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Written by richwill

June 20, 2011 at 8:39 pm

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Mystery Romanian Tory donor condemns plans to privatise blood service

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"Privatising the blood service is a frankly appalling idea"

A leading contributor to the Conservative Party has condemned Government plans to privatise the blood service.

Count Dracula made a donation of £50,000 to the Conservatives before the May 2010 election, but has now broken his anonymity in order to slam Tory austerity plans, calling them ‘a step too far’.

‘When I decided to help Mr. Cameron’s party in their election campaign, I understood that they would do their best to stand up for the interests of business leaders, robber barons and vampires like myself.

‘But hearing of the suggested privatisation of the blood and transplant service has appalled me. Such a move would be the height of irresponsibility. It is totally wrong for a private company to profit from those who volunteer to save lives. I find any suggestion of the private sector becoming involved in any elements of the NBS very disturbing.

‘We know from all the evidence that fragmenting services, outsourcing and contracting out, damages that ethos and more importantly damages the smooth running of the service.

‘How can Cameron and Lansley claim that the NHS is safe in their hands, when they are planning to literally drain its lifeblood.’

Count Dracula is 1,407 years old.

Written by richwill

February 23, 2011 at 5:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

José Saramago’s ‘Seeing’ and the Middle East revolutions

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Events across the Middle East have echoes of one of the later novels by José Saramago. On the BBC World Service just now in response to a question about who is running the city now that Gaddafi’s authority in the area has collapsed, a Libyan interviewee proudly reported that he has never seen the city so clean; the people themselves have swept the streets. John Rees reported that the same had happened in Cairo after the authorities had abandoned the city. In Saramago’s ‘Seeing’, the government leaves an unnamed city in an unnamed country to its own devices in response to a more gentle and mysterious kind of democratic revolution:

‘…at midday exactly, while all this was going on, from every house in the city there emerged women armed with brooms, buckets and dustpans, and, without a word, they started sweeping their own patch of pavement and street, from the front door as far as the middle of the road, where they encountered other women who had emerged from the houses opposite with exactly the same objective and armed with the same weapons…they were not just looking after their own interests, but after the interests of the community as well. It was possibly for this same reason that, on the third day, the refuse collectors also came out onto the street. They were not in uniform, they were wearing their own clothes. It was the uniforms that were on strike, they said, not them.’

What is the cause of the strange and sudden outbreak of blank voting that causes the Government to leave the city without a shot having been fired? The explanation of the Government is clear: the normal functioning of the democratic system has been subverted, owing to a nefarious and possibly foreign-inspired plot which must be uncovered and quashed if ‘democratic normality’ is to resume. The effects of this purported conspiracy are described as an ‘infection’, a ‘modern day black death’ and a ‘tumour’, which has been introduced into the democratic system by ‘vandals, barbarians, savages’ and ‘wretched rebels’. The entire city has been contaminated by this moral pestilence, and the best solution, the authorities conclude, is to lay siege to the city and force it to see the errors of its ways.

The Prime Minister feels nostalgia ‘for the happy times when votes did as they were told’: the voters are seen as puppets that can be easily manipulated. Their ‘normal’ role is simply to periodically cast a vote in order to legitimise the continued existence of the political system. It is their refusal to play this role and by so doing create a legitimation crisis that throws their purported political representatives into turmoil. The high-blown and paternalistic rhetoric of the political parties appears to have no impact on the level of disengagement of the electors from the political system. The political leaders talk of civic duty, the ‘vital importance’ of the elections, and the urgency of a return to ‘normal’ political realities. They are portrayed as motivated purely by their own political survival. They contest among themselves the meaning of the results, with the left-wing party claiming it is a mislaid protest vote for their cause. But all three parties agree that they are facing a crisis and that normality must be restored at any cost.

The citizens react with an ominous silence to the Government’s attempts to identify its cause of the rebellion and its perpetrators. They respond blankly or brusquely to inquiries about how they voted. This refusal to engage with the system in its search for a way to address the crisis is understood by the increasingly desperate authorities to be more of a threat to the legitimacy of their power than electoral opposition could ever be. The citizens are violating the implicit rule that interprets any measure of participation as an act of affirmation of legitimacy. The ‘movement’ has no representatives or spokespeople with whom the Government can come to terms; indeed it is clear that in addition to having no figurehead, the ‘movement’ does not exist. It is made up of ‘thousands of people who do not know one another’ who, with no prior agreement, decided to cast a blank vote and who now respond to attempts to persuade them to engage in a dialogue with the same formula: ‘We don’t owe anyone an explanation’.

This new state of affairs is described as ‘mysterious’, ‘new and unknown’, and ‘threatening’. Eventually it transpires that the reason they cast blank votes was because they were ‘disillusioned’ and ‘could find no other way of making it clear just how disillusioned they were’:

‘They could have staged a revolution, but then many people would undoubtedly have died, something they would never have wanted, (…) all their lives they had patiently placed their votes in the ballot box, and the results were there for all to see, This isn’t democracy, Sir, far from it’.

Since this new state of affairs has, in the words of a newspaper editorial, ‘complicated public life to an unprecedented degree, corralling it into a dark alleyway from which not even the brightest spark (is) able to see a way out’, the Government turns to desperate measures in deciding to abandon the ‘rebel city’ to its own devices. As the Prime Minister explains:

‘…our aim is to isolate the population and then leave them to simmer, sooner or later there are bound to be fights, conflicts of interests, life will become increasingly difficult, the streets will fill up with rubbish…there are bound to be serious problems with the distribution and supply of foodstuffs, problems which, if necessary, we will take care to create…’

The President appears on television to notify the country of the Government’s decision to withdraw their ministries and the forces of law and order. He warns the city ‘The streets will be yours, they belong to you, use them as you wish’.

The siege that they plan to impose on the city will ‘inevitably seriously hamper the smooth functioning of an urban area of such importance’, and the Government expects that within a short period of time lawlessness and social breakdown will ensue and the disobedient population, trapped in its ‘unhappy prison’, will learn its lesson and overcome its ‘wicked obstinacy’. However, as soon as they learn that the authorities are gone, the people of the city take to the streets:

‘The streets, which, up until then, had been almost deserted…filled up with people within a matter of minutes…they resembled two rivers, one flowing up and one flowing down, and they waved to each other from river to river, as if the city were celebrating, as if it were a local holiday.’

No-one goes to work, and despite the hysterical predictions of the Government and the press, ‘there were no thieves or rapists or murderers’: It seems that ‘the police were not, after all, essential for the city’s security’, and the traffic flows smoothly. The predicted collapse into chaos does not occur.

One of the key moments of the novel takes place soon after the Government and the police have  withdrawn from the city. After the announcement of a Government-orchestrated strike by the refuse collectors, a Government-friendly newspaper publishes an editorial predicting that the rebellion will end in a bloodbath, a message which is broadcast and discussed on TV and radio. As if in response:

‘…at midday exactly, while all this was going on, from every house in the city there emerged women armed with brooms, buckets and dustpans, and, without a word, they started sweeping their own patch of pavement and street…they were not just looking after their own interests, but the interests of the community as well’.

It is as if the people of the city have adopted the President’s ironic injunction to make the streets their own and turned it around in order to claim the streets as their own common property in an act of autogestion. With the authorities gone, the city begins to look after itself. Its citizens have shown themselves to be ‘determined to change their lives, their tastes and their style’. Not only have they ceased to play their part in the charade of representative democracy, but their interest in reading newspapers has also greatly declined; the ideological hold that power has had over them is losing its grip. They are gaining autonomy in various areas of their lives, and rather than relying on the abstract entity of the state to take care of the common areas of the city, the people have begun to take matters into their own hands. In Lefebvrian terms, what was the abstract space of state jurisdiction has been appropriated and transformed into lived space. The Government has made a ‘grave error leaving the city unsupervised’.

Henri Lefebvre regarded the street as the place where spontaneity can express itself, ‘an arena of the city not completely occupied by institutions’. It is not so much public as common. As a result of the political crisis and the Government’s departure from the city, social space begins to assume new meaning. In the protests that take place the streets are explicitly reclaimed by the citizens. The second demonstration takes place after Government agents have bombed the metro station in a failed attempt to provoke recrimination and division. A sea of people floods the street in a silent demonstration that makes its way to the parliament building in a clear example of what David Harvey calls ‘targetting power in place’. The street has become a space of meaningful interaction, and the attempts at dividing the besieged city against itself do not succeed, as the city is experiencing the ‘birth and growth of an atmosphere of social harmony, (of) unequivocal solidarity’. Examples of solidarity abound, such as when, to the shock and disappointment of the watching media, those who have returned to the city after their failed attempt to escape are not greeted with hatred and violent recrimination.

Clearly something unprecedented is happening; according to the Minister of Justice, it is as if an epidemic of clear-sightedness has succeeded the epidemic of blindness that struck the city four years before, and over which has lain a code of silence. Whatever this new plague may be a symptom of, it raises questions of urban governance. By whom and for whom is the city governed? It seems that suddenly the governing class are no longer seen as the natural leaders, and that a transition is underway to what the Prime Minister calls ‘something entirely new and unknown, so different we could probably have no place in it’. The authorities see it as crucial to re-establish their rule and to avert what they see as the horror of the subject classes starting to take care of themselves.

There are a number of echoes in the novel of recent and not so recent events in cities in the real world. In his recent book ‘Violence’ Slavoj Žižek makes reference to Saramago’s novel in the context of a discussion of the riots in the banlieues of Paris in 2006, arguing that rather than a revolution, the act of political defiance is one of a purely negative character, a refusal to continue to cooperate with a process that they have come to regard as a charade. It is a movement with no leaders and no demands and as such it can neither be defeated nor incorporated into the system itself. It is a phatic act of rebellion which expresses no deeper meaning than that of mere refusal, ‘reject[ing] the very frame of decision’.

Nevertheless this argument fails to acknowledge that the act of returning a blank vote is not a passive act of pure negation, but a performative one: a subversive act of returning a ballot while withholding a vote. What the Government is faced with closely resembles the legitimacy crisis which Jurgen Habermas argues that government institutions in modern capitalist societies face. Significantly it was also published shortly after the farce of the election count in 2000 in what is purported to be the world’s largest democracy.

One of the clearest historical echoes in the novel is of the Paris Commune of 1871, an event that Lefebvre describes as ‘a spontaneous reaction against the programming and control of [the people’s] lives’. David Harvey records that:

‘When the rural army of reaction was assembled on the outskirts of Paris in 1871 poised to engage in the savage slaughter of some 30,000 communards, they were first persuaded that their mission was to reclaim the city from the forces of Satan.’

The siege of the city in Seeing is a similar struggle over the control and meaning of urban space between the state and what is seen by the authorities as a demonic rabble that has taken over the city. Almost one hundred years after the Paris Commune, the events of May 1968 would be inspired by ideas of reclaiming and appropriating space and time in the city, creating lived space and lived moments, liberating time and space from the confinements of the bourgeois order. Lefebvre wrote of both events that:

‘In 1871 the entire people took to the streets; the bourgeoisie had already left the capital or was preparing to do so…in March 1871 as in May 1968, the people come from the periphery, assembled and headed toward the urban centres in order to reconquer them’.

Another echo which can be interpreted as significant given Saramago’s controversial support for the Palestinian cause, is of the siege of Gaza, which partly results from the refusal of the Western powers and Israel to recognise the results of the election of 2005 in which Hamas was elected to govern. The Israelis continue to besiege and bombard Gaza in the attempt to persuade its inhabitants to vote more appropriately and obediently in the future. The Government’s contempt for the voters in Seeing also recalls Henry Kissinger’s alleged remark in relation to the election of a socialist Government in Chile in 1973: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.”

Are the citizens who, in the absence of the state authorities, take command of the city in the novel rejecting the notion of democracy per se? It is useful here to consider a rhetorical question posed by Pierre Bourdieu in relation to neoliberalism, urban life and democratic accountability:

‘It can be shown, for example, that the problems seen in the suburban estates of the cities     stem from a neoliberal housing policy, implemented in the 1970s…This social separation was brought about by a political measure. [But] who would link a riot in a suburb of Lyon to a political decision of 1970?’.

Both Bourdieu and Saramago are fiercely critical of the neoliberal model of democracy, with its ideological glossing over of social problems caused by political decisions based on narrowly-defined economic criteria. Bourdieu writes that ‘all the critical forces in society need to insist on the inclusion of the social costs of economic decisions in economic calculations’. The concern in the novel is for a more meaningful form of democratic participation in the life of the community, the city and in society. The anodyne model of democracy which is explicitly rejected in the novel is a managerial one, which is concerned primarily with the reproduction of political power, and not with specific problems and possibilities in the life of a city. A politician from the the right-wing party is described as having been ‘appointed to administer’ the city; the dominant attitude of the politicians in the novel is that of cynicism and self-interest. The democratic system is shown to be merely a machine to produce the illusion of democracy.

Alain Badiou makes the point that capitalism is worldless, in the sense that it is divorced from any specific social field of meaning and can operate with any set of values, adapting easily to purported ‘Asian values’ (supposedly collectivist and authoritarian) rather than being entrenched in the liberal, ‘democratic’ and individualist traditions of the West. The city as we first encounter it in Seeing, as in the other three novels under discussion, appears to have no distinguishing features: no past, no place, no landmarks, and no names. It is the bland landscape of liberal-democratic capitalism, with all distinguishing historical and geographical features and social particularities eliminated, not anchored in any specific time or landscape. It might therefore be thought of as a Fukuyamaian post-historical city. Apart from the designation of three political parties, from the right, the centre and the left, ideology plays very little role, and politics is merely a matter of administration.

The pre-rebellion city in ‘Seeing’ can thus be categorized as another non-place; although the politicians insist that the municipal elections are vital for the future of the city, their rhetoric rings false, as the city appears to have no past, and how can a city with no past have a future? The ‘gentle rebellion’ occasioned by the blank votes, however, awakens the city to its past, to its repressed traumas, but also to new possible futures.

These possibilities can be glimpsed in those moments in the novel where the city itself appears to become the agent of transformation. Previously the citizens have not had ‘the healthy habit of demanding the proper enforcement of their rights’, but after they rebel and the Government deserts the city, the city itself becomes subjectivised in a process which Badiou might well classify as an ‘event’: a collective political phenomenon which seemingly emerges out of nothing, and which then opens the way to new possibilities. The city  is said to ‘[take] the matter into its own hands’. Useful here is Lefebvre’s concept of ‘counter-spaces’: spaces which ‘resist the dominant organisation of space around the requirements of political order’, and which can also be categorised in Foucaultian terms as ‘heterotopias’. The action of the citizens in reclaiming the streets creates spaces from which formal power is excluded. Fran Tonkiss writes:

‘Taking to the streets or the square is both a tactical reworking of space – the embassy or the government building is no longer simply a site of official power, but also a site of protest or resistance – and an enactment in time’.

A heterotopia is a kind of ‘effectively enacted utopia’, and those moments in the novel in which the possibility of a genuinely humanizing urban experience is glimpsed can be characterised as utopian in the sense that they offer what Marx described as ‘fantastic pictures of future society’; a vision of what humans can collectively achieve once their ‘slumbering powers’ have been awakened. For David Harvey:

‘The figures of “the city” and of “Utopia” have long been intertwined, visions of utopia assuming an urban form. In remaking the city we remake ourselves, or as the situationist slogan says, ‘changer la ville, changer la vie’.

In those moments in which the citizens express solidarity with their fellow inhabitants and begin to appropriate and produce their own space, the city becomes a place of meaning: in an echo of the closing pages of Blindness, it also becomes a place of ritual. The moment in which the superintendent drinks from the fountain in the park is described in quasi-religious terms.

It is significantly the only one of the four novels in which the city has a clearly defined centre. As we explored in the chapter on The Cave, within Lefebvre’s notion of the ‘right to the city’, the right to centrality, of access to and participation in the life of the city is key. Writing on the Paris Commune, Lefebvre argues that the workers return to the centre, conquer the city. This renovated centrality is a crucial element in the transformation of the city in Seeing. The people of the city produce their own space, creating a kind of experimental utopia of which Lefebvre would surely approve:

‘[Lefebvre] envisaged a ludic city, such that work would be organised around residence, and in which everyday life would be transformed, and people would be in charge of their lives.’

Written by richwill

February 23, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Time for a haircut!

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My Swiss banker buddy is in a grumpy mood this afternoon. He tells me with a certain malice that the UK economy has a deficit of 110% of its GDP, and asks me what should be done about it. Im a bit dubious about this statistic but don’t have my John Lanchester book to hand so can’t really contradict him. He argues forcefully that the only way out of this mess is to cut public spending. I’ve obviously heard this argument a great deal over the last few months but it’s the first opportunity I’ve had to discuss it face to face with a managing director of one of Europe’s leading investment banks, ie. a genuine full-on capitalist bastard.

When he lets me get a word in edgeways I pose him two questions: where did all this debt come from, and who is it owed to? Because as far as I can tell the answer to both questions is the same: the banks. It seems to me greatly unfair that public services should be cut in order to pay the banks so as to deal with the horrible mess that the banks themselves created. I ask him what happens if, as seems likely, one of the debtor countries can’t pay or refuses to do so? His answer is intriguing, and suggests a slogan other than ‘Can’t pay won’t pay!’: in that case, he says, the holders of goverment bonds have to take a haircut. This simply means that their bonds lose value, and their holders lose money. But it’s not just financial institutions and wealthy individuals, he points out, it’s also private pension funds, insurance companies, and all sorts of other interests. Their investments lose value, they reduce spending in other areas, people lose their jobs, the whole economy suffers.

Now I’m no expert and I’m not really in a position to dispute the scenario he’s just outlined. Nevertheless I’ve never quite sure if I even believe in this thing called ‘the economy’. Surely there are different economies, with conflicting interests, some more powerful than others. But even with leaving Naomi Klein aside for a brief moment, it seems to me preferable to force bond holders to take such a haircut, with the risk that this apparently implies of an economic downturn, than to close hospitals, schools and homes for the elderly, essentially privatise universities, starve the unemployed into non-existent jobs and generally abandon the poorest and most vulnerable to destitution and misery.

I’m not about to convince Herr GeldSäcke of any of this. But it’s been a useful session which seems to have cheered him up no end and which has taught me two important things: one, bond holders will need to take a haircut soon, and two: orange jeans and a black cardigan with little white skulls all down the arms combined with a shiny brand new pair of crocodile shoes is evidently a very popular look for forty something year old investment bankers in Zürich this year. Rather him than me.

Written by richwill

January 4, 2011 at 8:43 pm

In which I start blogging again

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My perfectionist instinct should inhibit me from thinking; it should inhibit me from even beginning. But I get distracted and start doing something‘. Bernardo Soares, The Book of Disquiet

Eleven years ago I moved from Ireland to Portugal. From time to time people ask me why I chose Portugal of all places.

I’m always a bit flummoxed when I’m asked this. Recently however I worked out the answer. The reason why I went to live in Portugal is that I wanted to go and live in Spain.

I suffer from a certain indecisiveness. Bearing this in mind makes it much easier to decipher my own actions.

Often I do things because I don’t want to, and often I don’t do things because I want to do them.

Sometimes the things I wanted to do resemble the things I end up doing.

Sometimes I end up liking the thing I do, but this is always conditioned by the feeling that there are things which I would rather have done, although I often still don’t know what these things are or were.

Very often I do something because it is the exact opposite of what I actually wanted to do, even when I know very clearly what that thing is. This could be something as simple as not asking for someone’s phone number when I know that I want to do so.

After I left Portugal I wanted to go to Brazil or Spain, or maybe Japan. So I went to live in China.

Adam Phillips poses the question, what would you do if you were cured. This is inevitably a very complicated question.

Sometimes I feel that if I could only look people in the eye when I’m talking to them about things that actually matter, this would be a measure of success.

Acting changes things, radically transforms one’s situation. Hesitating, failing to act, indeciding, to coin a word, does not.

Hesitating is a clear sign that I’m censoring myself.

However when I notice that I’m hesitating it’s too late to act. Sometimes I half-act, I act without fully committing myself to the action. This is not the same as acting. I can’t quite decide whether or not to wait and hold the door open for someone, so I hold the door half-open, and get in their way.

The objective is to act decisively, to overcome the abyss between deciding and acting in one fatal leap. To launch myself over the chasm, and in so doing to make that space of indecision retroactively disappear, not to bridge a gap but to close the breach.

To say something, to declare something to be true is an act. To write is an act.

I enjoy writing. I only bring myself to write rarely. Most of the time I spend suspended in midair somewhere between these two points. I’m scared that I won’t reach the other side, that I’ll plunge into the shameful depths below. In the words of Bernardo Soares again, I plumb myself and drop the plumb; I spend my life wondering if I’m deep or not. I’m terribly scared of exposing my depths of shame and of opening myself up to a toxic mix of indifference and ridicule. My natural style is to demolish what I’m saying in the act of saying it. I almost certainly do this when I speak. It might be something I have to address and to change. It might not.

There is a time and a place for not censoring myself when I speak.

One of the things I most admire about Fernando Pessoa is encapsulated in the quote at the beginning of the article? essay? reflection? I’ll come back to this.

All of the people I most admire are prolific in some way. They trust in what happens when they start to speak and to write.

Many people’s lives are made up of hesitations, pauses.

Others’ lives are made up of one long statement that encompasses many many other statements, some of which interrogate or explain earlier statements, and some of which contradict one another.

Then there is the question of dialogue; if one never speaks, never actually arrives at the point of articulating what appears at that moment to have the status of a truth, then one can never enter into a dialogue. This is self-evident.

Perhaps I have nothing whatsoever of depth or originality to offer, or, more likely, very little. Maybe my insights and reflections merely replicate those of others, but at a much less informed and thought-out level.

There is however a very strong argument for trying to articulate some sort of truth, and it comes from Paulo Freire:

‘Hopelessness and despair are both the consequence and the cause of inertia and immobilism’.

Here is another favourite quote, this time from Franz Kafka:

‘You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world; you are free to do so, and it accords with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.’

I love that dizzying rush of ideas, when I think I’m onto something. My instinct these days is  go online and to track down someone who’s already thought of the same thing, so as to evade my own responsibility to articulate whatever it is that’s occurred to me. This can be a frustrating experience, and it is always self-defeating in the fullest sense.

I used to link a great deal. Blogging taught me how very easy it is in the space of a few short minutes to sound like and expert on things you know very little about. Bombard people with links and their resistance to the sometimes suspect logic of your argument soon breaks down. I know that when I speak I have the bad habit of using too many names.

There’s a particular word I came across a few years ago, a name for a kind of essay that starts off on one topic and ends up via a series of diversions talking about something entirely different. It may be called a vagrant essay, or something like that. It was a popular form in the eighteenth century I believe. Anyway. That’s the kind of thing that I kind of sort of quite like to write. Enough of censoring myself. More soon.

Written by richwill

July 7, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Mandeville & Wenlock

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Hey Mandeville!

Hey Wenlock!

So how’s things?

Ah, you know…I’m really not sure this being an Olympic mascot thing was such a good idea

Whyever not! We’ve been all over the media! you can’t buy that sort of publicity!

Yeah, but what kind of publicity?

What do you mean?

Well, someone on twitter said that we looked like ‘tortured tellitubbies’ and that i had a morrisons sign on my head. it’s…hurtful

What’s twitter?

It’s a social networking site where people post messages of less than 140 characters. On the internet.

Hmm. And tellitubbies?

Children’s tv characters

And Morrison’s?

Like tesco’s but smaller, and formerly only in the north

Doesn’t sound so bad to me! Better than costcutters! I don’t see what your problem is. At least we got to meet Sebastian Coe at that launch thing! Wasn’t that fun?! What was it you called him again?

I said he was a ‘tory twat’

yeah, he found that hilarious didn’t he.

certainly did, and he loved it when i said i hoped he’d soon go the same way as his fascist fuhrer saramanch

Hmm yes i suppose things did get a bit overexcited. i do think it wasn’t very polite of you to ask daley thompson if his piss was still sponsored by lucozade. and punching zola budd in the face was a little bit out of order, especially after she appeared to stop breathing. And it was very cruel of you to point out that david beckham’s new tattoo means ‘my wife’s a vapid slag’ in hindi…never mind, look at this letter! next tuesday we get to meet the prime minister!

really?(looks) (sounds disappointed) the *deputy* prime minister

what’s the difference?

Aah…I can’t really tell to be honest. Shame we didn’t get to meet Gordon Brown really, I feel we might have had more in common, what with him only having one eye and everything. It’s just…I don’t know…i just expected more from life. I mean, listen to this: ‘Their job is to make the 2012 games child friendly, and to sell more toys than could ever fit at the foot, let alone the peak, of Mount Olympus itself.’

What’s mount olympus?

It’s a mountain in ancient greece

Where is it now then

(exasperated) What?

Did they move it?

(realises) ohh…yeah. it’s in sweden now. i just…can’t help feeling that there’s something more i, we, should be doing. I don’t even particularly like children. and I fucking hate sport, to be absolutely honest

you’re starting to worry me slightly

Look, I had an idea. Nobody likes us…

Nooo…

It’s true. Someone called anethmalves in minas gerais said she thought we were in ‘tremendo mau gosto’. and she’s got 40 followers! we’re fucked.

what does that mean?

it means we’re in really bad trouble

no the trimindi gau mosto bit

I don’t know, but i don’t think it’s good. but listen, i think i can see a way out. Nobody seems to like us, they’re outraged that we’re getting such an easy ride from the media but they’re stuck with us for the next few years. and there are two of us…

what are you suggesting?

i think we should wait a couple of years until the time is ripe, gather our forces, then instigate a wave of street terror, burn down parliament, take advantage of the confusion to make a grab for power, close down all democratic institutions and declare an end to the sketch!

*brilliant* idea!

Written by richwill

May 19, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A few thoughts on art, sport and containerisation

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Tate
What is the meaning of the enormous empty shipping container sitting in the Turbine hall of the Tate Modern? For Ian Jack, it is a journey into artistic nothingness; the experience of visiting it is an empty one. Another answer is suggested by Allan Sekula’s film The Lottery of the Sea, which opens with shots of shipping containers, shots immmedietly familiar to middle-class British people from the second series of the Wire, which, like Sekula’s film, deals with the effects of cargo containerisation. This process, beginning at the dawn of the neoliberal era in around 1975. has led to the moving of docks away from city centres with a huge loss of jobs, followed by attempts to redevelop waterfronts into exclusive residential and leisure zones. Part of the film focuses on the effects of this process in Barcelona, not just in the area around the former port but in the historical centre. He shows demonstrations from 2001 which attempted to prevent the process of gentrification of the area called Raval. The protests were not successful ;the area where they took place is now a gentrified zone which has as its centrepiece the gleaming sandstone and glass of Barcelona’s Museum of Modern Art.

The role of modern art galleries in the attempts to regenerate a poor area has been well documented, and is widely held to have been successful in cities such as Bilbao and Barcelona itself. British cities like Manchester, Bristol, Glasgow and Sheffield have all set off down the same path, not to mention the south bank of the Thames in London. Tourists both national and international flock to these iconic buildings in much the same way as they visit palaces, cathedrals: to admire the building itself and to marvel at whatever they find inside. The experience of the exhibition itself is often largely irrelevant; the building itself is a container, one might say, the meaning of what is on display either mystifying or immediately forgotten.

Regeneration through art is one of a set of very similar urban development strategies. Expositions are another. The Millennium Dome was an attempt to regenerate the Greenwich peninsula. Expo 98 in Portugal redeveloped a huge area of the West of the city. Developments such as these aim in essence to take an area of the city, away from the centre, which is widely considered to be underused and to leverage it into profitable real estate by building things which people with money are believed to want. The roll-out of a kit of oceanariums, museums of science and technology, spectacular apartment blocks, upmarket shopping centres etc etc has made large parts of a number of cities into identikit dead zones, rarely visited even by tourists or by the local people.

The Millennium Dome itself was widely regarded as a disaster in the making. It cost £700 million and it was clear from the start that nobody involved in the project had the slightest idea what to put inside it once it was finally finished. According to reports from the very few people who ventured inside, it hosted a mixture of mawkish, trite, bombastic and meaningless corporate-sponsored ‘experiences’ which illustrated perfectly the mixture of cynicism and vapidity of those involved.

In Sekula’s film a very similar event takes place: the Forum 2004 in Barcelona, centring on the perennial expo themes of Scientific Knowledge and Cultural Diversity. He interviews local people protesting against the loss of their homes as a result of the redevelopment of the site, and subsequently films the event for which their homes were sacrificed; it was, like the Millennium Dome, a total failure. Images of the site show a landscape strikingly similar to other former Expo sites in Lisbon, Seville and Valencia: a sterilized, dead zone, a non-place devoid of energy and interaction, ‘useless as a conduit of psychic energy’, in the words of Frederic Jameson.

But can these events be classified as failures? A useful and important analogy is that of sport, another focus and means of urban generation following much the same model. Portugal invested hugely in the Euro football championships, which were widely held to be a success. They were not, of course, a success for the Portuguese football team. But to what extent does that matter? New stadiums were built, the advertisers were happy; for a sporting megaevent these are more important measures of success. After all, if a football team such as Arsenal redevelops land into a stadium, and the football club and the developers all make a huge amount of money, and luxury apartments are built next to the stadium, and the companies who develop those apartments also make humungous amounts of money, what possible relevance could the result of the football match itself on any given Saturday or Sunday have? The stadium itself is merely the container; the medium is the message. Whatever goes on inside the stadium is of very little or no importance.

In the film, the developers of the Forum 2004 site themselves confirm this logic. The forum may have been a complete failure, but what matters is that the value of the space on which it took place has been leveraged exponentially, and so the developers themselves stand to make a killing. The Millennium Dome was sold for basically nothing and is now an entertainment venue surrounded by ‘luxury’ flats. No prizes for guessing where Cristiano Ronaldo has his apartment in Lisbon. As for the MACBA development, it has increased real estate prices in the area, bringing in people who have spending power and getting rid of those can no longer afford to live in the centre of the city. The MACBA itself is a container; the success, failure or indeed the meaning of whatever is inside is of little relevance in the grander scheme of things. One might say the same of the success or failure of any work of art in the neoliberal age; the debate over the success or failure of Anthony Gormley’s One and Other has ignored the reality that, for Rupert Murdoch, it has functioned as a very effective advertisement for his Sky Arts channel.

Which brings us back to the empty container in the Turbine Hall, the latest in the Unilever series of installations. Whatever meanings an educated elite may be able to find inside it, that particular one is very clearly signalled and communicated to all who visit. Public art in the neoliberalism era functions not so much as a Trojan horse, but rather like the joke about the man who smuggles bicycles. The container is empty; the medium itself is the message.

Written by richwill

October 18, 2009 at 1:33 pm

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