Category Archives: Exhibitions

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.

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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.

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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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Wandering Curious

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.

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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.

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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:

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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

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This is what it has become:

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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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Mirrorcity Exhibit, Hayward Gallery

God I hated it. I considered a considered rant about why I got angrier and angrier as I thought about Mirrorcity long after we had left. In summary this felt on the whole like a pretentiously abstracted  slap in the face of any city’s vibrancy, hope, struggle and increasing desperation. A slap we actually paid for and that stuck with me disagreeably through the whole of the afternoon. I would recommend just spending money on Tim Etchells‘ amazing Vacuum Days instead, you can skim through them here. A subset of these pointed and playful and angry thoughts on the daily news had been printed large and stretched up several floors to be read as you climbed the brutalist stairs (whose architect’s utopian dreams were here otherwise utterly smashed into pointless pieces). At the top was another piece by Etchells on the evolving city. Wordy and needing too much time to read for an exhibit really, but there was nothing better to look at. I liked that too and decided I would go see any exhibit of his at any time. I also really liked Emma McNally’s maps. There were one or two other things that were okay, but seriously. Just buy that book. Catch those two elsewhere.

Luckily we had a gig in the evening to remind us what artists can be. Thee Faction and 8 Rounds Rapid replaced all that anger with some awesome sounds, and Grace Petrie‘s every song was like a gift. Made me want to write words that burned, made me want to change the world. They’re all on the same list with Tim Etchells.

Prague’s Kafka Museum, Kafka and Prague

It never occurred to me to think of Kafka spatially or understand spatiality through Kafka, I never thought of him as a chronicler of space or the city. Yet the quite brilliant museum dedicated to him in Prague is entirely about space and Kafka’s relationship to his city, his ‘dear little mother with claws’, and I am fascinated now with thinking some of this through. It’s worth more than one blog post. I think here I shall just capture what I can of the exhibit, and then relate it to Kafka later — because when in Prague read Kafka and I am reading The Castle. Like all of Kafka’s work, I am finding it slow due to its harrowing nature and existential angst. So.

The experience of the museum itself aims at something like a replication of the feelings inspired by reading Kafka, tries to help you enter his world…it succeeds on some level of reaching some different world some how (though if it is K.’s or not that is impossible to say), leaving me fairly awed, and so I can hardly explain what it’s like to experience  it. Darkness, unexplained noise, images shimmering like pools of water, photographs and collections of personal items and writings, short films, a surrounding of file cabinets and ancient phones. Not everything is translated into English or Czech — Kafka wrote in German after all. The different spaces are given context by beautifully written passages as provocations scattered throughout that demanded much more thinking.

I wanted to share these, in the shop, however, you can only buy the guide book that contains them in Italian and Spanish, so I shall be translating back from Spanish to English — who knows what language they were first written in.  The initial ones, however, are on the website. On the existential space:

In this first stage of our immersion into the world of Kafka, we look at how the city affects the writer, how it shapes his life, the mark it leaves on him. Prague acts on Kafka with all of its metamorphosing power, confining him to an existential space which he can only enter by “fixing his gaze on the surface of things”, Prague forces Kafka into a spatial constriction, steadily dosing out its secrets. Prague contributes myth, obscure magic, and provides a magnificent backdrop, but it abhors clarity. And this is precisely what Kafka captures.

This is the city’s action upon the writer, the way it shapes and molds him, the way it confines him in dialectical relation to how he sees and writes it. All writers know that in writing you make things more real, but does Prague abhor clarity? How does a city choose one way or the other?

Our aim is to explore the city, seeing it from Kafka’s point of view. An exclusively biographical or merely chronological approach would not be enough; the challenge lies in condensing the principal conflicts in the life of Kafka in Prague, guided by the writer’s own views. This means joining Kafka on his descent into the depths of his city, adapting ourselves to his sensorial range and cognitive register, becoming involved in a gradual distortion of space-time – in short, agreeing to an experience where everything is allowed except indifference.

But this is no descent of the kind that would be demanded by noir, the first place my mind goes in imagining ‘the depths’ of a city. These are depths imagined differently, experienced differently. Rather than the danger or violence or poverty, there is instead a physic descent. The imagery of a cage, an interrogation that lasts, a prison as much within as without. Yet The first paragraphs of this floor are the ones I loved and remembered most, possibly for the use of the word entelechy, which frankly I struggled with to recall its meaning:

Franz Kafka is born in the interior of a myth named Prague. A city where three human groups act (Czechs, Germans and Jews), reunited through the centuries and, in spite of that, separated by cultural, racial and linguistic differences. The conflict leaves its imprint in the physiology of the city, converts neighbourhoods into airtight compartments, defines invisible frontiers, but it does not ultimately define the nature of the cage. It is also necessary to gain an intuition of it from the perspective of the bird.

Let us imagine an childhood where the I is an enigma and the community, an entelechy. A home besieged by dead brothers, distant sisters, cold governesses and a scathing cook. A world perceived from fear and guilt, in which the figure of the father spreads throughout leaving very little space for the life of a Son.

It begins with the Jewish ghetto, itself a place of confinement, a richness of culture, learning and occult knowledge. In 1895 the ghetto began a ten-year process to ‘clean up’ and reshape it through what many believe to be the ‘the most important urban alteration in the history of Prague’. The quotes given from Conversations with Kafka by Gustav Janoush are marvelous, though who is to say that he said them exactly like this? (Especially translated from one language to Spanish and back to English again)

Inside of us still live the obscure corners the mysterious passages, the blinded windows, the dirty patios, the noisy taverns and inns with their locks. We walk down the wide streets of the new city, but our steps and looks are insecure. On the inside we continue to tremble just like the old alleyways of misery. Our hearts still have not understood the sanitising that has taken place. The old and unhealthy jewish city inside of us is much more real than the new hygienic city that surrounds us. Awake we walk traversing a dream: we are nothing more than the ghost of times past.

Instead the Jewish Quarter now is full of twisting, but grand sweeping roads, though Kafka is still remembered:

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Such quotes led me to more reading of Janoush, some of which can be found here, and in which he writes this of Kafka’s knowledge of his city:

I OFTEN MARVELLED at Kafka’s wide knowledge of all the varied architectural features of the city. He was familiar not only with its palaces and churches but also with the most obscure alleys of the Old Town. He knew the medieval names of the houses even though their ancient signs no longer hung over their entrances but in the city museum in the Poric. Kafka read the city’s history out of the walls of its ancient houses. He conducted me by crooked alleyways into narrow, funnel-shaped interior courtyards in Old Prague, which he called “spittoons of light”; he walked with me, near the old Charles Bridge, through a baroque entrance hall, across a court no bigger than a handkerchief with round Renaissance arches and through a dark tubular tunnel, to a tiny inn enclosed in a small court which bore the name of The Stargazer (Czech: U hvezddru), because here Johannes Kepler had lived for many years, and here, in the year 1609, his famous book, which far outstripped all the scientific knowledge of his day, the Astronomia Nova was born.

Kafka loved the streets, palaces, gardens and churches of the city where he was born. He looked with joyful interest through the pages of all the books on the antiquities of Prague which I brought to him in his office. His eyes and hands literally caressed the pages of such publications, though he had read them all long before I placed them on his desk. His eyes shone with the look of a passionate collector. Yet he was the precise opposite of a collector. The past was for him not some historically dead collector’s piece, but a supple instrument of knowledge, a bridge to today. . . .

We traveled their path, so different today, yet once you leave Karlova Street with its hordes of tourists there is some of this magic:

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There is a tiny museum now where Kepler lived.

IMG_9520And this, bringing Kafka into the 21st century:

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The exhibit looks at this figure of Hermann Kafka, the father filling up the world. The Hilsner case, a jew accused of the ritual murder of a little girl. The obsession of Kafka with Ravachol the anarchist, named for him, tarred with his stigma by the servants. It looks at his intellectual and artistic circles, the figure of four (Kafka, Max Brod, Felix Weltsch and Oskar Baum), the larger circle who would meet up at the Cafe Arco and the salon held by Berta Fanta under the sign of the Unicorn Pharmacy. His contacts with Jewish theatre, undergoing a renaissance through Jicchak Löwy. His four fiancees. His death from TB. And I believe this is where the uncertain line between existential space and Imaginary Topography begins. Of course it is uncertain:

Imaginary topography – The way Kafka creates the layers of his city is one of the most enigmatic operations of modern literature. With only occasional exceptions, Kafka does not name the places he describes in his novels and short stories. The city steps back, is no longer recognizable by its buildings, bridges and monuments. And even if they are recognized by an inhabitant of Prague or by a student of Kafka, they have since become something else.

…Kafka carries out a more difficult operation: he turns Prague into an imaginary topography which transcends the fallacy of realism. Kafka’s phantasmal architecture has other ends. Rather than a particular house, school, office, church, prison or castle being important, it is what these constructions reveal when they act as topological metaphors or allegorical places. What surprises does this transfigured Prague hold in store? Just how far can the metamorphosis of a city take us?

Into a passageway lined with filing cabinets and his drawings brought to life (Conversations with Kafka is full of them). I love this one, but who has not felt like this?

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There is a wonderful short film of The Castle, almost entirely white, confusing, letters and figures melting into and out of sight, lonely figures never reaching where they are going. The last room is a harrowing one based on ‘In the Penal Colony’, a model of the torture, a film of skin being cut and scarred visible only through narrow windows.

I’d been unsuccessfully fighting off a cold, but confess to a feeling of unsettledness, almost nausea by the time we descended the stairs, it affected me physically and that in a way is my greatest testimony. Kafka’s books affect me the same way, I cannot read them all at once, cannot read them before bed. They fill me with fear and angst and confusion and I admire them immensely. But now I am almost eager to search for the outlines of domestic space, of work space, of the city as described here in this post, The Castle is perhaps the easiest, and the one I am reading now. Climbing up to Prague’s own castle — less a castle than a complex of Baroque magnificence engulfing the old gothic buildings — it seems easy to me to see how this is at once a physical and an existential space, something rooted in both history and in the terrors of the mind. But more of that when I finish the book.

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Museum of Communism (I’m in the Czech Republic!)

Prague’s Museum of Communism was a lesson in how ideology works, but ironically not the ideology of communism. In fact it was a lesson in irony and ideology all mixed up together. On our first attempt to find it I only knew the corner it was on, and thought that would be enough. But it’s obscure not just in its absence from most must-see lists, and we missed it, only seeing amazing posters for it later near the Charles Bridge that convinced us to try again.

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Above the McDonalds, they said, beside the Casino. You turn into what is almost an alley almost an entrance, turn right again into big double doors and walk along red carpet into an extraordinarily ornate Baroque entrance hall. As you walk up the stairs you are offered an existential choice, museum or casino?

IMG_8956Though the casino is at every turn. The inside is quite extraordinary, because it turns out this is after all, the Savarin Palace. For one of the few places with any interesting things to say about what the Palace is or once was, I found only the new developers:

Savarin occupies a remarkable site in Prague’s Old Town, bounded on one side by the historic Wenceslas Square and incorporating a collection of small streets and ‘passages’ (pedestrian precincts) giving access to many offices, shops and amenities. … now restored to life by Ballymore as Prague’s ne plus ultra.

Savarin was the site of an aristocratic palace complete with riding-stables…

A warren of small streets it is, it is such a strange thing to me to see a castle as a warren of small streets, but much more on castles (and The Castle) later.

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At least one tourist gambled on the museum by mistake. In this space it is hard to conceive of life under communism, you can be forgiven for believing the irony intentional. The museum shop is brilliant, full of what seems to be an intellectual and aware humour that can appeal to Marxists and free-marketers alike. Postcards of Marx and Lenin with clever captions, a museum postcard that makes fun of the museum’s own location;

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the T-shirts and posters with the brilliant artwork as below (and yes I happily bought one of those)

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You can find collections of reprints of original Soviet posters, notepads, pencils and various other fairly awesome consumer goods. Irony. The map of the museum shows the sections: the origins, the dream, the reality, the nightmare. That too seems smart, thoughtful enough, interesting. You walk in and see statues of Marx and Lenin, this wonderful picture.

IMG_8971IMG_8972And then you read:

The practice of revolutionary terror and dictatorship of the proletariat was justified by the communists by an alleged irrefutability of the ‘scientific’ theories of Karel Marx, the bohemian and intellectual adventurer. who started his life career as a romantic poet with an inclination towards apocalyptic titanism….The attempts at the implementation of Marxist theories demanded, according to contemporary and lower estimates, around 100 million human victims.

This is the even-handed treatment of the dream of Marxists? I laughed out loud as did Mark, and continued laughing through the exhibit I’m afraid. While also enjoying the collection of real communist artifacts, propaganda, and shit from the 50s.

IMG_8980Radio Tesla is just cool, and I love her shoes.

IMG_8981I don’t have too much confidence in their ‘recreation’ of a factory, it’s really just a great collection of old machinery, which I loved of course. Again I laughed at this:

Using the obsolete economic theories of Karel Marx, Stalin created an ideological doctrine according to which the life of the whole society should revolve around industrial production. The hero of the time became the laborer, who, in the name of occasional slogans and to honor the communists feasts and anniversaries, worked more than his supervisors told him to…The pressure on increased employment for women and their introduction into traditional men’s professions was justified by the party through an ideal of ‘woman’s emancipation’.

There’s the bust/statue collection:

IMG_8982And this living room setup with brilliant old furniture, but I didn’t feel the chairs were socialist enough:

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While walking through there was a strange cold war feel, so the pro-U.S. stuff was as crazy as the anti-communist. There was this:

The blackest pictures of capitalism drawn by the communist press depicted America whose democratic regime was already admired by the Czechs in the period of Hapsburg emperors. American played a decisve role in the defeat of Hitler…America was also attractive, thanks to the romantic ‘Country and Western’ music and style, as introduced in Bohemia before World War I. County and Western style was cultivated by tramps in the many recreation settlements usually named after American localities…

There was another blurb mentioning the anti-American propaganda spread by the communists like their referrals to the mass lynching of Blacks. It certainly read as though the communists had made this up when of course they didn’t.

So really, this is like walking through a cold war propaganda effort from the US side, brilliantly illustrated by the cool old things from the Czech Republic under Stalinism. The why of this is made clear from the brochure and its reproduction of an International Newsweek article discussing the museum’s origins:

Spicker, 36, spent several months and $28,000 scouring markets and junk shops for close to 1,000 items of memorabilia, including Russian textbooks, anti-American posters, chemical-warfare protection suits and statues of Lenin and Marx. A former student of politics, Spicker was passing through central Europe in the late 1980s when the Velvet Revolution toppled Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. He decided to stay on and capitalize on all the new business opportunities, opening up a jazz club and a string of bars and restaurants in Prague. Then he hit on the idea for the museum. “As a student I found communism fascinating because of the influence it had on all aspects of people’s lives,” he says. “But now its fascination for me is just how outdated it is.”

I’m glad he collected the memorabilia, but damn. Capitlising on the business opportunities offered by presenting the least balanced review of a historical time period I have ever read…

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