Tag Archives: art

Short Film and Radical Resistance: Bristol Radical Film Festival 2016

Bristol Radical Film FestivalHeaded down to the Old Malt House in Bristol yesterday to catch a piece of the Bristol Radical Film Festival — the programme of shorts. With over 2000 submissions, the films they chose were wonderful indeed. In many ways short films face the same challenges as short stories — creating something to hold the attention, convey a message. To open up a character in a very short amount of time, or perhaps rather than a character a city, an aspect of human nature or action. These last featured in the opening film One Million Steps (Eva Stoltz), and this turned out to be my favourite. In truth what I loved most, though, was the feeling of the whole, seeing so many different kinds of film exploring various aspects of resistance. Still, this was brilliant and beautiful and expressive of so much in a very unique way.

An exploration of a city and its people through the sharing of the unexpected joy that dance can bring in the face of poverty and the destruction of the old and beautiful to make way for neoliberal development. From their website:

“Rhythm as a universal language, inspired us to meet with a city and its habitants through the rhythms of the steps we take in our lives. We chose Istanbul as our destination, a city of extreme contrasts that is over 2000 years old and subject to the expansion of a neo-liberal economy. What pressures does this generate? What becomes visible when we look at the daily steps and movements of the habitants?

With a small crew, we filmed for a week in April 2013. End of May 2013 country wide protests broke out and our initial questions suddenly became visible and audible everywhere. Not only did the movements of the people in the streets change – protesters and policemen pressing through the streets, people occupying a park to prevent it from demolition, banging pots and pans out of windows at 9pm – but people seemed to ask themselves different questions: how will this continue? How do I want to live and relate to my fellow citizens? What will be my next step?

Through the changing sounds and movements in the city, we felt a peaceful and creative resistance against a system that has alienated itself from the people and their needs. In the film we see through the eyes of the dancer how people reclaim their living space and fight for a piece of freedom. The dancer is a-political and playful at first, but then she discovers her affinity with the people in the protest and uses her dance as a powerful expression of solidarity.

There is so much here about life, music, daily resistance and extraordinary moments of resistance. So much about what it means to live with the destruction of neighborhoods as context — a blog post on the Istanbul places lost since filming is here.

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This was followed by Silent Country (James Wren), a look at the future where even Bristish-born children of immigrant parents are being hunted down. I found it quite gripping — also curious that in the discussion afterwards some expressed that it needed exposition at the opening to set the scene, and that it was confusing. The curious thing is that Mark and I thought perhaps there was too much.

The Tomatoes Tree (Armin Mobasseri) — the struggle of two immigrants to cross the next border, the jokes and small talk of travel and the amazing contrast of this journey with that of the tourists wandering around taking pictures with their ipads.

cartel2No Te Conozco, Pero Te Necesito Para Cambiar El Mundo [I don’t Know You, But I Need You to Change the World] (Libres Films) — A wonderful short documentary on Rexiste, a political action group using art and action to challenge power in Mexico. I watched this and realised suddenly how many opportunities we missed when we were organising in LA, to use film to expand our strategies and our solidarity. Also, drones are being used in fascinating ways. But I could imagine the ladies breaking out the stencils after seeing this.

tumblr_ni52vmeeel1u6zqu4o1_r2_1280Cthulu Regio Entropy (Flavio Carvalho) — This one minute film is awesome with its accompanying text, bewildering without. ‘A probe launched. A flyby over ‘Cthulhu Regio’ in Pluto. Data lost.

The Movement (Shawn Antoine) — on the Black Lives Movement, but it gave too much time to the white lady talking about all lives matter, the footage from only one small protest…

Streets of Parliament (Lottie O’Connell) — I liked this combination of footage and views across East London. Not just because I love East London. But I sought what I knew in the montage, and thought it fit in well with the other types of short we were watching…

Pirates are the Best Customers (Alex Lungu) — I love infographicky sorts of things, and this was interesting enough, but if anything could have been said not quite to fit, it was this. That bit where the corporate executive is bouncing off the artists like a trampoline though? Amazing.

Austerity (Ranos Gavris) — a powerful short film returning to the world of narrative, character and resistance, a very slow, moving view into the meaning of crisis in Greece. The director was there, as well, and it was good to hear him speak about it.

Tree (Director: Sadegh Akbari, ArtDirector: Mohammad Zare, Storyboard: Masoud Sabahi) — I loved this animation, it was a brilliant way to end. There is nothing online about it, but here is a view of the story board

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And the animation itself…

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It’s very short, wholly darkly unexpected.

Short film is such an amazing media, I really need to remember to take more time, seek more of it out.

For more on film…

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The Memory Factory: Women Artists in Vienna

The Memory FactoryJulie Johnson’s book The Memory Factory: The Forgotten Women Artists of Vienna 1900 is wonderful. She writes:

The Memory Factory, refers to Vienna as a site for fabricating history. Vienna was indeed a place where intellectuals and artists ‘thought with history,’ and participated in providing their own historical narratives (P 3, quoting Schorske 1998).

I’m working on writing something on Vienna, and everything written about fin-de-siecle Vienna is about men. Men, men, more famous men. There are some mentions of the women who stand by them but mostly those who betray them. God, that Alma Mahler. There is a sprinkling of mothers. It wouldn’t be surprising if women couldn’t flourish in the arts in such a climate of misogyny as Johnson details on these pages (and that is detailed on many another page, believe you me).

But they did. A splendid few, their work is amazing. This is a book that looks both in depth at their work, its connections to a wider modernist movement and to the art of Vienna of the period, an art book. But it also looks at how these women have been removed from the canon, removed from accounts of Vienna, removed from galleries, and erased from our understanding of the past. She quotes Trouillot’s work on the erasures of the Haitian Revolution, which is one of the books I love most. That is about erasure of resistance to Empire and white supremacy. There is a whole field of work on the erasure of women I did not yet know. There is Joan W. Scott, who

believes all history writing depends upon identification — a selective delving into the past–in a process that uses fantasy to create coherence out of chaos. The repetitions or ‘echoes,’ of history are part of this process: there are inevitable distortions that occur over time and over the generations, but identification is required for these repetitions to take place. This is as true for the established canon as it is for new research on women artists. (4)

These repetitions are key in building understandings of history. The amount of work on certain artists and pieces adds to their aura and position, which can become so exaggerated that others are erased. The Memory Factory.

Such examples from the discipline of art history support the proposal of some historians that memory is by definition repetition. (4)

There opens a memory gap where women’s participation slowly becomes invisible — how else to explain the false understanding that women did not exhibit art publicly in fin-de-siecle Vienna when arguably they were more prominent then than they often are now? That astonishes me, actually. This is not a project rescuing competent artists who were never enough appreciated because of their gender, though that would be worth doing. Nor is it fighting for wider appreciation of more ‘feminine’ and interior domestic scenes as high art the way Griselda Pollock and Linda Nochlin’s separate spheres model is used to explain the aesthetics of Morisot and Cassatt. In Vienna, it is a project uncovering works of astonishing strength and power that were much admired and displayed and copied in their time. It’s uncovering modernist art of landscapes, nudes, still lifes, challenging portraits…nothing in short, that does not achieve excellence within the very male canon.

Their loss from descriptions of Vienna’s fin-de-siecle glory is rooted not just in misogyny, but also in Vienna’s antisemitism and all of WWII’s erasures. A fascinating example of how much was lost is that in 1977 an exhibition of women artists from the Renaissance to the 1950s was held in Vienna, that was

credited with launching new research that has led to changes in the canon, now visible in the inclusion of women artists in survey books and virtual memory systems for students of art history.

It took them 5 years and the women described it as starting from scratch. In 1910 a very similar exhibition was held and very successfully, bringing together art from around Europe as well as showcasing working artists. It was put together in only 6 months…between these two dates there was clearly an erasure, not least of the documentation of the earlier exhibition.

So it is not just in the processes of creating memory we must look, but on the processes that erase it, how women have been excluded.

Another interesting note? Over one-third of the Kunstschau exhibitors in 1908 were women, as were members of Schiele’s Neukunstgroup in 1909. (164) For Museum of Modern Art’s International Survey of Painting and Sculpture in 1984, only ten percent were women. (247)

The exclusion of women from art’s history appears to have been favourable for men’s prominence in major exhibitions.

There are some interesting concepts of identity and the way gender parallels race as well:

Kutluh Ataman, one of many contemporary artists who deal with how race is represented, has put it aptly: “I do not think identity belongs to the individual. Identity is like a jacket. People you never see will make it and you wear it. Identity is something other than you, outside of you. It’s a question of perception. You can be aware of it and manipulate it, play with it, amplify it, or mask it for infinite reasons.” (10)

For Eleanor Heartney, identity

is like a reflection in still water–it is only clearly visible until you reach out and try to grasp it in your hand.

I rather like those two, I need to think more about them.

I also realised I will throw around the words modern and Modernism occasionally, but have never been entirely sure what official (and I am sure contested) definitions of those might be as it is not especially my field. So I found it interesting that Vienna is

characterized as birthplace of modernism, but only in fields outside the history of art–in cultural studies, philosophy, science, music, psychology, architecture, and literature… By Modernism with a capital M, I refer to the doctrine articulated best by Clement Greenberg: that the best art is self-critical about its own medium and is autonomous.(10)

Thus material takes precedence over subject, so for Greenberg Manet is the 1st Modernist painter as the paint came first for him — Klimt on the other hand uses allegory, combination of abstraction and naturalistic bodies.

By “autonomy” Greenberg meant freedom from social context and politics. This is why the white cube space of the art gallery is so well suited to sowing modernist works–it removes them into an aesthetic vacuum, where the works relate to each other in a historical progression. (11)

Freedom from context and politics… that is quite fascinating as a definition as well, that wouldn’t have occurred to me though in thinking about art for arts sake and views of the life and role of the artist I see it has been there lurking in my head to some extent all the time. Aesthetically some of the most prominent women, Koller, Luksch-Makowsky, Funke and Blau are clearly part of and pushing the modernist canon, though as women they have  been systematically  left out of it.

The idea that women were not part of Modernism, and only became important public artists in the postmodern phase, had become a truism in the history of art by 1986. This study aims to correct that misperception. (13)

And it does, artist by artist.

Tina Blau:

She had a significant public exhibition record, was given a studio in the prater (a beautiful central park) where the World Exhibition had been held together with another (male) artist named Schindler, in 1879 it became all her own. She was singled out by Prince Regent Luitpold and he regularly visited her there.

It’s important to remember that artists in Vienna never saw themselves as breaking away politically from anything at all. As Johnson remarks later.

Unlike Berlin, where a rift between the avant-garde and the government was an expected part of life, in Vienna the approval of the emperor was a crucial endorsement.

Tina Blau won this endorsement, thus she was envied by her peers and former teacher Shaeffer (who again and again is seen to be working to denigrate his female students and bury their work away from public gaze). He even describes her in a rather nasty review as the student of Schindler, when he knew better as her actual teacher  that the artists had simply shared studio space. She was innovative and brought impressionism to Vienna, had pictures rejected by the Kunstlerhaus as being too progressive, drew amazing landscapes, was very successful in Paris — yet never seen as part of movement. Johnson argues part of that was the mythologies created by the secession artists themselves around father-son relationships, and brotherhood. They couldn’t bear the idea of a mother-son relationship in art, so Blau could not be seen as an early forerunner of their movement or part of Modernism itself.

Yet Spring in the Prater — and all of her paintings — are wondrous. This was bought by the emperor.

Tina Blau Spring at the Prater
Tina Blau, Spring in the Prater, 1882

 

 

Above all I love that her paintings show women in public space and unlike the men, she shows they could inhabit public space without being whores. A number of the artists who are women do that. I wonder if that was infuriating.

She was retiring, never wanted her work associated with gender, but did attempt in her 50s to correct misperceptions of her life and work. She taught at the Art School for Women and Girls, and one of her students was Rosa Mayreder, one of the most well-known feminists of the time, who published a wonderful review of her work. Tina Blau responded thus, in a way that breaks my heart a little but emphasises why reviewing people’s work is very important indeed even beyond the highlighting of excellence and the repetitions that ensure work is known and remembered:

…no one has written like you have, and I will read your article again when I am sad and depressed about the lack of success that I was supposed to get used to and that I did get used too: and then I would agree with you, that my way of being carries some of the blame. (37)

A street was named after her. When she died in 1916, numerous celebrations of her life were held, and in 1933 there was a retrospective exhibition.

Then in 1938 all her paintings removed from galleries as she was a Jew. The street name changed, her name was erased. And then there were those constructing the histories of art in this period, influential art critic Julius Maeier-Graefe for example:

A woman with genius? The thought gives one the shivers. Unhealable sickness, a kind of elephantiasis. (26)

Ugh.

Elena Luksch-Makowsky

She had her own signature block as part of secession group of artists — her husband was a member and she worked to all intents and purposes as one also, though without voting rights. She was on their hanging and design committees for the Raumkunst installations, her work always appearing there.

Elena Luksch-Makowsky, signature block and colour woodcut for the catalogue of the 14th exhibition of the Secession, 1902, 56-57. ONB/Vienna 202.262B Neu.Mag
Elena Luksch-Makowsky, signature block and colour woodcut for the catalogue of the 14th exhibition of the Secession, 1902, 56-57. ONB/Vienna 202.262B Neu.Mag

She also participated in art collectives Wiener Kunst im Hause and the Wiener Werkstatte.

Time, 1902, Panel for the 14th Exhibition of the Vienna Secession (Beethoven Exhibition), now destroyed
Time, 1902, Panel for the 14th Exhibition of the Vienna Secession (Beethoven Exhibition), now destroyed

She was responsible for an entire issue of their in-house magazine Ver Sacrum showing her amazing woodcuts — though somehow this is an issue not reproduced in glossy collections. She drew on Russian folktales and stories for these, along with broadsheets and a whole array of crafts. This is one of her more famous paintings, and it is arresting, below is the painting as it was integrated into the 17th secession exhibition:

Elena Luksch-Makowsky, Adolescentia, 1903, Österrieche Galerie Belvedere, Wien
Elena Luksch-Makowsky, Adolescentia, 1903, Österrieche Galerie Belvedere, Wien
Joseph Hoffman, 17th secession exhibition 1903
Joseph Hoffman, 17th secession exhibition 1903

For all of these women, for a time, Johnson argues Vienna was cosmopolitan and diverse and actually did offer possibilities for women working as public artists. Pictures such as this one were celebrated.

Self Portrait with her son Peter
Self Portrait with her son Peter, 1901

And ‘public art’? These wonderful friezes:

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She moved with her husband to Hamburg, and during difficult times of inflation and war, Luksch-Makowsky trapped rabbits, gardened, harvested, made everything at home.

She too excluded from histories — Johnson points out not by the Klimt group itself, but by contemporary historians.

Broncia Koller

…when she was rediscovered in the 1980s, she was described as a “painting housewife”

Johnson writes, yet

…she was a serious artist who presented her work in no fewer than forty-six art exhibitions…

Koller was a member of Klimt’s artist association (Kunstschau group), a founding member of Egon Shiele’s New Secession. She was often to be found at the Cafe Museum with Klimt, Wagner, Moser, Hoffman et al, and noted as one of ‘the greats’ in at least one diary. Her focus was much more on interiority — named by Schorske as

a key component of the aesthetic of Vienna 1900, and links developments in interior design to the psychological discoveries of Freud and innovative interior monologues of Arthur Schnitzler.

Interesting that in the 1980s, the label of domesticity and decoration seen as opposite of modernism — of interiority?  They were seen as secluded, cocooned, away from the outside world and its risks. Away from the crowds. This is a difference between art emerging from Vienna and that of other key centres — for the artists of Vienna, it was all about art in life, art as part of life.

Klimt, in his opening speech for Kunstschau 1908, declared the unity of his group and their belief that:

no area of human life was too insignificant or narrow to offer space for artistic striving, that in the words of Morris, even the most unseemly thing, when it is perfectly made, adds to the beauty of this earth, and that progress in culture is founded on permeating life with artistic intention.

Yay Morris (himself intensely political in this belief, which is also curious in the way that seems to be dropped — a true act of ‘Modernism’?). Interesting too that for Klimt, and prominent critic Bahr, studio space, quiet space was

where reason prevailed, unlike the crowds of the street. In Bahr’s scenario, the interior was gendered as masculine and calm while the exterior figured as feminine and unruly, dominated by the unknowing masses. This is the opposite of the Baudelairean vision of public and private, masculine and feminine domains… (134)

Again to return to the interesting division between this kind of view and its inclusion of craft and decorative detail and that of more traditionally understood ‘Modernism’ (I know I need to dig more here into how other people understand this) as opposed to this, where instead:

the decorative, the add-on, the nonessential, and the detail’ as ‘the foil for Modernism, which was seen as adventurous, daring, out in the world, and an art that is avant-garde, autonomous, essential, and self-critical’

For Koller there was no such binary really. And look at these:

Seated Nude (marietta) 1907
Seated Nude (Marietta) 1907

Johnson writes

The female nude was a genre that allowed the avant-garde to distinguish themselves from conservative artists in the nineteeth century. It became a vehicle for making claims to the new, which Modernist artists often did…

I love this painting, how different this slightly awkward pose, this returned gaze between model and artist — not about sex but just, ‘is this the pose you want?’ Maybe a little, ‘are you done yet?’

How better to challenge the genre? I love this one too:

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 12.54.37 copyThe book looks at how these pictures influence Shiele, Erwin Lang, how influences of women’s art upon men are never acknowledged.

Helene Funke

Funke was part of Matisse’s circle in Paris, lived in an apartment building there with Gertrude and Leon Stein. She enjoyed great success in Vienna, but survived the years of inflation and war by becoming a cleaning lady. Fauvist art is not perhaps my favourite, but she was a brilliant artist on the cutting edge of that tradition working there in Vienna, exhibiting there in Vienna, celebrated in Vienna. Then forgotten.

I love this one though, playfully responding to the art of male gazes and women on display.

Helene-Funke+InTheLoge+1904+Kunstmuseum+Linz

Theresa Ries

Ries’s fortune was made when the emperor himself singled out her statue of ‘The Witch’ during an exhibition, and asked to speak to her. Critics quickly changed their opinions of a female sculptor.

The witch is uncanny and truly splendid.

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 13.25.29 copyHer Eve is beautiful as well.

The Prince of Lichtenstein allowed her to use a grand suite of rooms next to his picture gallery as her studio. Being Jewish, this studio was later plundered, her history erased, and her statues hacked and defaced.

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Better to remember the ugliness of which fascists are capable, but Teresa Ries at her best. Her Lucifer, sculpted years before Rodin’s Thinker:

Lucifer - Teresa Ries

Like here in her studio with Mark Twain.

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There was Olga Wisinger-Florian, an accomplished impressionist painter herself after a career as a pianist was cut short by an injury to her hand. I love this painting:

In the Beer Garden (later retitled Breakfast at Karlsbad), 1895
In the Beer Garden (later retitled Breakfast at Karlsbad), 1895

More women in public space, talking amongst themselves, not being whores. Wisinger-Florian exhibited widely both in Vienna and Europe, and worked tirelessly to promote the exhibition of women’s paintings. With Marianne Eschenberg she formed the ‘8 Women Artists’ in 1901, curating a highly successful exhibition at the Salon Pisko. They would hold annual exhibitions. She was also active in the Association of Women Writers and Artists of Vienna (VSKW) founded in 1885, formed to ‘promote professional interest and eventually to offer a pension plan for women artists in need.’ This parallel the self-help offer of men-only artists unions.

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 09.01.21 copyThere was the Art School of Women and Girls, where Tina Blau and a number of secessionist artists taught. Its graduates formed the Radierclub Wiener Künstlerinnen, or Print Club of Women Artists in 1903, ‘to promote the arts of printmaking in Austria and “win new friends” for the graphic arts by publishing original hand-pulled prints in affordable portfolios.’

I adore their logo.

There was the Association of Women Artists (VBKÖ), founded in 1908 and recognised and supported by the State as an art association. Interestingly, many of the women, both in the exhibitions held by the VBKÖ and ‘8 Women Artists’ felt ambivalent about them, hoping they would act more as a key to opening up the men-only artist groups to women’s membership rather than remaining as separate and gendered institutions. As Johnson writes of the VBKÖ, ‘The group wanted to prove that being separate was a mistake…If the exhibition were successful, the VBKÖ would “no longer be necessary.”‘ (278)

They faced a great challenge, however, despite the success of some in exhibiting alongside men. Above all the strange layers of misogyny floating around Vienna at the time. One of the most curious that of Otto Weininger, who wrote Sex and Character as a thesis that barely passed, but became a huge publishing success in 1903. He had a strange, partly even possibly progressive argument that everyone had some masculine and feminine essence within them through gendered plasma particles coursing through the bloodstream (crikey), but that genius and intellect alone belonged to the male. So successful women ‘were actually dominated by the “M,” or masculine, substance. Something in between a man and a woman.

There were other ideas about how painting was similar to applying makeup, which attracted women to it and defined their painting technique. There is also the narcissism of themselves on display, the love of gaudy colour and fabric. One reviewer of the 1910 retrospective of women’s art described how the pictures seduced the ‘unsuspecting male’.

He credited members of the installation committee with “feminine slyness and clever calculation” in their ability to “capture the visitor…Before a critical word has formed on the lips, a conciliatory, friendly, receptive mood has been awakened in the spectator. (318)

Jesus.

Adolf Loos himself in his polemics against the ornamental and decorative wrote:

Whenever I abuse the object of daily use by ornamenting it, I shorten its life span . . . subject to fashion, it dies sooner. Only the whim and ambition of women can be responsible for the murder of this material. (322)

Which makes you hate him. But then, surprisingly, he also comes around with the argument that:

Ornament is something that must be overcome…But we are approaching a new and greater time. No longer by an appeal to sensuality, but rather by economic independence earned through work will the woman bring about her equal status with the man. The woman’s value or lack of value will no longer fall or rise according to the fluctuation of sensuality. Then velvet and silk, flowers and ribbons, feathers and paint will fail to have their effect. They will disappear. (80)

This conversation ended with the Nazis. Johnson writes by 1945,

approximately three generations of women artists had been — for racist or political reasons, rarely aesthetic ones — erased, driven into exile, deported to concentration camps, their works removed from museum walls and public settings. (337)

This was the destruction of both women’s artwork, and women themselves, as well as the history of women as public artists. Only in 1988 did Austria recognise it was not just a victim of the Nazis, but participated in their cleansings. Given that many of the same collaborating artists, museum personnel and critics continued operating there was little hope of recuperating and recovering women’s art removed from walls and studios, much less that of Jewish women. It seemed that it has been many of their children who have worked hardest to save what could be saved, and to bring their work to the public once again.

The highlighting and constant repetition of certain stories of art in Vienna, the functioning of the memory factory, meant the silencing of others. There is so much here both in terms of extraordinary art, but also around memory and forgetting, historiography, identity… wonderful.

[Johnson, Julie M. (2012) The Memory Factory: The Forgotten Women Artists of Vienna 1900. West Lafayette, IN: Perdue University Press.]

 

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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).

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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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