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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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From Hieroglyphics to Isotype — Otto Neurath

From Hieroglyphics to Isotype -- Otto NeurathA visual autobiography…I loved this idea of Otto Neurath’s.

Watching an old black & white 1950s documentary on housing in London, it struck me greatly when they showed graphics like the one below on the screen, talked about something they called isotype in a way that made it seem like a new technology that was being mobilized to understand and change the world.

neurathWhat struck me most is that as organizers and popular educators in the oughts, we sought to create such graphics all the time (though never creating anything quite so professional I confess). Yet I’d never heard that word before.

I looked it up.

Isotype — International System of TYpographic Picture Education, initially known as the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics (Wiener Methode der Bildstatistik). Developed at the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Wien between 1925 and 1934 — interrupted by the rise of fascism in Austria and Neurath’s and other collaborators’ move to the UK. Found this book. Found that a technology for social change is what Otto Neurath always meant isotype to be, though he thought of it and described it more in the terms of his own day’s idealism and with sometimes unfortunate phrasing.

Also, it might be confirmed that, if you start with visual material, problems which are usually dealt with at a higher level can be discussed within the curriculum at a lower level of education. One of the advantages of this is that people can remain in contact with certain problems throughout a much longer period of their lives. (6)

The point is that making information visual in this way allows us both to understand it better, and to open up meaningful discussion on key issues to forums beyond a handful of experts — and even they may have failed to fully grasp the facts. This in turn is key to any meaningful democracy.

Therefore, whenever the fate of individuals and communities is at stake, we need some comprehensive knowledge to help us make our own decisions. It is for this that I think visual aids are so important, especially when we wish to educate ourselves and others in citizenship. (7)

I kept thinking the phrasing is often not quite what I like, partly the period, partly language and culture and class gaps. Yet his commitment to graphics emerges from a desire to facilitate people looking at their own reality, and then thinking and making decisions about it for themselves. It is also clear that part of this is because the very process of transmitting expert knowledge is not a neutral one. Neurath’s words doesn’t quite nail the issues with it the way Freire does, but grapples with some of the same questions.

Teaching habits, whether we are acting as schoolmasters or museum directors, are often dangerous. Such habits might tempt persons in power to present what they themselves like… (7)

Yet he isn’t quite able to see a world where we all have bias, even when we draw pictures based on just the ‘facts’.

The few remarks I have made here may suffice to explain what Isotype sets out to provide for the masses of citizens who want to learn simple things in a human way and without bias, so that they are stimulated to further reading and museum visiting. (114)

And his goals — I may love these goals, but wonder why he has chosen them for mention above ending poverty, increasing direct democracy, fighting fascism, improving life.

Still, in the end it is a wonderfully visionary and utopian ideal behind all this effort, behind this creation of a visual language for making complexity more immediately graspable that does not rely on spoken language or literacy to show people things as they are.

But there is perhaps a chance that visual communication will play its part in the creation of a brotherhood of man, for it can help to bridge many gaps and reduce some of the sources of antagonism. I should like to take my share of the cooperative work, thinking of the possibilities that lie ahead, while tending to the tasks of today. (8)

I share many of these ideals of communication through visual means, believe in using my many years of work and study to help sift information, understand it, convert it into a graphic form (or work with someone more graphically skilled to do so) that best represents the facts as I have done my best to understand them. This is long and hard — just the way conveying an idea or proposal in one hundred words is so much harder than conveying it in 500. You have to have complete clarity on what you are trying to convey, on what is most important.

Yet it never occurred to me to try to create a universal visual language. I rather love this vision, and initially it made perfect sense. But then I thought about it, and realised as much through his visual autobiography as anything that probably much much of our taste and understanding of pictures emerges from our time and place and culture. How much the images you chose should reflect the people you are trying to reach. Neurath writes:

One of our museum slogans in Vienna was: ‘Words divide, pictures unite’. (126)

Interesting, and perhaps more true than false, but I am not entirely sure. Just imagine depictions of ‘home’, and how much that might differ across countries and cultures.

But to return to the subtitle…what is his visual autobiography? Too complex to capture here, but a wonderful collection of things…

Berghaus -- NeurathStickers he knew as shinies, stamps, maps, instruction sheets for building blocks, paper buildings and dolls with whole wardrobes. Berghaus’ Physikalischer Atlas.

Always he loves pictures that capture information, that transmit knowledge, the more knowledge in the simpler the line and more arresting the graphic the better.

He talks of beautiful etchings of birds and plants, colour-coded maps of military movements

Battle of Trafalgar Plate 2 By Alexander Keith Johnston (Atlas to Alison's History of Europe (1848).) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Battle of Trafalgar Plate 2 By Alexander Keith Johnston (Atlas to Alison’s History of Europe (1848).) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It is not realistic depictions he favours, but what best transmits an idea, gives an overview without need of words.This is particularly interesting I think.

Again and again I felt that the orthodox perspective is somewhat anti-symbolic, putting the onlooker in a privileged position. A perspective drawing fixed from the point from which I had to look, whereas I wanted to be free to look from wherever I chose.  (49)

He loves the details abounding in Hogarth:

William Hogarth Industry and Idleness: plate 1. The Fellow 'Prentices at their Looms
William Hogarth Industry and Idleness: plate 1. The Fellow ‘Prentices at their Looms

Egyptian wall paintings

Plate From Lepsius - Tomb of Sethos
Plate From Lepsius – Tomb of Sethos

He later writes:

I revive some of the feelings I had when looking at Egyptian wall-paintings, but without the sad undertone: pageantry for the dead. No–now it is pageantry for the living, for people of every kind throughout the world, whatever way of life they may accept, whatever creed they profess of reject, whatever their colour, whatever language they use. (126)

he shares these amazing visual mnemonics from 1808:

Traité complet de mnémonique, ou, Art d'aider et de fixer la mémoire en tous genres d'études et de sciences : orné d'un tableau d'application a l'histoire servant de frontispice, et enrichi de 25 gravures / par Mr. *** [i.e. J. Didier]. 1808.
J. Didier – Traite complet de mnemonique
At the end there is just a collection of images Neurath had collected after fleeing Austria. I particularly loved these:

IMG_3937
Neurath Collection — Agustin Tschinkel, 1928-1930
Frank W. Seiwart -- Otto Neurath collection
Neurath Collection — Franz W. Seiwart ‘Helft de Internationale Arbeiter-Hilfe (1924) and Menschen im Gefangnis (1924) p 133

All of these things fed into the creation of isotype’s visual language, the attempt to create a new language all together through scientific study, observation and testing.

I think we were the first to evolve a theoretical framework of visualization, which started from a few observations but later on covered a wide field of experience, applying what we had learnt from the behaviour of pupils in schools and visitors to exhibitions, and of course everything one could learn from the literature concerned with visual problems. (103)

One of the key artists Otto Neurath worked with to develop pictograms and the language of Isotype was Gerd Arntz, a google search on his name shows something like this:

Gerd Arntz These figures — or figures like them are now so familiar. Their impact is clearly visible in the US as well, in graphics like these I found in Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis on Chicago — their use pushed this book to one of my very favourite sociological studies as one of the most helpful to the people it studied:

Cayton&Drake.1946.p253

Similar is a pamphlet emerging (somewhat surprisingly perhaps) from the Truman Administration on racism in 1946:

1946DiscriminationContributes to Poor Health

I think these show just how powerful numbers can be when translated into images, and how they can educate the school-educated and non-educated alike, while serving as a call to action. And this as well:

…at least I may be allowed to express my personal hope that the increasing speed of Isotype may perhaps be symptomatic of the spread of certain general trends towards a cosmopolitan attitude, a commonwealth of men connected in a human brotherhood and human orchestration. (126)

An interlude on Asger Jorn

Of all the different figures who formed part of the Situationist International, Asger Jorn is the one who resonates the least with me, and even so, McKenzie Wark managed to make him interesting. Wark will write something like this, and I’ll think hm, maybe I should read that guy Jorn:

The suns around which Jorn’s thought orbits are, as for so many others, Darwin, Nietzsche and Marx, although his path was more elliptical than most. The Marxist in Jorn expects capitalism to collapse, but not through class struggle so much as ontological struggle. Its inability to grasp its own nature condemns it. For Jorn, “the socialist way of life is the natural way of life.”9 (120)

There is this too:

The working class is present in Jorn. Unlike bourgeois economics, he does not want to hide them away behind the surface-effects of exchange. Rather, he shifts attention away from exchange to production; not to production as quantity, but production as quality, as difference. The key to this is not labor as the universal content of value, but form as difference, as the production of differences. Labor may be the content of value, but creation is its form. There is both a laboring class and a creating class. Capitalism is the alienation of labor from creation.

In short: substance is value, value is process, and process is difference. (206)

Even in this there is something, I’m not quite sure I know what it is, but it seems worth struggling a bit with. We are alienated from creation and creativity in our work, this is part of what we are fighting for. Both Marx and Morris tried to return creation to labour, and there is something of importance here I think.

That last sentence though, I just don’t know what it means. But it’s the challenging kind of not knowing that pushes my thinking outwards, which I like very much, not the obfuscation that makes me write people off.

Important to note, of course, what I don’t like at all about Jorn:

Jorn’s is perhaps a perverse kind of Leninism. It is not the party that brings class consciousness to the workers from without, but bohemia. The nucleus of a radical form of action is not the specialists in political praxis, but the connoisseurs of the free use of time (Gilles and Carole, wandering the labyrinth of the city at night). Theirs is not a politics of work, but an aesthetics of leisure. (209-210)

I feel many ‘bohemians’ suffer from just such a misapprehension. I’m in a bit of mood today having just finished my article for Salvage on the situationist’s abandonment of their Algerian comrades, for which I’ve been reading all of this when I had some time ago all but written them off. I’m glad I didn’t, but that kind of presumption makes me want to do some damage. Pain and poverty are too real. Last night we heard Linton Kwesi Johnson say that poetry would never itself create change, that art does nothing to stop injustice. It is action and struggle that change the world.

The relationship between art and revolution, the finding of voice long oppressed and silenced, the sharing of it with others, the supporting and inspiring of movement and solidarity, the catharsis through shared anger and screaming, the whispering of hope — these are not small things, unimportant things. They rarely emerge from bohemia and the art of ‘free time’, just as Asger Jorn is no Linton Kwesi Johnson.

So it is worth returning to Jorn after that?

If there is a Situationist praxis, it has to take time in a quite different sense to a Marxist one. It is not just that capital quantifies time and cheats the worker of the value of it. Rather, it is that the quantification of time suppresses the qualitative aspect of the transformation of one substance into another. The slogan “live without dead time” comes to mean something quite specific here. It is not that the situation is the spontaneous irruption of a pure event, severing all ties with the past, freeing itself from the grip of technologies, built spaces, all the massive forms of dead labor. (212-213)

There is still something here. Something we have to free in ourselves, transform in ourselves. Something signified here, but that I don’t think Jorn will help many to find it. I think I myself will go looking somewhere else. But in the one quote of his that caught my attention, I did like his recognition that there are no true breaks for us, and that culture grows from all that has come before.

In formulating an irrational architecture, leaving out these capital facts would be unthinkable. It is easy and undoubtedly amusing to come up with new ideas opposed to the previous ones, but culture consists in just the opposite: it is the continual education and transformation of pre-existing phenomena. (54)
Excerpts from Image and Form, Asger Jorn, 1954 (Situationists and the City, Tom McDonaugh)

Oppressed peoples, though, it is worth remarking, often have more layers of culture to draw from as they negotiate more than one world, one language, one official history.

10325403Excerpts From: McKenzie Wark. “The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International.” iBooks.

The Incredible Creation of the Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk Essential 1This collects Incredible Hulk 1-6 and Tales To Astonish 60-91, beginning in May 1962. I enjoyed it immensely, and somewhat unexpectedly, much as I enjoyed reading Captain America — and the similar trials and tribulations of the early years of a character’s introduction into the comic universe. Perhaps because what I love most is what they reveal about the process of creation, the twists and turns the superhero takes in the collective hands of each team, and the breakneck pace at which these twists and turns happen issue by issue because as good hacks really good at what they do, they never had time to slow down or think too clearly. They wrote really fast, spun out every idea to see how it worked, and if it didn’t they scrapped it and started again.

You get the sense they loved most every minute.

There are wonderful sentences like these:

But with the coming of dawn, the thing that was the Hulk, vanished, and Bruce Banner returned to normal, knowing that he was destined forever to be two people — by day, a mild-mannered intellectual–but by night, the most dangerous menace the world had ever known!

I love the exclamation points, they are everywhere. I love the fact that Bruce Banner once upon a time changed into the Hulk only at night — it is only gradually that his anger becomes the trigger. He keeps getting hit with those gamma rays you see, and the plot keeps requiring different methods of change, different triggers. For a while it was just the rays themselves. And Bruce Banner complies with it all, goes with the flow because he never has a second to think, he is too busy fighting amazing creatures, discontented men, powerful aliens and super spies. You see him go from one thing to the next before he gradually begins to settle down into the character you thought you knew.

I don’t know what could be cooler than that. You almost don’t want him to settle. The constant creation and re-creation of character around a recognizable frame, this is what I find most awesome in comics. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, what a team…

Then there are the antics — I don’t know why this stunt on a teeter-board with all the bad guys apparently poised on one end made me quite so very happy, but it did:

IMG_2747

Things like the the ‘world’s first nuclear absorbatron, it was built to absorb the impact of an atom bomb blast,’ or Hercules exclaiming ‘By the Zesty Zither of Zeus!’ also filled me with pure joy. As did the raw energy and movement of Jack Kirby’s drawings — the way the images are the equals of the words in driving forward the story. It’s funny too how the Hulk shifted one way and another in the hands of different artists, from almost-Frankenstein to my least favourite, where the Hulk is at his most monkeyish. But that didn’t last for long and I can’t help but think it was Kirby taking a hand in again as he took over art direction for a while (but not the art itself).

Then there is this title page:

IMG_2749

Beginning: A new chapter in the award-winning series that delicately poses the age-old question, “Can a green-skinned introvert, with anti-social tendencies, find happiness in a modern, materialistic society?”

These are the questions that matter….

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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Estate, by Fugitive Images

10401119Estate, Fugitive Images (Myrdle Court Press, London: 2010)

The pursuit of public Housing provision was one of the 20th century’s redeeming contributions. Yet, in the first decade of the 21st century, public housing as an ideal is a contradictory territory resulting from policies that value entrepreneurial charities or a subsidised private sector over state funded and administered housing.

Estate is a timely contribution to the debates entangling millions of individuals and countless neighbourhoods. The starting point is a visual essay on the Haggerston West & Kingsland estates in Hackney, east London, in the process of demolition and re-building. The 56 photographs document the spaces left behind when people were moved out. Despite residents living in limbo for over 30 years as refurbishment plans were continuously proposed, shelved and re-proposed, the images highlight their innovative solutions to the difficulties of continuing to live while an idea and a set of buildings were being abandoned around them. 

This is an incredible book that will move you deeply, even if the true meaning of home and the trauma of losing it hasn’t been burnt into you by life itself. As someone who has experienced eviction and poverty and loss, I confess I have strong feelings about how people write about it, document it, photograph it. But here it is done with a beauty, love, and respect that comes closer to capturing the many shades of what it means and how it is experienced than almost anything I have read. There is no sentimentalization here, no glorification of the working class or a home that after years of landlord neglect has become much less than anyone would wish. Instead it is a deeply felt exploration of meaning from many angles, a teasing out across perspectives, a contextualization of loss and change through words and images and theory.

My favourite section is the first one by Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Lasse Johannson, the experience of living on Hackney’s Haggerston West Estate and watching it slowly emptying of people, introducing the incredible series of photographs from Haggerston and Kingsland Estates, with captions that add another level of depth to what the images make so vivid. I took the photo that heads this review in 2011, wandering down the Regent’s Canal and finding it beautiful and extraordinary long before I met Andrea and Lasse or heard about their work.

Followed by a more literary piece by Paul Hallam, exploring estates in the plural and the singular, winding around the meaning and making of place and poverty, extracting quotes from residents that I confess made me shed a tear or two on the tube. There is much to ponder in Victor Buchli’s Archeology of the Recent Past, and a clear contextualization of the particular within the broader history of Britain’s social housing by Cristina Cerulli.

They come together in a thought-provoking, moving whole. No one can ever have the last, the final, the entire say of what estates mean to those who live in them, what it is like to live in them, what it is like to lose them. That is the point. Estate is simply a gift to those who read it, the gift of a view, a taste, an experience that will make you think and feel deeply.

You can buy it here, from the wonderful Myrdle Court Press. This is an old review, brought forward in anticipation of seeing the film from Fugitive Images, Estate, a reverie, that I have seen some powerful clips from and long been waiting to watch as a whole:

an artist’s film, song cycle and installation to be created and performed by the disappearing community of the Haggerston Estate. It is the final and most ambitious project in a trilogy of collaborative works on the estate led by artist resident Andrea Luka Zimmerman, working closely with architectural researcher and writer David Roberts, following the public art/photo-installation i am here (with Lasse Johansson and Tristan Fenell) and the artists’ book Estate (Myrdle Court Press, with Lasse Johansson, Paul Hallam, Cristina Cerully, Victor Buchli), both of which have gained international acclaim.

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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 Entries (or, of knobs and knockers)

I’m often caught by small details, little things that I like to think almost no one else sees. Beautiful things, strange things, unlikely things. Those of us who see them are thus joined in this appreciation of the not-quite-hidden, the unique everyday, the unspectacular. Our lives contain more joy, or so I like to think. Maybe more of us than I think walk through the city awake and aware and reveling in these details. I myself do it surreptitiously when on the street alone, never able to rid myself of the ingrained dislike of making myself a target. Streets can be dangerous places.

Prague is the most dangerous of all, a city of details.

It is, of course, superficially and ridiculously gorgeous. But what I loved most about it is that this beauty goes all the way down to the minute; incredible craftsmanship abounds everywhere. Some of it was clearly put in service of evil — the ubiquitous cherub for example, to be explored in the next post — but damn. So much of it is of the beautiful and good. So this is a photo-essay of the beautiful doors of Prague. Because this is what they look like, even when we got onto the off-the-tourist-track streets walking down away past Florenc station. They’ve seen better days, but from the carved wood to the iron and grill work to the inlays and fixtures, they are so beautiful:

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They’ve made me think about doors. What they stand for as a statement about a building, about the people who made the building and live in the building. What it means to pass through them. I am used to beautiful doors on cathedrals, on monumental buildings, occasionally on government buildings. Doors you pass through only now and again. Or perhaps you never have enough status, or share the required beliefs, to pass through them. These are places where an entryway is meant to have greater meaning, a non every-day meaning. You walk through them and enter somewhere power sits, or God dwells. They separate outside from inside like any door, but this separation carries more weight than our front door, which most of us blast through without a thought, hurrying out into the world or back home. Of palaces and churches, differentiated spaces, Prague has a number. Their doors are finer than anything I’ve seen I think:

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IMG_9461Still, this rampant use of beauty on apartments? How lovely. Even our wealthy neighbourhoods are in no way comparable on the subject of doors, and my initial feeling is that this beauty stretches some class boundaries, if only due to decline.  Of course I confess, we did not stray all that far from the city center, and perhaps this gorgeous craftsmanship is not found quite everywhere, but in visiting Liberec and some of the small villages surrounding it was much the same — though like cherubs, I’ll have more to say on them later. Here, however, are some plainer doors.

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But after a while even I had almost a surfeit of doors, too many, too grand, too beautiful. Camera fatigue set in. I made an exception for the doors belonging to the house of the Capek brothers, where the amazing word ‘robot’ was coined in the writing of R.U.R.

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Heavy, wooden, carved. Beautiful. But with this surfeit of doors I started focusing on other things, like the grilles:

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The faces:

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The details of the decoration:

IMG_9651 IMG_9571 IMG_9351I had read that some fine examples of Art Nouveau was to be found here as well, but I was in no way prepared for the splendour of it:

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IMG_9377This, which I’m not sure which style it fits into, but is understated yet stunning:

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I wasn’t prepared for any of it. I love the brightly painted red and green and blue doors of Dublin, and sometimes here in London or Bristol. But these doors of Prague are a different level. My favourite details? The handles. There is a joy in seeing such beautiful, functional things — more beautiful up the castle way, but uniformly gorgeous:

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And for last? This sculpture door that we found opposite the cubist House of the Black Madonna, with no explanation but I rather liked it just like that:

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A little more from Prague…

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William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary 2

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Into the nitty gritty of Morris’s role in Socialist/Anarchist/Marxist Politics! I make that sound exciting, but it’s really not, and this post is way too much of a summary because I am just starting to get my head around these early radical politics. For a while these were contained within many of the same groups, and at least remained talking to each other — I had always thought the definitive split came with the end of the International Workingmen’s Association, aka the First International. Of course, I had forgotten first that people don’t work like that and definitive splits are usually mostly theoretical, but also the later dates of the IWA. It started long after 1848 — in 1864 — and only fell apart in 1876. Morris and Marx (1818-1883) didn’t miss each other by much, and that thought makes me sad. Hyndman met with Marx, however, and attempted to claim his blessing for his leadership of the Democratic Federation (DF) founded in 1881.  Thompson describes a period of widespread agreement on what socialism was, based on Marxist principles. Here is a quote from a letter from Morris: ‘our aim, to be always steadily kept in view, is, to obtain for the whole people, duly organised, the possession and control of all the means of production and exchange, destroying at the same time all national rivalries’ (334). Of course, the principal leaders in London — Joynes, Bax, Aveling ( and Eleanor Marx, not included in this list to which she has more right than her husband I think), Hyndman, Shaw and Morris himself — were all middle class, and so the ‘masses’ who would carry out this appropriation meant different things and carried different levels of intelligence and agency for each. The DF would split in 1886, and it arose from both personal mistrust of Hyndman and his motives, but also around tactics of partial reform as opposed to total. Familiar, all too familiar.

After Marx’s death Engels busied himself with putting his papers in order, an old man himself by then, and Eleanor Marx’s biography shows most sympathetically what personal tragedies he was suffering through this time. But Thompson’s account  draws on many of his letters to better understand the complexities of the discussions and in-fighting, and Engels appears very much a cranky old man on the sidelines sniping at almost everyone. Not that he wasn’t right about their ultimate ineffectiveness.

I like Morris so much in this account though, perhaps to be expected. Possessed of an explosive temper he still worked as peacemaker, attempting to keep people working together towards a common goal despite personal and strategic differences. The DF became the the Social-Democratic Federation (SDF) and declared it’s goals:

‘The Socialization of the Means of Production, Distribution and Exchange to be controlled by a Democratic State in the interests of the entire community, and the complete Emancipation of Labour from the domination of Capitalism and Landlordism, with the establishment of Social and Economic Equality between the Sexes’ (345).

For its programme that of the Labour Emancipation League to draw them in:

  • Equal direct adult suffrage
  • ‘direct legislation by the people’
  • a National Citizen Army in place of the standing army, and the people to decide on peace or war
  • free secular education
  • free administration of justice

They didn’t take on the sixth, so I don’t what that was. Not too shabby, Hyndman was displaced as President, but with all the egos in the room this was not enough to hold things together. The SDF at this time was about 400 strong, almost entirely based in London: Battersea (with John Burns), Clerkenwell, Marylebone, Croydon, tottenahm, Hammersmith. The Labor Emancipation League under Joseph Lane centered in the East End. A group in Birmingham, another in Edinburgh, but slowly it grew until the split in 1885. Thompson describes how this should have been around issues of strategy, but instead was primarily personal, and left Hyndman in a position of strength as head of the SDF which retained most of its membership as Morris left to form the the Socialist League with Edward Aveling, Eleanor Marx, Lessner, Bax, Mahon, Lane, Kitz and others.  The last two represented some of the strong anarchist streak in the League.

They were focused on open air propaganda, speaking on street corners, trying to convert the masses and fighting to protect the right to free speech, which the government had begun to repress. This was interesting:

And this is the reason why the Socialists, if they were to become a force, had no alternative but to defy the police and stay in the streets in the face of intimidation. The resulting struggles, which continued in London and the provinces until the end of the decade, were the most important form of advertisement for Socialism at this stage of the propaganda (393).

Morris continued this work — while still running his business and continuing work on a number of projects and editing the organisation’s newspaper Commonweal. To his old friend Georgie Burne-Jones, worried about his health, he wrote something I love:

You see, my dear, I can’t help it. The ideas which have taken hold of me will not let me rest: nor can I see anything else worth thinking of. How can it be otherwise, when to me society, which to many seems an orderly arrangement for allowing decent people to get through their lives creditably and with some pleasure, seems mere cannibalism, nay worse…is grown so corrupt, so steeped in hypocrisy and lies, that one turns from one stratum of it to another with hopeless loathing. One must turn to hope, and only in one direction do I see it — on the road to Revolution: everything else is gone now…(424)

So the League lumbers on. They write a preposterous letter to Northumberland miners on strike in 1886, telling them the strike will bring misery and be hopeless, they need to fight for revolution instead. Thompson writes ‘soon the League was back to its old exhortations — Utopian in form, but in actual effect and tone defeatist’ (437). More wrangling, discussions, infighting, decisions between parliamentary and revolutionary strategy, splits. A great quote from Engels: ‘No movement absorbs so much fruitless labour as one which has not yet emerged from the status of a sect’ (454, Engels to Sorge, 4 June 1887). True then, and I am so sad to say it feels true now. Morris’s own position, in contrast to that of Shaw and the Fabians, was that the League needed to remain outside of parliament, but supportive and working with those inside — ‘Increasingly between 1887 and 1890 he came to see the role of the League as being educational and propagandist within a larger Socialist movement’ (460). Yet really it was ever more isolated from the ‘masses’.

Then Bloody Sunday. Another Bloody Sunday — the first? There have been so many. 13 November 1887. The police bloodily cleared protests in Trafalgar Square using batons and horses. Morris writes of the need for organisation in the face of this kind of repression:

All that our people could do was to straggle into the Square as helpless units. I confess I was astounded at the rapidity of the thing and the ease with which military organization got its victory. I could see that numbers were of no avail unless led by a band of men acting in consent and each knowing his own part (490).

He also wrote poetry and songs, to inspire and to raise money for the survivors of the dead.

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With this started a period of increased rebellion. In News From Nowhere, Morris’s utopian vision of the future, the events in Trafalgar Square actually become a turning point in the march towards Socialism, even though they were crushed.  But 1889 and 1890 saw strikes by the Bryant and May match girls, tram workers, seamen, dockers. The Paris conference founding the Second International took place with Morris in attendence. H.G. Wells was running around London meetings, W.B. Yeats, Malatesta and Kropotkin. Thompson has no kindness at all for the anarchists, blaming Morris’s lack of leadership for allowing them to get the upper hand and destroy the league, ‘make it rotten’. Harsh words that seem highly debatable, but the League certainly fell apart. Morris wrote in his farewell article ‘Where are We Now’ published in Commonweal, 15 November 1990:

Our business, I repeat, is the making of Socialists, i.e. convincing people that Socialism is good for them and is possible. When we have enough people of that way of thinking, they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles in practice. Until we have that mass of opinion, action for a general change that will benefit the whole people is impossible. Have we that body of opinion or anything like it? Surely not…Though there are a great many who believe it possible to compel their masters…to behave better to them, and though they are prepared to compel them…all but a very small minority are not prepared to do without masters. They do not believe in their capacity to undertake the management of affairs, and to be responsible for their life in this world. When they are so prepared, then Socialism will be realized; but nothing can push it on a day in advance of that time (576).

I love this faith, and believe ultimately this is true. Like Thompson, and later Morris himself I am skeptical that this ‘making of Socialists’ can happen independently of struggle, outside of the worker’s movement (or other movements). But he then believed it was all or nothing, requiring a purity of revolutionary intent that did not work towards small victories like the eight-hour day (!). This argument continues its life in left discussions.

Morris would go on to retire, and in his retirement found the Hammersmith Socialist Society with those of the SDF who had left with him. He also began work on Kelmscott Press in earnest — and I have a special love for any press, but Kelmscott produced such beautiful things. There is very little here about the press itself, so disappointing and again a place where Thompson and I part ways — instead there is much more about Morris’s continuing work on translating Icelandic sagas in his free time (! I am certain that he had more hours in the day than I do).

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By 1894 Morris had moved away from the purism of his earlier stand:

Thus Socialists were set (Morris wrote) a twofold task. First, they must provide the theory of the struggle: if they failed in this, they were abandoning their duty of giving direction to the spontaneous movement of the workers. Second, they must participate alongside the workers in all forms of the labour struggle, including parliamentary and municipal elections:

“It is certainly our business, then, to make that struggle as strenuous as possible, while we at the same time hold up before the workers the ideal that lies ahead of the present days of conflict” (613)

He thus came around to the idea of creating a strong party, electing delegates to the House of Commons, but a parliamentary party subordinate to party as a whole. He continued active right up to the end, through illness and tiredness of age, and died in 1886. After coming so far with him you mourn, and I love this obituary by Blatchford in Clarion.

Morris was not only a genius, he was a man. Strike at him where you would, he rang true.

The book doesn’t end there, but with his views on art and work, and his contribution to political though. His legacy. Thompson finds Morris important as a political theorist in two ways: ‘one of the earliest…most original and creative thinkers within the Marxist tradition in England’ and second, as ‘a pioneer of constructive thought as to the organisation of social life within Communist society’ (682). I love that he spent time imagining the future society as a refuge from his present. Yet still Morris writes:

for no man can really think himself out of his own days; his palace of days to come can only be constructed from the aspirations forced upon him by his present surroundings, and from the dreams of the life of the past, which themselves cannot fail to be more or less unsubstantial imaginings (685 – ‘Socialism: It’s Growth and Outcome’).

This, and: ‘The only safe way of reading a utopia is to consider it as the expression of the temperament of its author’ (693 – ‘Looking Backward’).

Also this, on how he disagreed with the Fabians and many another:

Morris, alas, would not have rested content with the “Welfare State”: when the “ideal” was set before him of the “capitalist public service…brought to perfection”. he merely remarked that he “would not walk across the street for the realization of such an “ideal” (727).

But I shall end with some of his quotes on what he loved, his art and his work:

neutrality is impossible in man’s handiwork…a house, a knife, a cup, a steam engine…anything that is made by man and has form, must either be a work of art or destructive to art. (646 – ‘The Socialist Idea in Art’)

His precepts of art, summarised through quotation by Thompson:

  1. Art is Man’s expression of his joy in labour
  2. Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers
  3. the only healthy art is ‘an art which is to be made by the people, and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and user’

William Morris writes:

Yet I have looked at this claim by the light of history and my own conscience, and it seems to me so looked at to be a most just claim, and that resistance to it means nothing short of a denial of the hope of civilization.

This then is the claim:

It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which shall he worth doing, and be of itself pleasant to do; and which should he done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious.

Turn that claim about as I may, think of it as long as I can, I cannot find that it is an exorbitant claim; yet again I say if Society would or could admit it, the face of the world would be changed

The whole of the text on ‘Art and Socialism’ is here, and reading it over I rather think it deserves its own post. So just one more quote from elsewhere:

The arts are man’s expression of the value of life, and also the production of them makes his life of value (656, letter to May Morris).

There is so much of value here, I have barely scraped the surface. So I will be coming back.

For more on similar things…

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Southwark Cathedral Contradictions

I can’t quite grasp the relationship between the glorious monsters on the outside and the glorious light and space and soaring of the inside

And I still cannot quite comprehend how stone can take this character of massive weightlessness, how anything so heavy and solid can delicately soar and continually unfold into mystery

This narrow Norman arch has stood here here supporting the roof for 800 years. Of course, it was once a wood roof, probably very similar to that of Westminster Hall  with its capitals of strange creatures and frightening angels…perhaps resolving some of the contradictions, but raising others. I want to know their stories, but fear them to be long gone. And while I love stumbling across the green man, I do not buy much of the crap written about him. So it is all wonder and mystery, this combination of such immense human skill, love, and imagination

Southwark Cathedral stands at the lowest point of the Thames, the old ford and today’s Tower Bridge, for long the only entrance to the City of London. You can see the remains of the Roman road alongside the cathedral, along with a statue of an ancient hunter god. There has been a church here since at least 606 AD…

[And the priests and staff inside are incredibly friendly and informative without being overwhelmingly so. And the incredible Burough Market is immediately next door.]

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