Spread Labels, the Mutant Algorithm

Spread Labels

‘How much detail do we have to include?’
The teacher glanced at his half-finished gouache picture. ‘Just put down what you see – or enough of it to allow the viewer to imagine what you are seeing now.’

Marcus stared at the objects in front of him; a wine bottle, a ceramic mug holding three pens, and half a red cabbage.
‘But the label’, he began, ‘it’s so elegant, I don’t want to just put down a dark block. And I don’t know how to capture that texture.’

Miss Carter casually picked up the bottle and inspected the label, aware that this would annoy her students. ‘Yes, I see.’ She held the bottle up and asked if anybody in the class could suggest a means of capturing the odd appearance. ‘Look, you’ve got a matt black ground with elongated club shapes picked out in a gloss finish. Do you just paint highlights or can you think of another way?’

Not bothering to wait for an answer, she carefully placed the bottle down in the same spot and wandered over to help one of the other lads in the class.

The art studio had the usual collection of old textbooks and glossy magazines; leafing through one of these, Marcus found a car advert which consisted of a small red square on a page filled with dark blue. He tore the page out, then proceeded to cut a rectangular section from it, planning to add this to his still-life instead of trying to depict the label. But the piece was too large; and just as he was about to trim the edges, one of his friends came up to admire the painting.

‘Is this going to stick out, like a real 3-D bottle?’
‘Nice one’ said Marcus; ‘It is now!’

The teacher was unimpressed. ‘It looks like a mistake’ she said, looking at the protruding arch of glossy black paper. ‘And it will be damaged in storage. Keeping it flat might have been better.’

With a sullen gaze, he turned away. ‘Better just dump it in the bin, then’ he said. But the next day he returned to the studio, reluctant to throw away this piece that contained so many hours of work. The picture was nowhere to be seen; anxiously he looked under piles of half-finished works by his classmates, and then remembered his flippant remark of the previous day. There in the bin, he saw his picture – torn carefully into four pieces, the black glossy square flapping loose at a ragged edge.

Stunned, he gathered the sheets together and wandered down the corridor to the common room, ready to burst in and deliver an angry tirade against the teacher. But the only other students there were people he hardly knew, so he contented himself with laying the pieces on a table and trying to work out some way to repair the picture.

One of the others got up and made to leave the room; glancing at Marcus, he offered a careless ‘Hi’ and held out the latest ‘New Scientist’ which carried a lead story about a chemical called Novichok. After reading this article – or the little of it he was able to understand – he then started browsing through some of the chemistry textbooks on the common room shelf.

A week later he was back in the art studio, starting all over again with his still life. The teacher was scornful, saying that he would never have enough time to complete the piece for the end-of-year exam show. ‘Can I submit the picture I was working on last week instead, then?’ he asked, moving the drawing to reveal the amended still life that she had destroyed.

He held up the work; the four quarters had been neatly trimmed to form uniform rectangles and stuck together, each image having been rotated so that the picture had an abstract, architectural quality. Along the edges of the piece he had drawn a set of scales, linear and logarithmic; and spreading across the whole picture were seven curved white lines forming a set of boundaries, like a map. Along the top of the piece, a series of letters cut from magazines spelled out ‘phase diagram novichok’.

Behold, the Mutant Algorithm

Gradually, the components of the mutant algorithm
Converge and intersect; the student’s hand is given
To demonstrate how Francis Bacon slashed the canvas
That night, we dined on steak and mashed potato

And later, drifting along the quiet avenue
Where huge swathes of Himalayan balsam
Manage to confuse the darting bees, whose dainty
Map of ultraviolet roads recall somebody’s name, and
Persuade each one to stay another languid night.

There’s just too much at stake; a flash of understanding
Cuts through the catalogue of lies
 Whose framework makes us wonder how the latent
Energy reveals the staggered biorhythms
Of all my personalities. One day soon, we’ll rendezvous

To sip the liquid happiness that occupies
The flower’s distant throat. Somewhere inside
The hollow antiprism we find the gleaming spines
That wait in vain to vaccinate us all against the truth.

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