Mythbusting Ancient Rome — did all roads actually lead there?

The Peutinger Table. Reproduction by Conradi Millieri – Ulrich Harsch Bibliotheca Augustana. Wikimedia Commons

We all know the phrase “all roads lead to Rome”. Today, it is used proverbially and has come to mean something like “there is more than one way to reach the same goal”. But did all roads ever really lead to the eternal city?

The power of pavement

There was a close connection between roads and imperial power. In 27 B.C, the emperor Augustus supervised the restoration of the via Flaminia, the major route leading northwards from Rome to the Adriatic coast and the port of Rimini. The restoration of Italy’s roads was a key part of Augustus’ renovation program after civil wars had ravaged the peninsula for decades. An arch erected on the via Flaminia tells us that it and the most other commonly used roads in Italy were restored “at his own expense”.

And road paving was expensive indeed – it had not been common under the Republic, except in stretches close to towns. Augustus and his successors lavished attention on the road network as roads meant trade, and trade meant money.

In 20 B.C., the senate gave Augustus the special position of road curator in Italy, and he erected the milliarium aureum, or “golden milestone”, in the city of Rome. Located at the foot of the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum, it was covered with gilded bronze.

The Golden Milestone.
Wikimedia Commons

According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, this milestone was where “all the roads that intersect Italy terminate”. No one quite knows what was written on it, but it probably had the names of the major roads restored following Augustus’s instructions.

The centre of the world

Augustus was keen to foster the notion that Rome was not just the centre of Italy, but of the entire world. As the Augustan poet Ovid wrote in his Fasti (a poem about the Roman calendar):

There is a fixed limit to the territory of other peoples, but the territory of the city of Rome and the world are one and the same.

Augustus’ right-hand man, Agrippa, displayed a map of the world in his portico at Rome which contained lists of distances and measurements of regions, probably compiled from Roman roads.

Roman Milestones in the Bologna Archaeological Museum.
C Davenport

The Roman road network bound the empire together. Senators had begun to erect milestones listing distances in the mid-third century B.C., but from the first century A.D., emperors took the credit for all road building, even if it had been done by their governors.

More than 7000 milestones survive today. In central Italy, the milestones usually gave distances to Rome itself, but in the north and south, other cities served as the node in their regions.

Augustus also established the cursus publicus, a system of inns and way-stations along the major roads providing lodging and fresh horses for people on imperial business. This system was only open to those with a special permit. Even dignitaries were not allowed to abuse the system, with emperors cracking down on those who exceeded their travel allowances (Bronwyn Bishop would not have fared well in the Roman empire).

The surviving part of the Milion in Constantinople.
C. Davenport

The association between empire and roads meant that when Constantine founded his own “new Rome” at Constantinople in the fourth century A.D., he built an arch called the Milion at its centre, to serve as the equivalent of the Golden Milestone.

Many Roman itineraries have survived because they were copied in the medieval period. These record distances between cities and regions along the Roman road network. The “Antonine Itinerary”, compiled in the third century A.D., even helpfully includes shortcuts for travellers. These types of documents were uniquely Roman – their Greek predecessors had not compiled such itineraries, preferring to publish written accounts of sea voyages.

The Roman road network had prompted the development of new geographical conceptions of power. This is nowhere more prevalent than on the Peutinger Table, a medieval representation of a late Roman map. It positions Rome at the very centre of the known world.

Proverbial roads

Since antiquity, the phrase “all roads lead to Rome” has taken on a proverbial meaning. The Book of Parables compiled by Alain de Lille, a French theologian, in the 12th century is an early example. De Lille writes that there are many ways to reach the Lord for those who truly wish it:

A thousand roads lead men throughout the ages to Rome,
Those who wish to seek the Lord with all their heart.

The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer used the phrase in a similar way in the 14th century in his Treatise on the Astrolabe (an instrument used to measure inclined position):

right as diverse pathes leden diverse folk the righte way to Rome.

The “conclusiouns” (facts) Chaucer translates into English for his son in the treatise come from Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin – and all came to the same conclusions on the astrolabe, says Chaucer, much as all roads lead to Rome.

In both these examples, while the ancient idea of Rome as a focal point is invoked, the physical city itself is written out of the meaning. Neither de Lille nor Chaucer are actually talking about Rome – our modern “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” would work just as well.

A return to Rome

When the proverb started to become popular in 19th-century newspapers and magazines, however, the spectre of the city returned. Rome as the Eternal City struck a chord with this audience, which was reading and hearing about the exciting excavations taking place in Italy and Europe. Accordingly, the phrase took back a semblance of its original sense – Rome as the imperial metropolis – while retaining its proverbial import.

The idea of Rome as The Eternal City has long struck a chord.
Tony Gentile/AAP

For example, in July 1871, the Daily News’s Special Correspondent for the Times in India watched Victor Emmanuel II enter Rome in triumph as the King of (United) Italy:

“All roads,” says the old proverb, “lead to Rome,” and the proverb rose up with a strange force to my mind to-day … By what various paths has he at length reached the Quirinal [Hill].

Just as the King took various roads into the city, so his route to monarchy had been arduous and chequered. The Special Correspondent, on seeing the entrance of Emmanuel II, uses Rome as both an imperial city and an end point for achievement – the King both literally enters the city and takes a number of “roads” to achieve monarchical power. The double use of the proverb is perfect and irresistible.

For other commentators, Rome remained the spiritual centre of the western world. Katherine Walker, writing for Harper’s Magazine in 1865, described her journey from Livorno to Rome with a German Roman Catholic priest.

“We are inclined to think of the old proverb true that ‘All roads lead to Rome’,” she wrote. While the priest delighted in the city as the home of Pope Pius IX, Walker herself objected that her priestly guide could only see the Pantheon as the church Santa Maria ad Martyres, and not as Agrippa’s temple to the pagan gods.

The Pantheon was Agrippa’s temple to the pagan gods.
Stefano Rellandini/AAP

While both ancient and modern Italian roads all lead to Rome, to Walker the city itself had drastically mutated from the home of Augustus and Agrippa to that of Catholicism and the Pope. She finds this disappointing.

The idea of Rome

The expression “all roads lead to Rome” is a correct reflection of both the sophisticated Roman road network and its visualisation in Roman monuments and documents.

Later, however, the way in which Romans boasted of the centrality of their metropolis transformed into a proverb that had nothing necessarily to do with real roads or, for a time, the real Rome. In the 19th century, travellers revived the phrase as a way of melding the ancient past with their modern viewing experiences.

Why is this conception of Roman power accurate, when compared with other myths in this series? We assume that Romans were gluttonous or their emperors were crazy because such myths feed into our prejudices, which are then reinforced by popular culture.

Roads are a much more mundane aspect of Roman life compared to Nero’s alleged excesses, which makes them a less obvious way to think about imperial power. But when we hear the phrase “all roads lead to Rome”, we do not think of paving stones, but of the larger Roman road network – with Rome, its characters, and its history at the centre.

The Conversation

Caillan Davenport receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Shushma Malik does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.


Announcements: Jon Bues Joins HODINKEE As Senior Editor

20013238 copy.jpg?ixlib=rails 1.1

We’re never standing still here at HODINKEE. Every day we work to bring you new and better things, whether that means a whole new video series, an in-depth, 5,000 article, or an improved app experience. Today we’re excited to share some big news with you on that front: Jon Bues will be joining the HODINKEE team as our Senior Editor.

Whether you realize it or not, you’re probably already familiar with Jon and his work. He has more than a decade of experience at the helms of various watch publications and is a fixture in the industry scene, with outstanding access and perspective. Over the years, Jon has served as the managing editor of International Watch magazine, the editor-in-chief of WristWatch magazine, the watch editor of Surface magazine, and the editor-in-chief of Watch Journal. He has also contributed to Elite Traveler, The Hollywood Reporter, and other international publications. As you can see, he’s a mainstay in the watch world, and many of us here at HODINKEE have known him for quite a long time. 

Jon’s areas of expertise are extremely diverse. He’s just as comfortable writing about a vintage 35mm Calatrava as he is offering insight into the latest steel sports chronograph. He’s also very familiar with the actual business side of things and the culture of watch collecting, so he’s much more than just a product guy. We’re excited to see the stories and perspectives that Jon is going to bring to HODINKEE and the ways he’s going to impact our editorial mission at large. 

Stay tuned, Jon’s first stories for HODINKEE will be coming soon. For now, give him a follow on Instagram at @jonbues.


New Needle Felted Food and Animal Friends by Hanna Dovhan

The word “cute” is woefully insufficient in describing the squee-inducing impression of these needled felted wool sculptures by Ukraine-based designer Hanna Dovhan (previously here and here). Her latest pairs of hand-made mustachioed donuts, mushrooms, croissants, and veggies are all designed to rest in a tender embrace or to simply hold hands. You can see more by following her on Instagram or in her Etsy shop Woolsculpture.


Introducing: The Oris Big Crown ProPilot Worldtimer, With A New Time Zone Adjustment System

Hero.jpg?ixlib=rails 1.1

The world time complication is one that Oris has had in its catalogue since 1997, and the basic design and functionality were popular enough for it to remain basically unchanged for 20 years: an easily readable, fairly large watch with a sub-dial for home time (with a day/night indication) and an hour hand in the main dial that could be adjusted forwards or backwards in one hour jumps, via pushers in the case-band. (The name might be a bit confusing; this is actually a GMT/dual time zone wristwatch rather than a world timer in the usual sense of the term). The date also changed either forwards or backwards as the hour hand passed midnight – Oris has a patent for the particular system it uses – and it was a very attractive, and per Oris’ usual habit of offering significant bang for the buck, a very affordable alternative in the world of dual time zone watches.

The new version retains the general aesthetics of the original, but there’s a fairly major functional update, which is that now the hour hand can be adjusted by turning the bezel rather than via the former model’s two pusher system.

Oris Big Crown ProPilot Worldtimer

The Oris Big Crown ProPilot Worldtimer is the latest version of a complication Oris has offered since 1997.

Oris Big Crown ProPilot Worldtimer dial

A part of the ProPilot family, the Oris Big Crown ProPilot Worldtimer is an aviation-themed, dual time zone wristwatch.

The result is a much cleaner design, which has much more of an instrument-watch feel to it than the original (the use of two buttons in the case flank to adjust a dual time zone complication makes a great deal of sense functionally but it’s always struck me as creating a bit of an aesthetic challenge, even in classics of the sub-genre like the Ulysse Nardin GMT ± Perpetual). The bezel now carries some fairly prominent knurling and it’s as easy to grasp and manipulate as you’d hope, as well as easier and more natural than successive presses on pushers, or unscrewing a crown to re-set the hour hand (the day/night indicator of the preceding model has been retained).

Of course neither of those systems is the end of the world either, but a world timer system in the lineup that’s aesthetically appealing, and meaningfully different, is a very nice thing for Oris to have. The system is actually somewhat reminiscent of the Vogard dual time zone complication, which was adopted by IWC for the Pilot’s Watch Timezoner Chronograph; that watch is both more complex and quite a bit more expensive than the Oris ($11,900 for the IWC vs. $3600 for the Oris) albeit it comes with a chronograph (and has a very different aesthetic as well).

Oris Big Crown ProPilot Worldtimer crown

Rather the former two pusher system, the Oris Big Crown ProPilot Worldtimer allows you to set the hour hand in one hour jumps via a two-way rotating bezel.

Oris Big Crown ProPilot Worldtimer movement

Oris caliber 690 is an ETA 2836-2 base with a dual time zone complication.

Oris has always made a habit of being commendably straightforward about its movements; the Big Crown ProPilot Worldtimer houses the Oris caliber 690, which is the Oris world time/dual time zone system on an ETA 2836-2 base. For the sake of legibility and also, just as a pure design decision, the Big Crown ProPilot Worldtimer is a pretty big boy, at 44.7mm in diameter; this is more or less consistent, however, with the design and size of the other ProPilot watches from Oris. The smallest in the current catalogue is the ProPilot Date, which comes in at 41mm in diameter; a more complicated piece, like the ProPilot Altimeter, can run to 47mm. Of course, a slightly (or for that matter greatly) bigger size for aviation watches has a history of its own, probably going back at least as far Longines Lindbergh Hour Angle.

Oris Big Crown ProPilot Worldtimer

The folding clasp is simple, solid, well made and rugged.

Oris Big Crown ProPilot Worldtimer dial macro

As you’d expect from an aviation-themed watch, legibility is excellent (and for all intents and purposes instantaneous).

Of the dual time zone watches out there at a sub-ten thousand dollar price point, the Oris Big Crown Pilot Worldtimer is a great value, adjusted for your preferences and tolerance for somewhat oversized timepieces. The new bezel mechanism has indisputably given the watch a desirable functional update as well as a very successful aesthetic re-set, and if you liked the earlier model chances are you’ll warm up to the new one pretty fast, especially at the very attractive price.

Oris Big Crown ProPilot Worldtimer wrist shot

The Oris Big Crown ProPilot Worldtimer: case, stainless steel, 44.7mm x 13.10mm; lug width is 22mm. Screw-down crown, 100m water resistance. Domed sapphire crystal with double sided antireflective coating; anthracite dial with hands and markers filled with Super-LumiNova. Movement, Oris caliber 690 with bezel operated dual time zone complication, base ETA 2836-2 with patented backwards/forwards date adjustment system. Price: textile or leather strap $3600; crocodile strap or metal bracelet $3850. Find out more at


dreamdancer840: Tastefully artful shot of Louisa Paterson,…


Tastefully artful shot of Louisa Paterson, dancer/model/nutritionist in London and Berlin @hasselblad_official
Photo @petercoulson @trainlikeaballerina

#dreamdancer840 #balletart #dancersofig #ballet #dancer #ballerinastrong #pointe #balletphotoshoot #petercoulson #blackandwhitephoto #ballerinasamongus #ballerinasoftheworld #worldwidedance #photographer #worldwideballet


Giant Dabs of Thick Oil Paint Captured as Hyperrealist Colored Pencil Drawings

Australian artist Cj Hendry (previously) tricks the eye with her hyper-realistic drawings, works that recreate the appearance of thick swabs of brightly colored paint. To achieve the dimensionality and sheen of fresh oil paint she layers dry pigment atop colored pencil, accurately portraying the liquid medium’s viscosity.

The series, Complimentary Colors, is far different than the artist’s previous style, which for several years had been exclusively black and white. You can view pieces from her past and present, as well as a series of billboard-sized works, on the artist’s Instagram. (via My Modern Met)


In The Shop: A 1966 Breitling Navitimer, A 1970s Piaget With Lapis Lazuli Dial, And A 1985 Rolex Submariner 5513

928 piagetlapis lifestyle.jpg?ixlib=rails 1.1

There are those brand names prominent in the world of vintage watches that have faded or disappeared in the present – and there are others that have continued to endure and strengthen. This week’s selection focuses on the endurance of not just a brand’s name, but also their history of design and engineering. Unsurprisingly, this means that Rolex, Omega, Zenith, and Breitling all make an appearance, as well as Ulysse Nardin and Piaget. Read below for some highlights, or just get straight to your shopping. 

1966 Breitling Navitimer Reference 806

1966 Breitling Navitimer

Though much has changed in the design and engineering of Breitling watches since 1966, there are enduring elements of the Navitimer that makes the modern version inextricable from the vintage. The large, classic case design – in this example with the milled bezel and slide rule function – is recognizable in both, regardless of what other changes the years have inflicted. Check out the fantastic condition and timeless design of this Navitimer over on the Shop.

1978 Piaget Dress Watch With Lapis Lazuli Dial

1978 Piaget Reference 12342 With Lapis Lazuli Dial

Piaget has always been highly regarded for their adherence to a timeless sense of elegance and design.  Whenever you find an example that combines one of their ultra-thin movements with an exotic, semi-precious stone dial, it’s truly exciting. Lapis lazuli, valued by humans for millennia (the seventh millennium B.C. actually), is one of the more versatile and attractive stones used for watch dials, and is a phenomenal pairing with Piaget’s automatic 12P movement. In a round, 18k yellow gold case and original Piaget-signed buckle, it’s a fantastic watch with just a hint of flash. Grab it here

1985 Rolex Submariner Reference 5513

1985 Rolex Submariner

A transitional iteration of the well-known Rolex Submariner reference 5513, the watch available at present could almost be mistaken for a watch manufactured in 2015 instead of 1985 if it were not for its plexiglass crystal. Before the 5513 was retired at the end of the 1980s, it began to exhibit characteristics of the its successor, the modern reference 14060 – namely, the white gold surrounds on the luminous hour markers and a glossy black dial. The case construction and overall aesthetic, however, is decidedly vintage Submariner. Take a look over here.

The Full Set

Of course, there is always more. This week we also have a 1960s Zenith chronograph reference A273, a two-tone 1967 Rolex Zephyr reference 1008, a 1960s Omega stopwatch with very interesting scales and an enamel dial, a 1950s Ulysse Nardin in stainless steel, a 1966 Breitling Top-Time reference 2003, a 1940s Lemania three-register chronograph in new-old-stock condition, and a 1960s Racine chronograph manufactured by Gallet. All these, and more, are available on the HODINKEE Shop.

<p>1960s Zenith Chronograph Reference A273</p>

1960s Zenith Chronograph Reference A273

<p>1967 Rolex Two-Tone Zephyr Reference 1008</p>

1967 Rolex Two-Tone Zephyr Reference 1008

<p>1960s Omega Stopwatch</p>

1960s Omega Stopwatch

<p>1950s Ulysse Nardin Cronómetro In Stainless Steel</p>

1950s Ulysse Nardin Cronómetro In Stainless Steel

<p>1966 Breitling Top Time Reference 2003</p>

1966 Breitling Top Time Reference 2003

<p>1940s Lemania Chronograph</p>

1940s Lemania Chronograph

<p>1960s Racine Chronograph</p>

1960s Racine Chronograph


Design Museum reveals 2017 Designs of the Year shortlist

The Refugee Nation flag, designed by Yara Said with The Refugee Nation for Amnesty International
The Refugee Nation flag, designed by Yara Said with The Refugee Nation for Amnesty International

Designs of the Year was founded ten years ago to celebrate designs that deliver change, set new standards in their fields or capture the cultural zeitgeist.

The shortlist has always included an eclectic mix of beautiful designs – from grand buildings to elegant identity systems and luxury fashion – alongside life-saving inventions and projects that tackle social or environmental issues. This year’s list is no exception and spans political campaigns, clothing made from marine waste and a rescue drone designed to help refugees.

Mrs Fan’s Plug-In House by People's Architecture Office. Photo: Gao Tianxia


Shortlisted architectural projects include a memorial and learning centre in Utoya, Norway commemorating the victims of terrorist attacks carried out by far right extremist Anders Breivik in 2011; the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC designed by architect David Adjaye, a timber bridge in southern China and a prefab house designed to tackle a shortage of affordable housing in Beijing, as well as a structure that harvests rain and dew to provide drinking water. As with previous years, the architectural shortlist includes a mix of small and large-scale projects – from a refurbished cottage to a secondary school made with local materials.


In the digital category is DixonBaxi’s on-air branding for the Premier League (developed from DesignStudio’s overall identity), a 3D recreation of a Syrian prison created using sound and witness testimonies, Niantic’s smash-hit game Pokemon Go – probably the most successful AR game of all-time – and Meet Graham, the unforgettable road safety campaign for Transport Accident Commission, which used a sculpture created by Patricia Piccinini to highlight how ill equipped the human body is to withstand collisions. Emoji depicting professional women – including an engineer, a chef, and a doctor – are also shortlisted alongside a text service to provide refugees with important information and Google Noto, a free typeface created by Google and Monotype.

All use digital technology in some way, shape or form – though some projects seem a more natural fit in this category than others (Meet Graham, for example, is a sculpture showcased via a digital campaign rather than a digital design).


The Pussyhat designed by Krista SuhJayna Zweiman, Kat Coyle and Aurora Lady for this year’s Women’s Marches is one of six fashion projects shortlisted, alongside Nike’s Pro Hijab – a single-layer Hijab developed with athletes – a Levi’s jacket woven with Google’s Jacquard thread, which can be paired with a mobile device to provide directions at the touch of a tag embedded in the cuff, merchandise to promote the launch of Kanye West’s Life of Pablo album, and clothes made from marine waste by sustainable brand ECOALF.

There is less of a focus on catwalk collections this year and more on inventive designs that just happen to be garments: the Life of Pablo clothing is part of a clever promotional campaign, Ecoalf’s Upcycling the Oceans shows how marine waste can be recycled to create desirable objects and Levi’s Commuter Jacket offers a glimpse of the future of connected clothing while the Pussyhat is more of a political statement than a fashion item.

Aitor Throup’s New Object Research collection is the only runway presentation featured in the fashion category and appears to have been selected on the basis of how it was presented (clothing was displayed on life-sized articulated sculptures which were operated by a team of puppeteers and later exhibited in Dover Street Market).


The graphics category has a strong political focus this year with Wolfgang Tillmans’ anti-Brexit campaign, a special issue of the New York Times Magazine focusing on the political situation in the Middle East over the past decade (the magazine contained a single 42,000 word non-fiction narrative alongside 20 photographs, telling the story of the rise of ISIS and a global refugee crisis) and a set of posters designed to promote dialogue among EU countries following the Brexit vote.

Also included is a flag designed by Yara Said to mark the participation of the first ever refugee team in the 2016 Olympics, OK-RM’s design for Real Review magazine (a vertical fold divides spreads into four pages instead of two), Smorgasboard Studio’s national branding for Wales, Emeka Ogboh’s branding for Sufferhead Stout (a beer that has apparently taken the German market by storm) and Karlssonwilker’s identity for Reykjavik Art Museum (which we wrote about here).


Product designs include a rescue drone designed to help refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea, a translating earpiece, a two-wheeled robot that can carry up to 40lb of cargo for miles at a time; an ink made from air pollution, a wedge dowel that enables IKEA customers to build flat pack furniture without using tools, a smart cot that rocks babies to sleep and a stair climbing mobility device (Scewo) designed for use outdoors.

Some of these products are prototypes or have yet to be brought to market – the designers behin the Scewo mobility device are seeking funding and the translating earpiece and GITA two-wheeled scooter are expected to launch this year and next. Also featured in this category is a furniture collection made from lava and a chair made with flax and sustainable glue.


The transport category, perhaps unsurprisingly, is dominated by electric vehicles: there’s an electric tram, a 3D printed, self-driving electric bus, an electric moped and a battery-powered water taxi.

Also shortlisted is a self-balancing motorcycle from Honda that reduces the possibility of falling, and a concept for a system enabling driverless vehicles to cross intersections without crashing.

Most of the designs are concepts or prototypes so it will be a while before we seem them on our roads and rivers, but the category offers an exciting glimpse of the future of travel – a future that will be less reliant on fossil fuels and more on sustainable energy.

With such a diverse shortlist, choosing a winner is always a challenging task. The award has previously gone to a cultural centre in Azerbaijan and the website.

Last year’s winner was a flat pack refugee shelter created in partnership with IKEA and UNHCR. The design could be assembled in four hours and aimed to provide refugees with a more comfortable and robust alternative to tents or makeshift structures. However, a report published by Dezeen last year claimed that just one third of the 15,000 shelteres manufactured had been deployed with the rest left unused after concerns were raised over its safety and apparent flaws in the design – highlighting the problems inherent in awarding designs that have yet to undergo extensive testing in the real world.

Shortlisted deigns will be showcased in an exhibition at the Design Museum which opens on October 18.

A winner will be selected in each category and the overall winner will be announced on 25 January 2018.

You can see the full shortlist at

The post Design Museum reveals 2017 Designs of the Year shortlist appeared first on Creative Review.


Airborne drones mimic nature in Random International’s latest installation

In 2012, Random International debuted Rain Room, an installation that brought pouring rain into the Curve Gallery at the Barbican. Visitors bold enough to enter the space found that, unlike in the real world, their presence could stop the rain falling on them, giving them the power to walk through curtains of water without getting wet. The work quickly attracted visitors willing to wait hours to see it, both at the Barbican and its later stint at MoMA in New York.

Rain Room was not RI’s first experiment with using tech to simulate, and then play with, nature. The collective has created numerous works in an ongoing series titled ‘Swarm Studies’, which take inspiration from flocking birds. It is a variation on these ideas that they have brought to London’s Roundhouse with Zoological. An installation of flying spheres or drones, the work takes up residence at the space for the next two weeks and on weekends forms an accompaniment to a set of new dance performances (titled +/- Human) choreographed by frequent RI collaborator Wayne McGregor.

All images: Ravi Deepres/Alicia Clarke

During the rest of the week, visitors can come to commune with the drones by themselves. It is a stirring experience: the drones – which have the appearance of large (1.5m in diameter), circular balloons equipped with tiny motor engines to enable them to fly – gather in a group in the centre of the space, and move in formation in reaction to the surroundings and, to some extent, the people who are in there with them.

Visitors respond as if greeting live creatures: adults cautiously approach, hands raised gently, while kids pile in, running and dancing beneath the flying shapes and delighting in trying to reach them (an impossible goal). After the initial excitement, it becomes a more meditative experience. Like Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project, which brought sun and mist into the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in 2003, Zoological encourages audiences to relax, watch and wait.

Mark Pritchard from Warp Records has provided a soundtrack to the installation that plays out musically many of the emotions it provokes. At times emulating nature, it also evokes harsh machinery, often with sinister overtones. At these points, the drones, which are programmed via algorithms, form a spinning circle in the space, inevitably provoking ideas of UFOs or other sentient lifeforms gathering, possibly with the intent to attack.

The work plays on our innate inclination towards nature, and things that emulate it, as well as on our fears of the burgeoning AI tech that we’re seeing emerge into our world. Both themes serve to draw us in and, experientially, the piece contains some nice touches that add to the effect: the guards, for example, are dressed in aprons slightly reminiscent of beekeepers, and the space of the Roundhouse itself is compelling, providing the kind of cavernous darkness that brings the balls to life.

This all combines to make an artwork that is mesmerising for a time. And yet, as I got used to the drones’ movements and patterns, and knowing deep down that they weren’t capable of the spontaneous movement or interaction that can be found in nature, I became greedy for more spectacle. Zoological, like Rain Room before it, does a great job of making us think about technology, about what we want from it and how it can make us feel. But beyond the initial thrill it provides – which is compelling – it also highlights tech’s limitations, compared to the magic that exists in the real world.

Zoological and Wayne McGregor’s +/- Human are on show at the Roundhouse in London until August 28; more info and bookings at

The post Airborne drones mimic nature in Random International’s latest installation appeared first on Creative Review.


A new approach to culture

“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas,” the composer John Cage once remarked, “I’m frightened of the old ones”. Last week’s announcement that the Myer, Tim Fairfax Family, and Keir Foundations are sponsoring “a new approach” to arts advocacy and research (and presumably research into arts advocacy) is a bright spot in the fungal gloom that has hung heavy over Australian cultural policy in the last five years.

Putting A$1.6 million on the table, the foundations called for expressions of interest in December 2016. The successful proposal is a partnership between the Australian Academy of the Humanities – a reassuring, albeit conventional choice – and Newgate Communications, a corporate relations firm. Neither are arts insiders.

They plan to deliver what Newgate Associate Partner Simon Troeth calls “evidence-based policy advocacy” that will “look beyond electoral cycles and support a long-term vision for a more sustainable, inclusive and vibrant Australian arts and culture sector.”

A welcome aspiration. In an upbeat article for the Daily Review last Thursday, Esther Anatolitis gave a useful and inclusive round up of existing research in the area and suggested, like others, that consultation is now required to harness “conversations stimulated by the philanthropists’ provocations [that] have brought colleagues together in exciting new ways.”

There’s that word again: new. It’s a confronting one because it asks the question “new, how?” What kind of research will make a difference, and what does making a difference actually mean? Antatolitis alludes to

… a confident future where the value of Australia’s arts could be expressed, quantified and advanced with compelling impact and tangible influence.

Here transformation is methodological rather than political. Proofs of value, trapped in the minds and computer drives of hard-pressed cultural organisations, are released into circulation, whence they have a positive effect. This is evidence-based research at its most fragrant. Data is communicated/policy change results.

But has any area of policy in the last 15 years, much less the cultural one, fitted this rational choice ideal? Taking a historical view of “the problem” of the value of arts and culture suggests a slightly different view.

From the late 1970s onwards, the increasing demands that the cultural sector produce evidence of its value have come from governments less and less inclined to support it; indeed, less inclined to invest in many areas of collective concern, and strongly desirous of redefining public goods and services as private ones, and marketizing them accordingly.

The replacement of policy debate over the all-important question “what kind of culture do we want?” by reticulated, quantified, assessment procedures stems from a moment in time when governments became fixated on getting “value for money” for taxpayer spend.

The monocular vapidity of this reduction belies its administrative adhesion and political use. If you are forever demanding someone “demonstrate” the benefits they provide, you never have to describe or defend the world you want them to be of benefit to. In the 1980s and 1990s, artists and cultural organisations disappeared under a tsunami of Byzantine evaluative and audit tasks that disguised the heavily partisan beliefs that produced them.

How did culture get mixed up in such world-withering logic? Under prime ministers Chifley, Menzies and Whitlam, cultural policy was part of “quality of life” legislation. Its role was first and foremost cultural, and it was supported, or not, on that basis. It fitted into a nation-building vision for this country. Australian culture was valuable because it was ours, not because quantitative indicators showed it was a reliable delivery mechanism for government-preferred externalities.

In the last 40 years, arts and culture have found themselves weighed against criteria and targets not of their choosing, while the sophisticated calculative practices constructed to do this have sometimes exacerbated the alienated character of the situation.

Restoring a sense of culture to culture’s evaluation is a priority for a new approach: developing a language of advocacy that is meaningful rather than “objective”, a standard of proof hard to square with the kinds of non monetary, long-term benefits the arts provide (some of the best work on this can be found in Robert Hewison’s 2014 book Cultural Capital: the Rise and Fall of Creative Britain).

And behind the bespoke problem of the assessment of culture, lies the bigger job of resuscitating the idea of public value that has been destructively eroded by four decades of morally bankrupt ideological obsession.

If governments today are grappling with a set of issues from climate change to wage stagnation they seem powerless to redress, it is in part because this concept, which should have pride of place in all policy domains, has been displaced from its key informing position.

Australian culture is more than series of market preferences. It is more than a list of its impacts on well being, social cohesion, education levels, and the interstate sale of hotel beds. These kinds of things are useful to known. But an approach to cultural policy that is genuinely new must match the silver flutes of methodological verification with the golden trumpets of political change. It must change our idea of culture, not just the way we measure it.

That’s a goal that goes beyond the generation of data, though it certainly includes it. It’s about giving voice to culture as culture, and to the people who create it, promote it, and participate in it, on the same grounds. It’s about evidence of value, but also about the value of that evidence, and what vision of Australian society we want it to be serving.

For too long the primary experience of culture has been missing from the cultural policy debate. “A new approach” has the opportunity to ensure it is incorporated now. This is a moment to step off the evidentiary hamster wheel and ask what our culture is for.

The Conversation Source: