Category Archives: Exhibitions

Glass, Wood, Animals, Books: The wonders of old pharmacies

Only a thin line separated alchemy from old pharmacies once. Apothecaries (who only later became the mystery-stripped ‘pharmacies’ or even worse ‘drug stores’) once contained wondrous collections of barrels, bottles, alembics, retorts, crucibles, pestles and mortars, animals whose bodies and bones were crushed and used in medicines. Of the medieval collections in Krakow’s Pharmacy Museum, the notes quote Shakespeare:

I do remember an apothecary—
And hereabouts he dwells—which late I noted
In tattered weeds, with overwhelming brows,
Culling of simples. Meager were his looks,
Sharp misery had worn him to the bones,
And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuffed, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scattered to make up a show.
–Romeo & Juliet, Act 5, Scene 1
This is Krakow’s museum in a nutshell. From the medieval section:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Cabinets of poisons clearly marked to avoid accident:

Museum of Pharmacy, KrakowMuseum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Great vaulted cellars, full of more wondrous things, above all the medicinal wine, either steeped in herbs or to be later mixed with dried herbal powders:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

We found this hidden round a corner. I don’t even know what this is.

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Old water distillers, coloured glass vials, presses, alembics:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

 

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

As time moved on, techniques became refined, the furniture in polished inlaid wood of the Baroque or the Biedermeier style, the glass neatly labelled:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Rows and rows of canisters in glass and porcelain sitting above wonderful drawers of uniform shape, all rescued from old apothecaries across the city and brought here:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Hirudines! Aka leeches. A collection of more mortars and pestles, pictures of leading pharmacists of Krakow and their documents now of historical relevance rather than professional necessity:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Enormous mortars and pestles. And oh, my love for bottles and small labelled drawers full of strange powders and herbs and medicines overfloweth:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Old books are here also, with velveted covers:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Wooden boxes of superb craftsmanship filled with strange bottles and implements for the storing and mixing of musk:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Stoppered bottles of vibrant colour that make my heart beat faster:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Clear glass of strange shape and design:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Strange scissors of a shape perfectly crafted to an unknown task, old herbals, locked and keyed and made into beautiful works of art:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

A map of plants and the ‘world’ as it was once believed to be:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Prescriptions

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Tiny glass vials and velveted boxes of syringes used and reused.

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Cork-crushers and medicine makers

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Herbs and storage

All found in the attic, where warmer and dryer air might do their work:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

This is one of my favourite places in this city, and I will be writing more because this only scratches the surface of the apothecarial wonder.

Also, please let us resurrect the term apothecary and use it more in everyday life.

I shall end with another quote from the museum, this from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude:

The rudimentary laboratory—in addition to a profusion of pots, funnels, retorts, filters, and sieves—was made up of a primitive water pipe, a glass beaker with a long, thin neck, a reproduction of the philosopher’s egg, and a still the gypsies themselves had built in accordance with modern descriptions of the three-armed alembic of Mary the Jew. Along with those items, Melquíades left samples of the seven metals that corresponded to the seven planets, the formulas of Moses and Zosimus for doubling the quantity of gold, and a set of notes and sketches concerning the processes of the Great Teaching that would permit those who could interpret them to undertake the manufacture of the philosopher’s stone. Seduced by the simplicity of the formulas to double the quantity of gold, José Arcadio Buendía paid court to Úrsula for several weeks so that she would let him dig up her colonial coins and increase them by as many times as it was possible to subdivide mercury. Úrsula gave in, as always, to her husband’s unyielding obstinacy. Then José Arcadio Buendía threw three doubloons into a pan and fused them with copper filings, orpiment, brimstone, and lead. He put it all to boil in a pot of castor oil until he got a thick and pestilential syrup which was more like common caramel than valuable gold. In risky and desperate processes of distillation, melted with the seven planetary metals, mixed with hermetic mercury and vitriol of Cyprus, and put back to cook in hog fat for lack of any radish oil, Úrsula’s precious inheritance was reduced to a large piece of burnt hog cracklings that was firmly stuck to the bottom of the pot.

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Dreams of Copernicus: Collegium Maius

Today started with Copernicus (1473-1543) — a visit to Collegium Maius where he was a student. Though never a professor. We had a splendid, if quick, tour with decidedly witty commentary. Copernicus kept his head down in a deeply Catholic atmosphere, kept quiet, and published nothing until the year leading up to his death at age 70. Not Galileo, and look what happened to him…

I am not sure of the moral of this.

Collegium Maius is an amazing place, gothic brick construction along with limestone exuding knots of flint and two most beautiful ammonites. It has vaulted ceilings, incredible carved wood, has been a place of learning and study since the 14th century, and in this form since the 15th. Professors lived upstairs and taught downstairs, and it is most splendid.

I was most excited about the instruments Copernicus used — early ways people were trying to understand our universe before lenses or proper telescopes. They are amazing, these three.

Collegium Maius

Collegium Maius

The Jagiellonian Globe:

Collegium Maius

Made in 1510 in France and most likely the first globe to show the Americas. In completely the wrong place.

A copy of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, the famous text by Copernicus positing our own revolution around the sun:

Collegium Maius

Many more most wonderful instruments of astronomy, like these from Moorish Toledo:

Collegium Maius

And more:

Collegium Maius

Collegium Maius

Collegium Maius

The college itself is more stunning than I can say, with wonderful carved wood and painted ceilings, carvings, instruments, books, windows, furniture, murals, beaten metal shaped to reflect candle-light to illuminate a room, the most wonderful wooden spiral staircase I have ever seen, the Nobel prize medal won by Wisława Szymborska who was a student here, the Oscar and other awards won by Andrzej Wajda, an intricate inlaid door commemorating Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of American and showing the maiden Europe distributing justice to the New World and Africa. We did not, however, manage to catch the clock figures striking the odd hour…

Flickr Album Gallery Powered By: Weblizar

300_424.8_2016.05.18.14.59.38This was only the beginning of a day in Krakow, which also included an exhibition of Max Ernst: An Ornithologist’s Dream (most wonderful) a trip to the Pharmacy Museum (again wonderful), lunch at Noworolski’s, where Lenin once took his mistress (and sometimes his wife), drinks in Kazimierz at Propaganda… but I have no more energy, and all of these things demand more thought.

More posts on Poland:

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Artists and Empire at the Tate

Artists and Empire, the Tate’s description of the point of it:

At its height the British Empire was the largest empire in history and the most influential global power. originating with a few overseas possessions and trading posts, it grew to encompass dominions, colonies and protectorates rules or administered by the United Kingdom. In 1922 the Empire covered almost a quarter of the world’s total land area; by the end of the century it had diminished to just a few overseas territories. During this contraction, ‘Empire; became a highly provocative term.Its history of war, conquest and appropriation is difficult, even painful, to address but its legacy is everywhere: not just in public monuments, but in social structures, culture and in the fault lines of contemporary global politics.

This is what the booklet says. No slavery. Empire become provocative only as it contracts? It seems unlikely that a project of Empire was not provocative at all times, especially amongst those being Empired. The blurb on the website is slightly different:

In 21st century Britain, ‘empire’ is highly provocative. Its histories of war, conquest and slavery are difficult and painful to address but its legacy is everywhere and affects us all. Artist and Empire brings together extraordinary and unexpected works to explore how artists from Britain and around the world have responded to the dramas, tragedies and experiences of the Empire.

A bit better, that. Hard for Britain to do, but something that must be done. It was a thought provoking collection. It mostly filled me with rage, sat with nausea in my stomach. I confess, though, that is knowledge and rage I myself brought in through the door. I am not sure that there was too much open critique offered of Empire here in the Tate Britain, founded by Sir Henry Tate with all of his money from sugar grown in the colonies by slaves. From comments by the elderly middle class people seeing the exhibit with me, I got little sense there was too much critique going on in their minds either. Even though they sat staring at art deriving from a history of murder, occupation, exploitation, enslavement, genocide, extinction. Fairly neutrally curated given the subject.

So there were curiously neutral descriptions of paintings like this one:

painting1‘Portrait of Poedua 1777-85’ by John Webber. The caption on the wall went on to say that she was painted by Webber while being held captive by Captain Cook, a hostage to force her father to round up some runaway sailors.

So this guy took a women being held against her will, stripped her, wrapped her in a rather British sheet and painted her.

But I am ahead of myself. I found the first two rooms most interesting, though the last room was my favourite. But we shall start with 1. Mapping and Marking. Because I love maps. And it behooves me not to forget just how they were used to control not just territories but also how we think about them. This was a stunning example of London at the centre of the world, and its lines of communication (England’s empire in Red):

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Gill, c 1945

They also had Crane’s map of Empire — from before the real ‘scramble’ for Africa, so it’s not quite as pink as the later map above.

Imperial_Federation,_Map_of_the_World_Showing_the_Extent_of_the_British_Empire_in_1886_(levelled)

I also learned that when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza (Portugal) in 1661, he got with her Bombay and Tangiers. They were painted and etched meticulously for him, fortifications and all.

largeA picture of bucanneers, explorers, men I once knew as heroes Cavendish, Drake and Hawkins (that guy who chose to have a slave as part of his new coat of arms given his promotion by Elizabeth I). These were not display.

Sir_john_hawkins_early_arms_colour

2. Trophies of Empire — the art, artefacts, and natural history. I love natural history. Again, force myself to remember what so much of  these beautiful paintings of flora and fauna mean — the control and exploitation of nature, the constant ‘discovery’ of what native peoples knew already even as their knowledge was being erased. This history was present here to some extent.

In light of this, this portrait of Banks becomes chilling — such a key figure in botany, part of Cook’s voyage, President of the Royal Society, here wrapped in a cloak from his travels to the South Pacific, more exotic weapons collected beside him…these too were to be found here on display.

Portrait of Banks (1773) by Benjamin West
Portrait of Banks (1773) by Benjamin West

The collection of wild animals, the founding of zoos. The beginnings of collections such as that at the Grant Museum of Zoology.

George Stubbs, Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians by George Stubbs, 1764–1765
George Stubbs, Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians by George Stubbs, 1764–1765

3. Imperial Heroics. This is a rather disgusting room, but what is fascinating is just how many last stands there are. Not of those peoples fighting for their homes and sovereignty, but of British soldiers being brave. Being portrayed as the victims. Being shown as the face of determined masculine civilization standing against the savage. I think this needed a bit more reframing, as these pictures tend to reinforce the dominant narrative of Empire. I liked the mocking installation of such narratives in the centre of the room, but it wasn’t really calculated to awaken the consciences of the people sharing the room with me I thought.

Desperate heroism … Charles Edwin Fripp’s The Last Stand at Isandlwana, 1885. Photograph: Council of the National Army Museum
Desperate heroism … Charles Edwin Fripp’s The Last Stand at Isandlwana, 1885. Photograph: Council of the National Army Museum
General Gordon's Last Stand - George William Joy
General Gordon’s Last Stand – George William Joy

There was some interesting looks here at ‘historical’ paintings though, a lot of them focusing on Mysore, the war of conquest there repainted in a very different way, particularly this scene of a ‘kindly’ taking of hostages.

'The Reception of the Mysorean Hostage Princes by Marquis Cornwallis', 1792.
‘The Reception of the Mysorean Hostage Princes by Marquis Cornwallis’, 1792. Oil on canvas by Robert Home (1752-1834), c1793

Robert Home has even painted himself into the canvas as an eyewitness. This was most interesting, this claim of authenticity and this stamp of one version of events over something that was clearly of a very different nature.

4. Power Dressing? The appropriations and subversions of European dress were interesting, but Europeans decking themselves out in the finery of colonised peoples? We still see that every day.

5. Face to Face — portraits, and some chilling ones. Both European looks at the ‘other’ but some very welcome looks back at Europeans. I particularly loved this view of Queen Victoria.

victoria
Yoruba artist, Nigeria, Figure of Queen Victoria, c.1898, Wood.

I particularly hated the portraits made for Queen Victoria’s collection so she could better know her Indian subjects, though they were beautifully done. One of them forms the exhibition’s marketing materials. Men brought over for an exhibition of traditional crafts, though they were in fact trained in those crafts while in a Colonial prison.

6. Out of Empire and Legacies of Empire

Art of the diaspora, critical art, quite wonderful art. ‘Trophies of Empire’ by Guyanese Donald Locke, his compatriot Aubrey Williams’ powerful work. Sonia Boyce, Avinash Chandra, Ronald Moody, Ben Enwonwu and others. A very good way to end the thing I think, it left me liking it more than I expected, expelled some of the anger building up as I wandered through the rooms.

One of my favourite things — the title of Sonia Boyce’s ‘Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain So Great’ (1986).

artistandempire2511a3

I found the exhibition overall immensely thought provoking and moving — yet the presence of many of these objects in a British museum at all is a problematic thing, particularly for the objects of art and worship that were stolen, like the beautiful heads from Benin. A lot of this shit needs to be given back. Their very presence shows there is a lot more needing doing than just facing the past, so while this call for restitution had some voice here it was oddly discordant with the rest. Walking through, I did find these objects a powerful way to understand better the nature and impact of empire, even knowing their presence here in London is a troubling legacy of empire itself.

Particularly emotive given my own recent interests were the donations of several statues of beautiful African art by Sierra Leonan Krios — descendants of former slaves and Black men who fought for the British in the American Revolution, all sent by English abolitionists to colonise a piece of Africa. Their history was missing from this, I brought it with me. On one of the pieces donated, it noted the intent of the donation was probably as an attempt to show the richness of African culture to a European audience. An effort to find empathy, respect, understanding.

I found that donation encapsulates many of the complexities of empire, of museums, of just such collections as this. It did indeed face Britain’s Imperial Past, was even perhaps more critical than I might have expected given the probable pressures to refrain from critique. But it remained something of a mixed message, and in too many ways Britain still isn’t truly facing its Imperial Past.

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John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea at Bristol’s Arnolfini

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaVertigo Sea, a solo exhibition of two films showing through 10th April, 2016 at Bristol’s Arnolfini, its UK premiere. Where better to see such films exploring the connections between oceans and Empire, slavery and migration and the killing of our natural world than this city built with slavery’s profits?

We saw Vertigo Sea first, sat confronting the sea and movement and death and forced migrations on film across three screens. The sounding of waves. The vastness of ocean. The smallness of our own stature in the face of it. The wonder of the creatures who live within it. I imagine the feeling of always being held, wonder if that sounding of waves is something that lives within you if you live within the ocean, if your heart beats to it. Birds, thousands and millions of birds swirl across its surface, like algae, like the shoals of fish that dive and spin.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah “Vertigo Sea” (2015). Installationsview. Nikolaj Kunsthal. Foto Léa Nielsen

Water is here too in the form of snow, vast expanses, glaciers, landscapes we all know are fast disappearing.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Arnolfini. Photo Stuart Whipps

Always the vastness of the world, the ocean, the water. Moisture as great banks of cloud upon the earth. Then the vastness of death we ourselves leave behind. The killing of wild things, the carving up of whales, the rivers of blood.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea

There are those who travel oceans to kill alongside the desperation of others traveling the oceans prised lose from land by war and famine and searching for life and hope. The desperation of others traveling the oceans ripped from all they know, plundered for work and death in lands far away. The oceans connect us in so many ways. Look how we have moved across them, look how we have died in them, look how we have hunted and killed in them. This is a unique meditation on human violence in the face of great, impersonal force.

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaFrom the exhibition guide:

The inspiration for the work came from a radio interview with a group of young Nigerian migrants who had survived an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean. They expressed the feeling of being faced by something vaster and more awesome than they had thought possible. While the sea is mesmerising, universally compelling and beautiful, it is also a uniquely inhospitable environment. It is difficult for us, as humans used to having control over our surroundings, to grasp the enormity of this constantly changing element, and the word ‘vertigo’ perhaps refers to this unfathomable reach.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the middle of the desert, but I love the feeling of being small, love the feeling of being just a tiny part of the world, in the world rather than in control of the world. We are never in control of the world. But I imagine this installation feels different to me than to others, I wonder if it does provoke a sense of control being absent. An overwhelming. I hope so.

But how I mourned through this film, mourned the death and all of those lost. Now and then, too, I turned my eyes from the killing.

We couldn’t see both installations the same day, seemed to us Vertigo Sea was too powerful. So we went back to watch Tropikos two weekends later.

Situated in Plymouth and the Tamar Valley – locations with significant, though largely forgotten connections with the expansion of European power and influence – Tropikos is an experimental drama set in the 16th century.
Akomfrah’s starting point for the film was the connection between the waterways of the South West and the slave trade. In this film, the river landscape is transformed into an historic English port to re-imagine some of the first British encounters with people from Africa.
Again, the pounding of oceans. Elizabethan costumes vs white draped simplicity, the deep roar of passage and rending, black skin in water and warmth but there is the looming English presence behind and you long to call out, to warn. Too late.
John Akomfrah, Tropikos,
John Akomfrah, Tropikos, 2016 | Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Black faces are seen in frigid English landscapes, floating still and silent down the Tamar, landscape passing in emerald fields and grey skies behind these people stolen and surrounded by goods stolen with them. Bowls overflow with pearls and precious things, corn, roots and tubers. Dressed first in simplicity, but later boxed into new finery.

Tropikos-John-Akomfrah-Smoking-Dogs-Films-Courtesy-Lisson-Gallery1
Tropikos, John Akomfrah, Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Always there is the sounding of oceans.

Only one table shows what England gave in return: wildflowers, a bible, a sword.

Death is here too, it is hanging. Birds and fish with glassy eyes and bodies cut to let them bleed. Other trees hung with pineapples and daikon radishes. Always the cold arrogant English faces in contrast, husband and wife unable to speak to touch to share the same spaces. Sidelong glances at the others come among them.

Words from Hakluyt, Shakespeare, Milton, Gaston Bachelard….they mingle with Melville from Vertigo Sea. Both are powerful, both had moments so reminiscent of his other work, particularly Last Angel of History, but perhaps it is because I saw that not too long ago. But there are these stills, posed, surreal elements of physical things with a huge weight of symbolic meaning. The detritus of our lives washed up on the stones, yielded by the water. The ending of time.

john_akomfrah-vertigo-sea_2015_still_c_smoking-dogs-films_courtesy-lisson-gallery_3_0
John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea (2015). Still. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy

Go see them if you can.

For more on race, environment and empire…

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Cosmonauts at the Science Museum

Cosmonauts was an exhibit of utter wonder and delight — who has not dreamed of space? You go from room to room, mouth dropping open and eyes sparkling like a kid on Christmas day. I kid you not.

I am still sparkling just a little. I mean, space. Human beings in space. Amazing.

It opens with some of the early work, the early imaginings tied to the early tinkerings with rockets that led to the full space programme. I wish this section had been longer to be honest. There is work from architecture student Georgii Krutikov, his designs for a flying city from his thesis in 1928 (to read more see the awesome charnel house blog):

5c036834b65571057400a1d4e333e38c imagesEven better than Constant, how have I never seen them before? These were only a taste of the brilliant drawings, more of which can be found in his portfolio:

georgii-krutikov-vkhutemas-flying-city-diploma-project3Tsiolkovsky and Federov’s works and words, and the role of the cosmists (cosmopolitans, cosmopolity) appear too. From the Cosmonauts exhibition website:

Cosmopolity’s formation had been foreshadowed in the opening decades of the 20th century by the emergence of cosmism, a philosophy developed by Russian thinkers including Tsiolkovsky and Nikolai Fedorov that contributed to a notion that the Soviets were masters of the cosmos.

The members of Cosmopolity were sympathetic to cosmism’s goals of populating the universe and achieving eternal life, and shared its dream of distant planets populated by new societies. Eager to communicate their vision of the future to the wider world, they requisitioned a shop in Moscow and staged the first ever space travel exhibition.
Window diorama of the cosmists' 1927 'World's First Exhibition of Models of Interplanetary Apparatus, Mechanisms, Instruments, and Historical Materials' -- the words read 'Cosmopolitans invent the roads to new worlds'
Window diorama of the cosmists’ 1927 ‘World’s First Exhibition of Models of Interplanetary Apparatus, Mechanisms, Instruments, and Historical Materials’ — the words read ‘Cosmopolitans invent the roads to new worlds’

Konstantin Tsiolokovsky’s ‘Album of cosmic journeys’, mathematical equations and rocket models, these dreams and writings and experimentations would push forward space travel — so on to the model of Sputnik, launched in 1957, the craft of Yuri Gargarin, launched into space on 12 April, 1961 and the first man to orbit the earth in Vostok 1.

vostok1_1600px

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman ‘to storm outer space’ in Vostok 6 in 1963.

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Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, traveling in Voskhod 2 in 1965. The machinery of space travel, impossibly solid, and anything but futuristic or rocket shaped or even vaguely aerodynamic with its bits and pieces of receiving equipment sticking out, is breathtaking. The models are brilliant, but it strikes you with awe to see the awkward pods barely big enough to carry a human being, scorched and stained with travel distances more vast than I can really imagine.

luna

images2 images3

Up, pup and away

And then there are the dogs. This is the Science Museum’s puntastic heading, and finding it on their website made my day today. That, despite the fact that a number of dogs were killed as the next sentence informs you. But before Yuri Gargarin went into orbit, 48 dogs had already been there before him, 28 of whom survived. They had this:

space-dog-model-800x392

Film footage of a dog being released from this contraption and frolicking happily, pictures of dogs, stories of selections of dogs… Aw.

Space dog, Kozgawka, in training in a tailor-for-dogs helmet.
Space dog, Kozgawka, in training in a tailor-for-dogs helmet.

This is the first time I have really felt any desire to go back and see an exhibition again…but the book is fabulous and will be read with enthusiasm.You are drawn irresistibly to the great objects that carried dogs and humans into space and back again, first the ones that shine, and then the ones dulled by the intensity of re-entry into our atmosphere. But there was so much more to see here, to think about, to be inspired by. And the occasional complexities added by pictures of Stalin, Khrushchev, a background of the politics of the cold war. The fascinating life histories of these pioneers. The work put into not just surviving in space but living in space, and making the Mir space station possible.

We saw it on Friday during the museum’s late night opening, a truly brilliant idea as too often in London, great exhibits are ruined by equally great crowds. As Cosmonauts was a truly brilliant exhibition.

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Designing the Urban Commons

Went to the launch event for this last night, it has been an interesting few months after a good invitation to people to submit proposals for how urban commons might be designed, created, reimagined, repurposed, preserved. heroish The website with the original call from earlier this year states:

The city itself should arguably be treated as a common: a collective physical and cultural creation by and for its inhabitants. However the range of activities permitted in urban spaces is becoming increasingly narrow. Many streets and squares are now managed by private owners and those held by the state are too often sanitised by public space designs that serve to enhance local property values and business rates. This leaves little possibility for the urban public to be used productively by its communities to sustain themselves materially or culturally. Where today is there space in public for people to work together to produce the city and its resources outside of market demands?

Commoning, the collective ownership and management of resources, is currently being reimagined across social, political and economic debates as a response to this challenge facing all cities today. With Britain’s rich history of common rights, London is the perfect place to test commons out as a vital approach to urban design.

Designing the Urban Commons, LSEI think London is a good place — though in many ways it is a difficult place as struggle of who has a right to public spaces is so very fierce here as the housing crisis grows ever bigger, austerity bites ever deeper and people’s lives become even more precarious. Once diversity of class and race and occupation is lost simply by virtue of who can afford to live in an area and who has been priced out, beautifying public spaces takes on a whole new dimension with its user-base fixed.

The exhibition showed the ten winners, a few of them grappling in some way with these dynamics, though many not. It is a difficult thing to ensure manageable concrete interventions work to counter to the movements of capital and privatisation.

In reality, I think that things like this can often contribute to such movements, many are easily co-opted into placemaking for the elite who can’t manage to create their own own bottom-up ‘culture’ the way it sometimes emerges naturally and vibrantly in cities, often in places where the local residents have had the time and inexpensive space to create. Holding an exhibition at LSE under the gazes of nobel laureate economists doesn’t give me more confidence, perhaps more so because I went there. Truth is, though, after having living in Glasgow, after visiting Liverpool and Sheffield, I find myself jealous of the kinds of shops and the activities (art, music, writing, all that stuff that almost never pays its own way) that can flourish there where ground rents don’t kill everything but boutiques and chain stores.

Unquestionably, however, vibrant public spaces help people find the inspiration and the means of preserving their rights to remain living nearby. Such spaces also inspire people to fight for them, and protect them from privatisation. I quite love imagining how to help facilitate this vibrance, and thinking through just how much is possible through design. Whyte, Jacobs and Gehl among others show a great deal is possible. But only if you’re paying attention.

UrbanCommons_Service-Wash-Headline-Image_AD_TRPOne of the pieces — Service Wash — was certainly a provocation around austerity and its consequences (and while launderettes may be declining in popularity, I rather challenge its premise that they are no longer much used, as they certainly are in my neighbourhood, and I’ve heard that women come for miles to wash clothes with their mums on a Saturday, back to their communities where they can no longer afford to live).

An urban phenomenon, the launderette is a relic of postwar social infrastructure, a provision intended to be egalitarian. Its decline in popularity is countered by an A1 class designation that prohibits change of use…thus explaining the bye-gone-era flavour of your local launderette. The Service Wash utilises the launderette’s quotidian presence proposing an expansion of its established function in favour of those most marginalised by urban renewal – the homeless. The physical inability to clean or be clean can be psychologically punishing; it creates an additional barrier to inclusiveness that the proposal aims to remedy. By partnering with homeless charities and drawing on existing initiatives, the launderette becomes a place to wash both clothes and self for those who have no other means to do so.

I’d prefer a focus on the problem of housing. I’d prefer a different use of words, perhaps, public baths were still being built at the turn of last century for example. But I like not ignoring the large and steady increases of those sleeping rough, I like imagining public places that serve their needs before we build their homes, and I especially like highlighting the negative changes in our society that are causing this increase in people who need public showers along with somewhere to wash their clothes. There was one explicitly battling developers — Commonstruction: A Manual for Radical Inclusivity:

Local community groups are resisting the planned regeneration of Tottenham with the claim that a policy of social cleansing is being used to facilitate a land grab by developers and speculators. The purpose of our design manual is to create a circular reference for various actors in the area that will coordinate collective action and enrich the threatened public life. There are 3 key combinations of spaces that constitute it: • Live-work & Community workshops • Public social spaces • Residential & Start-up spaces

It starts with a land trust…so I like it, though I’m not entirely sure I know exactly what it would be. It provokes questions about how commons are preserved exactly, and what happens when they are too full of activity and new building. I wonder. The winners were profiled on large boards along one wall, it was full enough to make it difficult to get wine and get close enough to the boards to read them properly, space was cleared though as the speeches started.

You can just see here the Reimagining the Lodge poster from the folks at Shuffle whose events, mostly held at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park where the lodge sits are amazing:

Reinventing the Lodge is about creating a place to meet, a place to be and opportunities for things to do. To give people permission to inhabit this undervalued environment in new ways is to cultivate local pride, identity and sense of belonging – the feeling of being at home.

Designing the Urban Commons, LSE I was far and couldn’t see the wonderful Richard Sennet, who I never did manage to see lecture while at LSE. I could hear though: Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 14.25.31I’m not a big tweeter (I left the right hashtag off and everything), but I couldn’t resist this one a bit later (I just make up my own hash tags you see): Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 14.25.31-2It was good, though, to hear about occupy and the struggle over public space. Some proposals fit that better than others, like Saturday Commoning Fever:

Saturday Commoning Fever is an online platform that provides Londoners with means to common in the streets of the city. By simplifying “street rules” in a website rather than hiding in regulation files, we aim to question those rules and challenge them.

I quite loved Rainbow of Desires — not least because it involves theatre of the oppressed and mentions Augusto Boal, but I am quite intrigued by these kiosks and the uses an estate might make of them…

“Rainbow of desires” is a set of small pavilions installed in the open spaces of the Rhodes estate in Dalston. During a period of three months the pavilions are doubling as performative devices and workshop spaces based on the techniques of the theatre of the Oppressed and spaces of communal everyday life (public seating area, an open kitchen, an exchange library, a cinema).

Rainbow-of-Desires-close-up-900x526 There was a proposal to fill the old gasworks with trees (being raised in America it was years before I knew what the hell those things even were, and now I can only think of all the workers suffered there). Good idea, though they are fascinating structures and I sometimes dream of what else they could become…

Designing the Urban Commons, LSE

I did like this little display showing the winners’ physical locations around London, though I couldn’t help but wonder what will happen to it when this is done, and will we be able to play with it then:

Designing the Urban Commons, LSE

A good event, it was wonderful to view the ideas that poured out in response to the call and honestly, can we just put up these notice boards around lamp posts already? UCHeadline-900x900

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The Rum Factory Opens!

The wonderful Bow Arts held the opening of the Rum Factory today, studios filling an old warehouse that has held many lives over its 200 years. They are all present here, I will show them to you. But it was no small feat to open 90 affordable studio spaces in London this close to the city, and we also celebrated their 20 year anniversary, so it was a happy occasion. Prosecco in the middle of the day, delicious nibbles.

And oh the bite-size brownies topped with cream.

But above all was the building.

We arrived, were directed upstairs to join the rest, find the drinks

Rum Factory Opening

Marcel kicked it off with many thank yous and much happiness

Rum Factory Opening

Above the mic, you could hear — and these are the notes I made on my phone, I like their abbreviated poetry and I am finishing my damn novel agonizingly but surely so you get the notes:

Amazing noises hammering, sounds of waves — Long Good Friday showed such foresight we will be the capital of Europe, Olympics, but development in Wapping creating challenges, one is to artists and creativity residential land values pushing out other uses St George developers good in that studios not left to the margins but part of development

Sound of wheels metal rain draining dragging of materials of weight itself in construction forms across a metal roof. Rebeccas Brooks’ office as was down the end and behind me the times office with glass and blinds remaining and a white board full of figures and print schedules, Michael called it a ghost of what was. This space is two floors so you can look down, feel the expanse, we stand in the middle at the top a mix of people in suits people in beards Mark in his collar beside me some plaid shirts some diversity

Cuts coming still going we have to be more creative

I don’t think they intended irony there, but I was sad that funding for the arts should be left to third sector and intensive fundraising and enlightened developers. God knows I don’t believe in them.

Few remaining buildings of London docks still to be redeveloped did once hold rum and spirits

I am tempted to drop things on people.

Speeches are over and I am free to wander.

This was indeed the former offices and distribution centre for News of the World. Here are the ghosts of what were:

Rum Factory Opening

Rum Factory Opening

Rum Factory Opening

This is what it has become:

Rum Factory Opening

Beautiful and massive wooden beams, old brick with its curious arches and niches — I try and imagine their purpose, fail.

Rum Factory Opening

I confess I prefer these as empty spaces, or in the process of becoming:

Rum Factory Opening

There was an artist who made birds of beautiful shape.

Coming down Pennington Street to the entrance this is what you see, a great solid mass of brick that has an odd weight and beauty to it, these old warehouses make my heart quake and I don’t quite know what it is about them.

London Dock

But wandering along the first floor in the still unoccupied spaces you find the curiously medieval windows, and the view behind towards destruction:

Rum Factory Opening

This survived the blitz, but not regeneration. Or maybe that’s just the new build that needs to come down to build some luxury flats that are even newer.

I wonder what this tunnel once did, why it is here. It is like an organic thing caterpillaring up in that great curve to swallow rubble. I hope it survives:

Rum Factory Opening

This dock once provided jobs for thousands of people — first the dock workers, then the newspaper printers (those printers’ strikes in the 80s, picking up leftist campaign literature, Sean and Helen’s stories about early mornings in the darkness and fascists and beatings and the heart pounding fiercely and idealism surging high — one of the later panel speakers was supporting the strikes too, but a bit deprecating of the part he played. Fighting for jobs seemed a little passe). I am glad this place now houses artists, otherwise there are only temporary employment opportunities here. Dude with a broom on a break:

Rum Factory Opening

There was a panel after and it was interesting, but I am a little too angry about rents and bankers and austerity to have enjoyed it much. I did love something the moderator said as part of the invitation for responses from the panel — my quixotic notes again:

on London as the centre of the world, this place the concrete tangible memory of goods flowing through…News of the World and media now become the goods? the flows? … Art now as tangible as rum?

I couldn’t help but think this ironic as well, as I made the leap to art become commodity and imperialist lacky. Not what he meant, not what is happening here, but undoubtedly worth some thought.

A few other thoughts from the woman from the GLA stayed with me, made me a bit sad:

Desire for immersive and authentic experience from tourists

Creating a cultural vision for the royal docks, how you grow a new development a new space before homes going in, bold ideas creating a different way about creating space

How do you create authenticity for tourists? How does a bureaucratic organisation, however well meaning, create a cultural vision? These things can only increase the ways that London is destroying upswellings of life and creativity through high costs and poverty where you earn simply to live, through the prescriptive stifling of culture as it is spontaneously created and lived by and through a vibrant community. Only a certain kind of people need their culture packaged and handed to them.

Sadness.

I found this picture of this warehouse’s former days, or as it came to the end of them.

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You leave the warehouse — once dockers would have been searched as they left the building — and walked up past plywood to the welcome site of St-George-in-the-East, and I remembered again the WWII story of Father John re-burying corpses thrown up by a bomb as Rev. Denys Giddey read the Commital by search-lights and explosions.

St-George-in-the-East

And then on the corner, a more eloquent reminder of how the community once here has been whittled away.

The Old Rose, Wapping

Things do change I know, it is nice to be able to celebrate something good that is happening amidst all the rest.

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Short Films that will blow you away, and other thoughts on The New Scientist afternoon at Sci-Fi London

bg_headerI can’t remember the last time I was blown away by a short film — actually I can, because it was Robots of Brixton which if you don’t know you should watch immediately — but one of the sets of shorts at the afternoon hosted by Simon Ings of the New Scientist had some of the best things I have seen in ages. Like this:

The Centrifuge Brain Project from Till Nowak.

Nothing beat this short for laugh-out-loud, jaw-dropping, fear-of-heights-induced-eye-covering and thought-provoking action. I think it might have been a mistake to open with it, because nothing else quite lived up to its awesomeness.

SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe (Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene (2014)) did come close, as the enjoyable film is only the tip of the iceberged project of much deeper, more amazing, and a longer concentrated effort.

It’s an exploration of the past, of the Mexican Revolution and its use of the railways in armed uprising, of the birth of villages along the route where the trains needed to take on more water and coal, of the history of nationalisation and then decay — an exploration of all this things through the physical landscape using a special earth-and-rail-running vehicle crafted as a space exploration probe, collecting stories and interviews along the way.

I am filled with unbearable loss that I could not be part of such a amazing thing that brings together the social, cultural, political, physical nature of hopes for the future and their ruins. I look forward to exploring it at length.

The three other shorts that followed were all enjoyable and thought provoking. Growth Assembly by Daisy Ginsberg and Sacha Pohflepp (2009) explores the potential of engineering new commodities to be grown as plants (products will no longer be shipped, only seeds which then can be grown) through the use of seven different plants to create a herbicide sprayer — an obvious irony I know, but this is clever. Studio Swine’s Hair Highway looks at the uses of human hair in unexpected ways, beautifully done. The final one, Magnetic Movie by Semiconductor shows the wonder of magnetic fields around us, and they are wondrous indeed.

A few other shorts stood out, making me worry that I do not spend enough time seeking them out. Like The Afronauts by Cristine De Middel (2013) about Zambia’s space program, and The Moon by Pavel Klushantsev (1965) about all the things humans will build on the moon once we get there, you don’t need to speak Russian to understand its awesomeness. The other films, however, were more artistic and ranged from actively annoying to vaguely interesting for a few seconds and then boring making you wish they were even shorter — reminding me of why in fact I don’t like most shorts. I was bit embarrassed to laugh at the man kicking the robot dog for example. Still, 7 brilliant ones I had never seen made up for the rest.

Discovering things like this is why I love eclectic afternoons put together like this one, exploring the Science Fiction Future. It had opened with a lovely keynote from Alastair Reynolds, who I confess to not having read but that shall be remedied. I love Gerry Anderson references and space, the call for a critical SF that retains a sense of fun, but that also engages with the world and goes beyond shiny gadgets (but keeping shiny gadgets because let’s face it, they are SO cool). But what most made me think was a comment that obviously referred back to the whole sad puppy debate in the US, the efforts of right wing and exclusionary people to control and define the genre. He noted that all of this was a spillover from the American Culture Wars but that it was having global effects. All my academic work has been looking at race and the city, the physical and concrete aspects of these culture wars that I argue underpins them — the awfulness of that impacting on world culture hit me like a blow. How much more vital that we understand it, do what we can to fix it though sometimes I despair of that.

The first panel on Museum exhibitions and ‘Unreliable Evidence’ contained Doug Millard, who talked about Russian space exploration and the upcoming exhibit at the Science Museum which I am looking forward to immensely. But then there was the Lost in Fathoms project, shown at the GV Art gallery — an exploration of the sudden disappearance of the fictional Nuuk Island. The pictures were nice, the thought of standing in the rift in Iceland and touching two continental plates amazing. Still, the anger such an abstracted look at climate change, geological shiftings, oceanographic explorations (all those glass containers of water from around the world, collected at different depths. What a great use of collaboration with the oceanographic international community!) runs fairly deep. Possibly because the oceans are rising, causing the non-fictional loss of entire islands, their states, their people forced to seek new homes. Possibly because sands are spreading causing desertification, similarly forcing people from their ancestral lands and contributing to instability and violence in places like Mali, Chad and Nigeria. Such luxury and privilege to ignore these things, what a message that in itself sends.

I was also a bit puzzled about the field of fashion forecasting, though I did rather like the idea of fashion as clothing that has been mediatised, narrativised.

The second panel also had moments of deeply interesting ideas and a lot of moments without…Pat Kane’s giant head on skype from Glasgow was very charismatic though surprisingly academic. I really enjoyed thinking about the opposition between the politics of nudge and behaviour modification, and the politics of play. The one controlling and patronising, the other seeking to create spaces of openness. I would love to help create this world where play is respected, where shorter work weeks and citizen’s wages allow more time for us to explore our worlds, to honor our efforts to create meaning, to engage with the physical world around us and to have autonomy in how we do that. This is what is needed for a full life, and I think we should demand it.

Sadly no one else really engaged in this call for a revolution in our political economy.

I will, however, be checking out the game Ingress, that creates a virtual game reality layered on top of the city. That sounds cool.

At this point our heads were full, and if revolution wasn’t on the table (which it didn’t seem to be) we were pretty done with this programme. It was nice to share a room with so many people though, giving up a Saturday afternoon to explore things like this.

Sci-Fi London still has a few days left, check it out.

Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection

Go to Drawn by Light, go! It’s in London’s Science Museum (one of my favourite things in London by far) until 1 March, and then in the National Media Museum in Bradford. I wasn’t sure I would ever attend another exhibition again after Mirrorcity in the Hayward, but this has redeemed them all.

I loved each and every photograph chosen to showcase the Royal Photographic Society’s collection, though they came from every style and period — the curation is outstanding not just for this, but because the way they come together creates something more wonderful than the sum of its parts.

It opened with tasteful nudes of beautiful lines and curves (conversation overheard – ‘What a long back, usually I prefer a shorter back’) facing cheeky boys skipping along in front of a policeman, titled ‘Limbs and the Law’:

‘Limbs and the Law’, 1924, James Jarché, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum / SSPL

Which has led me to discover the National Media Museum’s blog (particularly this one on James Jarché), joy and happy days. Back to the first wall for the lurid color of the 60s in art piece of nudes constructed from sofas and household items and more. The photographs move from haunting to sad to beautiful to clever and arresting. Some are shot in natural light capturing things ‘as they are’. Others are from the studio, others carefully constructed and processed. They have Henry Peach Robinson’s set of prints showing the story of Little Red Riding Hood and a girl dying of TB with her fictitious family around her, a gathering for a policeman’s funeral in Lambeth, some of Phillipe Halsman’s pictures, my favourite being Dali Atomicus:

(How did he do this in 1948? Find out here in this awesome post). There is an early fashion portrait of Audrey Hepburn, Winston Churchill whose grumpy expression was caused by the photographer removing the cigar from his mouth, a luminous young boy captured on film by a Nazi supporter and firm believer in eugenics. A selection of portraits from an asylum. So much more that is allowed to speak for itself and the uses that photography has been put to. All without flinching.

There are also three heliographs on display — literally drawings by light — the first steps made by Joseph Niépce in the search to invent photography. They are wonderful.

The second section recreates to some extent the feel of a typical Photographic Society exhibition of the 1850s, a wall full of brilliant old photographs of almost everything. You have to crouch down to see some of them, it changes how you see things.

This section is called ‘A period of optimism and progress’. I am myself a little more critical of these times perhaps, but for photographers it was such a time of excitement and invention. My ancestors were busy starving to death in Ireland, but they would have been inventing if they could I am sure. There is a selection here of cameras from the 1800s, bottles of colloidal silver, beautifully crafted wooden cases, early panoramic lenses that are curved. Marvels and wonders.

They have Talbot’s early cameras, they are tiny and took tiny pictures. The description of the medium is salt print.

They have an old picture album, old family portraits. A wonderful photograph of the steps up to the Chapter House in Wells Cathedral — one of the most beautiful things I have seen and myself tried to photograph. Frederick Evans spent months, and got it right.

They have wonderful pictures of cities — New York, for instance, by Margaret Bourke-White and her unforgettable shot of the Statue of Liberty.

They have a picture of the remarkable contents of an Ostrich’s stomach. For that alone you should go.

I might be getting the room order of some of these confused.

They have pictures showing the magic and mystery of Egypt, but also the orientalism, the collecting and commodifying of the exotic. Fred Holland Day who starved himself to model self-portraits as Jesus Christ on the cross (oh the things bored people do). Again there is no flinching, but I don’t know that everyone has the critical view of such pictures that I do, I don’t know how they find them.

They had this amazing piece, photograph and etching by Frank Eugene:

The final section was ‘Personal vision’. Pairs of works by photographers to show breadth or change or style. They are lovely. Expressive of all of the emotions and visions that this medium can call up, evoke. The very different feelings and ideas it can communicate. The sense of place, the sense of soul, the sense of movement.

I am still not sure how they get things just right, but they do. These pictures still sit with me, the ones I have not listed demanding I list them, like the father and son walking in the face of a dust storm. But lists are boring, this exhibition is not.

There is also a competition in which you can submit your own photos inspired by light via social media and win some awesome things. I will be looking at my pictures with a critical eye.

On my way out I realised there was another free exhibit – Make Life Worth Living, a collection of photos by Nick Hedges for housing and homeless charity Shelter between 1968 and 1971. I started to go in but just couldn’t take in more. So I will be back before 1 March to see this.

An Irish family living in a single basement room – tenants of a multi-let house. Liverpool Toxteth, November 1969 Credits : © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford
An Irish family living in a single basement room – tenants of a multi-let house. Liverpool Toxteth, November 1969
Credits : © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

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