interpretations of the same message?
Further digital experiments involving the translation of
simple binary patterns into different combinations of graphic
symbols -including variations with line thickness and spacing,
confirmed that these "translations" significantly changed
the way the underlying structure was percieved.
Apparently as revenge for this daring invasion of Plato's
shadowy cave, the tragedy proceeded with the mechanical
precision of an ancient Greek drama. Presumably, I deserved
to be exiled from my newly discovered paradise -having been
trully tempted by the delicious fruits found on the tree
of knowledge .
In the meantime, outside the studio, government cuts in
were causing financial problems both inside and outside
the university. There were also internal discussions regarding
the value of visual research within a musical institution.
Then the university bureaucrats decided to discarded the
institute entirely. It split off, moved to another town,
lost its university status and several of its previous staff.
For some time I had been hoping to escape from the narrow
-and to me, foreign, musical confines of the institutional
environment. Although extremely grateful for the physical
facilities, they were still conceptually limited by musical
specialization and I had become completely fascinated by
the possible role of translation processes within and between
visual art, music, linguistics, the cognitive process in
general and a thousand and one other different directions.
However, the new and dramatic bureaucratic changes in the
institute's structure resulted in a free fall for me which
perhaps signaled the real start of the exile.
Missing ones colleagues and compatriots may not be so great
a problem -they can often be found elsewhere, and how much
more fascinating it is to mix with strangers from all around
the globe. If we are lucky, then the unfamiliar, and perhaps
in many ways unattractive new landscape is occasionally
transformed into some astounding new magical scene -perhaps
by winter snow, spring flowers or warm summer sun. Compensation
for the missing homeland can often be found be found in
many other interesting ways -depending on the local
Even unpalatable food can be circumvented by adventurous
kitchin experiments or by imported foodstuffs. For every
treasured memory there is a potential new experience in
exchange -surely life in exile can't be that bad?
However, I soon discovered, as every exile eventually does,
that once one leaves the safe confines of one's own community,
one's village, perhaps even one's house, maybe even one's
mother -it is never possible to go back to the original
state of innocence we sometimes leave behind so casually.
How many exiles discover that there is no place for them
where they have arrived and no place for them to go back
to? We realize then, too late, that we have become disembodied
souls, belonging neither here nor there. Floating between
heaven and hell and lost for ever. We may accept or reject
our exile -but it is extremely difficult to ignore it. For
even though we try to become part of the new environment,
we still retain part of the old environment within us. We
are forced to admit again and again that we are formed by
our past by forces equally as powerfull as those by which
we attempt to give form to our future.
Despite the modern mythologies of universal consumer freedom,
of multi-cultural infusions and of universal brotherhoods
-there are often hidden taboos lurking in the shadows, silently
waiting for a chance to strike the unsuspecting victim.
As 1984 slowly dawned upon a world waiting with baited breath
to see if Orwell's profetic text would prove true, the forces
of greedy commercialism were also gathering -impatiently
drooling from an insatiable hunger to convert the potential
power and youthful energy of the freshly born micro-chip
into unimaginably large sums of money.
In order to shelter simple-minded consumers around the world
from the confusing internal complexity of the electronic
wizard, we were offered the Mac. A wonderful machine which
could make all our dreams come true. A trully magical genie
which only needed the wave of a single hand to command it
to solve all our problems and realise all our dreams. Suddenly
the world's living rooms were filled with prancing logo's
tumbling forth from ubiquitous tv screens in a frantic attempt
to seduce us into buying some dynamic new product or watch
some supposedly irresistable new television show.
As the productive factories rushed away from the industrialized
world in an unseemly haste to colonize other, less expensive,
worlds beyond the horizon -the entire universe magically
exploded into a digital playground -with instant solutions
for every task that one could imagine now available in all
the local shops.
Computers became fun. Computers became revolutionary tools
for global gratification. Computers were liberating, computers
were fast and easy -so long as one followed the rules, didn't
rock the boat and remained passively gratefull for all the
shiny new things the commercial companies said you deserved.
Assuming of course that you managed, somehow, to obtain the
sums of money required for the entrance fee to this brave
In these exciting circumstances, I suppose one could easily
forget to ask who was going to develop all the new programmes
required to drive this global consumer boom -and where was
it all leading to?
The initial expansion was easy, many artists and musicians
had worked in almost total obscurity for several years to
develop ideas, with or without computers, which could easily
be adopted and adapted. The principles of sound synthesis,
of animation and collage had been worked out over the years
-often by forgotten avant-guard experimenters in various
locations around the world. Visual perspective was perhaps
a bit old fashioned, but since the Italian renaissance and
up until the early twentieth century -when painters rediscovered
the expressive power of abstraction -imitations of physical
space had stood western artists in good stead and the principles
had been fully explored over the centuries. So there was
a backlog of ideas lying around waiting to be converted
into commercial software.
In the midst of this explosion of apparent creative commercial
freedom -who would be silly enough to waste their time worrying
about how computers actually worked or how the markets
No single individual could possibly compete against the
sophistication of the commercial software companies with
their teams of experienced programmers. Any attempt to beat
the system would obviously be a sign of madness -and so
one had no alternative but to join in! In the rush to join
the queue, nobody noticed that nearly all the innovators
were being pushed from the market and that the market leader
was somehow getting a bit behind with their technical
How could the public notice? Everybody knows that one doesn't
need to understand what goes on underneath the motor cap
in order to drive a car. Life belongs to the youthfull,
to the bold and the beautiful! Freedom is for artists and
consumers -knowledge is for nerds!
I guess it takes very little fantasy or intelligence to see
that it is virtually impossible to stop an express train
at full speed without causing an accident. Even trying to
warn the passengers that they have no driver aboard can
be very dangerous. Potential bringers of bad news should
generally remain silent if they wish to remain alive and
Unfortunately, for some -such simple, but fundamental, wisdom
can only come with age and experience. For these enthusiastic,
but innocent young people, growing wise can be a painful
Alas, it seems the lover often cannot imagine a world without
the joys of love -and the convert, blinded by the joy of
conversion, often cannot understand the wish of others to
remain unconverted. Even the lost and lonely exile may find
it difficult to imagine that others cannot feel the pain
of a longing to return to a place which the outsiders have
It is perhaps impossible to understand the isolation and
despair involved in spending ten long years in the attempt
to persuade young artists to understand the important role
the digital medium could play in the creative process -if
only they would investigate it properly.
However, any attempts to intellectually challenge contemporary
dogma must automatically be doomed to failure. How could
one possibly challenge the wisdom of commercialism and the
belief in a universal freedom without rules? How could one
dare to suggest that students should risk their future career
by deviating from the norm? Why should they threaten their
own professional position by risking a social exile similar
to ones own?
How naive I must be -to live in a dematerialized digital
multi-media world of post-modern diversity and still believe
that the medium could be significant. Everybody knows that
there is no medium any more, that there is no culture and
no differnce between consumers around the world. What strange
meglomane delusions could lead me to a belief in my own
personal experiences when the whole world knows that virtuality
rules, that materialism is dead and all meta-narratives
are naught but illusory constructs built upon a limited,
subjective and therefore faulty and meaningless, perspective.
Should I not indeed be trully shamed? Was there absolutely
no end to my arrogant egocentricity?
How bizarre it was for me to discover that -while my own
intellectual constructs were obviously obscene aberrations
clearly far beyond the pale of civilized thought -the
meta-narrative that condemned me was itself, somehow, beyond
By now it must be obvious how much I had deserved my exile
by transgressing the limits of social acceptance. My crime
was much more serious than any normal anti-social behaviour
or conventional criminal act. I had dared to be different:
By attempting to use the computer to move between between
visual art and music, I had crossed -without official passport
or visa -the invisible but carefully guarded border between
formal and informal systems. Now I was hopelessly trapped
in the no man's land between art and science.
It seems a female immunologist once made an important conceptual
breakthrough by contemplating the paradox of pregnancy.
Until then, immunological theory had claimed that all invasions
of the body by "foreign" bodies would trigger the defense
mechanism. Unfortunately, this simple theory implied that
normal fertilization via a partner would be impossible because
this too would imply an invasion of organisms from outside
the mother's body. This puzzle lead her to suspect that
the immunological response would only be triggered by organisms
that were recognized as a threat and, in turn, this new
idea eventually lead to a better understanding of the signs
that might signal the presence of danger. In future, less
medicine would be required to prevent the body rejecting
Perhaps it is not unreasonable to consider the human body
as a "society" composed of different physical organs which
are, in turn, composed of other "societies" of component
Perhaps we might also reverse the metaphor and concider human
societies to be (complex) living organisms.
If so -then why does the social body generally treat its
creative innovators so badly? Obviously a body can become
dangerously ill if it has no way to protect itself against
potentially damaging micro-organisms, either external or
internal. Perhaps too, there can be no cultural identity
if a society is open to every new idea that tries to invade
its borders. But does this mean that people and things should
always remain as they are? Is it always wrong for an individual
to move into uncharted spaces beyond accepted norms?
How is society to develop successful ways of dealing with
the new challenges arising both inside or outside itself,
if it cannot explore new directions? Is it really possible
to solve current problems by closing our minds, burying
our heads in the sands of history and hoping that the problems
will solve themselves?
In English, the connotations of the word "adultery" are not
limited to sexual relationships occuring outside a marriage.
The verb "adulterate" also applies to the mixing of substances
-usually, a dishonest "watering down" of valuable material
by the addition of something inferior.
Perhaps, by leaving my original country (both literally and
metaphoricaly) to explore new areas of creative expression
outside the accepted borders I had indeed committed some
kind of social or cultural adultery.
Yet surely, without some form of external "impregnation"
creating the possibility of new creative mixtures -presumably
there can also be no cultural regeneration, no constructive
dialogue between contrasting forces and no exchange of
valuable new ideas. In niether physical or conceptual
can new life be created without transgressing the integrity
of the parent's body -but free choice is surely of vital
importance in these matters and niether rape or unfair seduction
provide a good emotional foundation upon which to build
I am not against tradition and I'm not against progress.
However, I do believe, as with most things in life, that
there are no absolute solutions and we must always try to
establish a healthy balance between two extremes, both of
which are often unhealthy in their pure state.
So where is this magic point of balance to be found?
Surely, individuals and groups must ultimately be free to
decide that for themselves. The freedom to accept new ideas
must surely also include the freedom to reject them too.
If we all make the same mistakes -then who will be left
to help us find the way back? If nobody is allowed to make
mistakes how can we learn why they were wrong? If we have
nothing to win then we have nothing to loose -if there is
no diversity then we have nothing to choose.
So isn't cultural diversity just as important as biological
diversity? Don't we need some kind of conceptual laboratory
to help us explore new ways of surviving unexpected disasters?
Is it really so wrong to leave the path of accepted ideas
and to strike out into territories previously unexplored?
Indeed, there may be great risks involved -but possibly
great rewards. How can we know unless we are prepared to
experiment and to explore.
3. A Short History of rising
Angels and falling Devils:
I guess I must have been born
privileged, although I did
not really feel it at the time.
At school, the map on the wall glowed red with pride as it
loudly proclaimed the geographic supremacy of the British
These comforting colours happily suppressed for us the nightmares
of the recently ended war. However, as a child, how could
I possibly understand the concrete ways these magical splashes
of red actually translated into the local manifestations
of global military power? Many times, I attempted to dream
about how it might feel not to be born into what seemed
to be a decent family of apparently natural leaders (even
though my own family were poor and humble enough).
In the early days we had "Empire Day" at school but later
this was quietly dropped as the Empire slowly faded into
the Commonwealth (I suppose to prevent the need to change
the maps as country by country, the newly independent states
slipped the leash to become our proud equals instead of
our loyal subjects).
Looking back, I do not remember anybody seeming to care too
much as our enforced command disolved into voluntary cooperation.
The dull grey skies of England are not conducive to great
passions and one could always dream of wonderous places
and situations distant in time -just as easily as one could
dream of strange places distant in space. Kipling may well
have proclaimed that East and West can never meet, but many
of his stories are delightfully exotic and magically pregnant
with strange polite hypnotic phrases full of repetitions
fascinatingly foreign to our daily speech, they invoke an
exotic sweetness as seductive as the most delicious of eastern
As wartime austerity magically mushroomed into the flourescent
sixties, the loss of Empire became as logical and desirable
as throwing off an old winter coat with the arrival of a
Satire and song supported our cynical disregard for traditional
systems with their obsession for power -which was surely
equally oppressive for both victim and perpetrator. While
outsiders may have looked at Britain with pity regarding
the colonial losses -most of us young people seemed to experience
it more as liberation than as loss at the time.
However, somehow, the gold at the end of the rainbow never
quite managed to materialize. Apparently following the lead
of the swinging sixties, the whole world became "liberalized"
and "free" -and yet, somehow, lurking deep within dark shadows
or perhaps, sometimes appearing as a pale, sickly, shim
struggling against the heat of the democratic sun, the ancient,
vicious and revengeful colonial spirit still refused to
die. The ghost of the past still seemed to waft around to
poison our carefree joy with its unpleasant smell of rotting
Until, one fatefull day, the bombs began to fall again -first
on Iraq, then on Serbia and then again on Afghanistan -all
in the name of freedom and democracy. The colonial spirit
had apparently broken free once more.
In a series of mental explosions, adolescent dreams were
shattered and childhood fantasies became real -my earlier
questions were answered at last. It became increasingly
difficult not to understand the feelings of anger and frustration
which inevitably results from continual confrontation with
the ill concieved manifestations of colonial madness.
I suppose I should be grateful to the Americans for showing
me how others felt about the way my forefathers defended
themselves, with their (by our current standards, primitive)
machine guns and cannon boats, against the poorly armed
and poorly fed around the world!
However, this generous practical lesson does seem a rather
expensive, tragic and wasteful exercise -considering how
many people around the world already know.
Unfortunately, it seems there are still far too many who
don't yet know -and so the older and wiser ones must continue
to pay the price demanded by those too young, or foolish,
Trevor Batten <trevor
Amsterdam, Oct 2001 - Feb 2003