NATO's Reign of
Terror in Kosovo
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of Terror in Kosovo
In occupied Kosovo, the massacres
directed against Serbs, ethnic Albanians, Roma and other ethnic groups
have been conducted on the instructions of the military command of the
Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Yet because NATO ostensibly denies KLA involvement,
these so-called "unmotivated acts of violence and retaliation" are not
categorised as "war crimes" and are therefore not included in the mandate
of the numerous FBI and Interpol police investigators dispatched to Kosovo
under the auspices of the Hague War Crimes Tribunal (ICTY). Moreover, whereas
NATO has tacitly endorsed the self-proclaimed KLA provisional government,
KFOR--the international security force in Kosovo--has provided protection
to the KLA military commanders responsible for the atrocities. In so doing,
both NATO and the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) have acquiesced to the massacres
In turn, public opinion has been
blatantly misled. In portraying the massacres, the western media have casually
overlooked the role of the KLA, not to mention its pervasive links to organised
crime. In the words of National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, "these
people [ethnic Albanians] come back ... with broken hearts and with some
of those hearts filled with anger."1 While
the massacres are seldom presented as the result of "deliberate decisions"
by the KLA military command, the evidence (and history of the KLA) amply
confirm that these atrocities are part of a policy of "ethnic cleansing"
directed mainly against the Serb population, but also against the Roma,
Montenegrins, Goranis, and Turks.
Assassinations: NATO Complicity
Under NATO's regency, the KLA has
also ordered assassinations of political opponents, including "loyalist"
ethnic Albanians and supporters of the Kosovo Democratic League (KDL),
headed by Ibrahim Rugova. The KLA has also abducted and killed numerous
professionals and intellectuals. These acts--ordered by the self-proclaimed
Provisional Government of Kosovo (PGK)--are being carried out in a totally
permissive environment. The leaders of the KLA, rather than being arrested
for war crimes, have been granted KFOR protection.
In May, Fehmi Agani, one of Rugova's
closest collaborators in the KDL, was killed. The Serbs were blamed by
NATO spokesperson Jamie Shea for having assassinated Agani. But according
to the Skopje, Macedonia, paper Makedonija Danas, Agani had been executed
on the orders of the KLA's self-appointed Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci.2
"If Thaci actually considered Rugova a threat, he would not hesitate to
have Rugova removed from the Kosovo political landscape."3
Both NATO and the UN prefer to turn
a blind eye. UN Interim Administrator Bernard Kouchner (a former French
Minister of Health) and KFOR Commander Sir Mike Jackson have established
a routine working relationship with Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and KLA
Chief of Staff Brigadier General Agim Ceku.
As western leaders trumpet their
support for democracy, state terrorism in Kosovo has become an integral
part of NATO's post-war design. The KLA's political role for the post-conflict
period had been carefully mapped out well in advance. Prior to the Rambouillet
Conference February  the KLA had been promised a central role in
the formation of a post-conflict government. The "hidden agenda" consisted
of converting the KLA paramilitary into a legitimate and accomplished civilian
administration. "'We want to develop a good relationship with them [the
KLA] as they transform themselves into a politically oriented organisation,
... [W]e can provide [help] to them if they become precisely the kind of
political actor we would like to see them become.'"4
In other words, Washington had already
slated the KLA "provisional government" (PGK) to run civilian state institutions.
Under NATO's "Indirect Rule," the KLA has taken over municipal governments
and public services including schools and hospitals. Rame Buja, the KLA
"Minister for Local Administration," has appointed local prefects in 23
out of 25 municipalities.5
The self-proclaimed KLA administration
has largely been upheld by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation
in Europe (OSCE) entrusted by UNMIK with the post-war task of "democracy-building"
and "good governance." In turn, OSCE officials have already established
a working rapport with their KLA counterparts.6
The PGK is made up of the KLA's political wing together with the Democratic
Union Movement (LBD), a coalition of five opposition parties opposed to
Rugova's Democratic League (LDK). In addition to the position of prime
minister, the KLA controls the ministries of finance, public order and
defence. The KLA has a controlling voice on the UN-sponsored Kosovo Transitional
Council set up by Bernard Kouchner. The PGK has also established links
with a number of western governments.
Under NATO occupation, the rule
of law has visibly been turned upside down. Criminals and terrorists are
to become law-enforcement officers. KLA troops--which have already taken
over police stations--will eventually form a 4,000-strong "civilian" police
force (to be trained by foreign police officers under the authority of
the UN) with a mandate to "protect civilians." Canadian Prime Minister
Jean Chretien has already pledged Canadian support to the formation of
a civilian police force.7 This force--which
has been entrusted to the OSCE--will eventually operate under the jurisdiction
of the KLA-controlled Ministry of Public Order.
Despite NATO's commitment to disarming
the KLA, the Kosovar paramilitary organisation is slated to be transformed
into a modem military force. So-called "security assistance" has already
been granted to the KLA by the US Congress under the Kosovar Independence
and Justice Act of 1999. Start-up funds of $20 million will largely be
"used for training and support for their [KLA] established self-defence
forces" modelled on the US National Guard.8
While the KLA maintains its links
to the Balkan narcotics trade that financed many of its terrorist activities,
the paramilitary organisation has now been granted an official seal of
approval as well as "legitimate" sources of funding. The pattern is similar
to that followed in Croatia and in the Bosnian Muslim-Croatian Federation
where so-called "equip and train" programs were put together by the Pentagon.
In turn, Washington's military aid package to the KLA has been entrusted
to Military Professional Resources, Inc.(MPRl), of Alexandria, Virginia,
a private mercenary outfit run by high-ranking former US military officers.9
MPRI's training concepts--which had
already been tested in Croatia and Bosnia--are based on imparting "offensive
tactics ... as the best form of defence." In the Kosovar context, this
so-called "defensive doctrine" transforms the KLA paramilitary into a modem
army without, however, eliminating its terrorist make-up.10
The ultimate objective is to transform an insurgent army into a modern
military armed police force which serves the Alliance's future strategic
objectives in the Balkans. MPRI has currently "ninety-one highly experienced,
former military professionals working in Bosnia & Herzegovina."11
The number of military officers working on contract with the KLA has not
Croatian General Heads KLA
The massacres of civilians in Kosovo
are not disconnected acts of revenge by civilians or by so-called "rogue
elements" within the KLA, as claimed by NATO and the United Nations. They
are part of a consistent and coherent pattern. The intent (and result)
of the KLA-sponsored atrocities has been to trigger the ethnic cleansing
of Serbs, Roma, and other minorities in Kosovo.
KLA Commander Agim Ceku, referring
to the killings of 14 villagers at Gracko on July 24, claimed that: "We
[the KLA] do not know who did it, but I sincerely believe these people
have nothing to do with the KLA."12 In turn,
KFOR Lieutenant General Sir Mike Jackson has commended his KLA counterpart,
Commander Ceku, for "efforts undertaken" to disarm the KLA. In fact, very
few KLA weapons have been handed in. Moreover, the deadline for turning
in KLA weaponry has been extended. "I do not regard this as non-compliance"
said Jackson in a press conference, "but rather as an indication of the
seriousness with which General Ceku is taking this important issue."13
Yet what Jackson failed to mention
was that Commander Ceku (though never indicted as a war criminal) was,
according to Jane's Defence Weekly (June 10, 1999) "one of the key planners
of the successful Operation Storm.... led by the Croatian Armed Forces
against Krajina Serbs in 1995. General Jackson--who had served in Croatia
and Bosnia under the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR)--was fully
cognisant of the activities of the Croatian High Command during that period,
including the responsibilities imparted to General Ceku. In February 1999,
barely a month prior to the NATO bombings, Ceku left his position as Brigadier
General with the Croatian Armed Forces to join the KLA as Commander-in-Chief.
An internal report of the Hague
War Crimes Tribunal (leaked to the New York Times) confirmed that the Croatian
Army had been responsible for carrying out "summary executions, indiscriminate
shelling of civilian populations, and 'ethnic cleansing' in the Krajina
region of Croatia ...Operation Storm resulted in the massacre of several
hundred civilians in the course of a three day operation (August 4 to 7,
1995)."14 The massacres set the stage for
the ethnic cleansing of more than 200,000 Krajina Serbs.
In a section of the controversial
leaked ICTY document, The Indictment: Operation Storm, A Prima Facie Case,
the Tribunal inquiry confirms that:
During the course of the military
offensive, the Croatian armed forces and special police committed numerous
violations of international humanitarian law including but not limited
to, shelling of Knin and other cities... During, and in the 100 days following
the military offensive, at least 150 Serb civilians were summarily executed,
and many hundreds disappeared... In a widespread and systematic manner,
Croatian troops committed murder and other inhumane acts upon and against
US Generals For Hire
The internal 150-page document concluded
that the ICTY has "sufficient material to establish that the three [Croatian]
generals who commanded the military operation" could be held accountable
under international law.16 The individuals
named had been directly involved in the military operation "in theater."
Those involved in "the planning of Operation Storm" were not mentioned:
The identity of the "American general"
referred to by Fenrick [a Tribunal staff member] is not known. The tribunal
would not allow Williamson or Fenrick to be interviewed. But Ms. Arbour,
the tribunal's chief prosecutor, suggested in a telephone interview last
week that Fenrick's comment had been 'a joking observation'. Ms. Arbour
had not been present during the meeting, and that is not how it was viewed
by some who were there. Several people who were at the meeting assumed
that Fenrick was referring to one of the retired US generals who worked
for Military Professional Resources Inc.... Questions remain about the
full extent of US involvement. In the course of the three-year investigation
into the assault, the United States has failed to provide critical evidence
requested by the tribunal, according to tribunal documents and officials,
adding to suspicion among some there that Washington is uneasy about the
investigation.... The Pentagon, however, has argued through US lawyers
at the tribunal that the shelling was a legitimate military activity, according
to tribunal documents and officials.17
The Tribunal was attempting to hide
what had already been disclosed in several press reports published in the
wake of Operation Storm. According to a US State Department spokesman,
MPRI had been helping the Croatians "avoid excesses or atrocities in military
operations."18 Fifteen senior US military
advisers headed by retired two-star General Richard Griffiths had been
dispatched to Croatia barely seven months before Operation Storm.19
According to one report, MPRI executive director General Carl E. Vuono
"held a secret top-level meeting at Brioni Island, off the coast of Croatia,
with Gen. Varimar Cervenko, the architect of the Krajina campaign. In the
five days preceding the attack, at least ten meetings were held between
General Vuono and officers involved in the campaign...."20
According to Ed Soyster, a senior
MPRI executive and former head of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA)
(interviewed by Time in early 1996):
MPRI's role in Croatia is limited
to classroom instruction on military-civil relations and doesn't involve
training in tactics or weapons. Other US military men say whatever MPRI
did for the Croats--and many suspect more than classroom instruction was
involved--it was worth every penny. "Carl Vuono and Butch [Crosbie] Saint
are hired guns and in it for the money," says Charles Boyd, a recently
retired four-star Air Force general who was the Pentagon's No. 2 man in
Europe until July . "They did a very good job for the Croats, and
I have no doubt they'll do a good job in Bosnia."21
The Hague Tribunal's Cover-up
The untimely leaking of the HCTY's
internal report on the Krajina massacres barely a few days before the onslaught
of NATO's air raids on Yugoslavia was the source of some embarrassment
to the Tribunal's Chief Prosecutor, Louise Arbour. The Tribunal attempted
to cover up the matter and trivialise the report's findings (including
the alleged role of the US military officers on contract with the Croatian
Armed Forces). Several Tribunal officials including American lawyer Clint
Williamson sought to discredit the testimony of Canadian peacekeeping officers
who witnessed the Krajina massacres in 1995.
Williamson, who described the shelling
of Knin as a "minor incident," said that the Pentagon had told him that
Knin was a legitimate military target.... The [Tribunal's] review concluded
by voting not to include the shelling of Knin in any indictment, a conclusion
that stunned and angered many at the tribunal.22
The findings of the Tribunal contained
in the leaked ICTY documents were down-played, their relevance was casually
dismissed as "expressions of opinion, arguments, and hypotheses from various
staff members of the OTP during the investigative process." According to
the Tribunal's spokesperson "the documents do not represent in any way
the concluded decisions of the Prosecutor."23
The report has not been released.
The staff member who had leaked the documents is (according to a Croatian
TV report) no longer working for the Tribunal. During the press conference,
the Tribunal's spokesman was asked "about the consequences for the person
who leaked the information. Blewitt [the ICTY spokesman] replied that he
did not want to go into that. He said that the OTP would strengthen the
existing procedures to prevent this from happening again; however he added
that you could not stop people from talking."24
Prior to the onslaught, Croatian
radio had broadcast a message by president Franjo Tudjman calling upon
"Croatian citizens of Serbian ethnicity ... to remain in their homes and
not to fear the Croatian authorities which will respect their minority
rights."25 While US military officers were
on hand advising the Croatian High Command, Canadian peacekeepers of the
Royal 22nd Regiment witnessed in theatre the atrocities committed by Croatian
troops in the Krajina offensive of September 1995: "Any Serbs who had failed
to evacuate their property were systematically 'cleansed' by roving death
squads. Every abandoned animal was slaughtered and any Serb household was
ransacked and torched."26
The 1993 Medak Massacre
According to Jane's Defence Weekly
(June 10,1999), Brigadier General Agim Ceku (now in charge of the KLA)
had also "masterminded the successful HV [Croatian Army] offensive at Medak"
in September 1993. In Medak, the combat operation was entitled "Scorched
Earth", resulting in the total destruction of the Serbian villages of Divoselo,
Pocitelj, and Citluk, and the massacre of over I00 civilians.27
These massacres were also witnessed
by Canadian peacekeepers under UN mandate:
As the sun rose over the horizon,
it revealed a Medak Valley engulfed in smoke and flames. As the frustrated
soldiers of 2PPCLI waited for the order to move forward into the pocket,
shots and screams still rang out as the ethnic cleansing continued....
About 20 members of the international press had tagged along, anxious to
see the Medak battleground. Calvin [a Canadian officer] called an informal
press conference at the head of the column and loudly accused the Croats
of trying to hide war Crimes against the Serb inhabitants. The Croats started
withdrawing back to their old lines, taking with them whatever loot they
hadn't destroyed.... French reconnaissance troops and the Canaclian command
element pushed up the valley and soon began to find bodies of Serb civilians
Some already decomposing, others freshly slaughtered.... Finally, on the
drizzly morning of Sept. 17, teams of UN civilian police arrived to probe
the smouldering ruins for murder victims. Rotting corpses lying out in
the open were catalogued, then turned over to the peacekeepers for burial.28
The massacres were reported to the
Canadian Minister of Defence and to the United Nations:
Senior defence bureaucrats back
in Ottawa had no way of predicting the outcome of the engagement in terms
of political fallout. To them, there was no point in calling media attention
to a situation that might easily backfire... So Medak was relegated to
the memory hole--no publicity, no recriminations, no official record. Except
for those soldiers involved, Canada's most lively military action since
the Korean War simply never happened.29
NATO's "Post-conflict Agenda"
Both the Medak Pocket massacre and
Operation Storm bear a direct relationship to the ongoing situation in
Kosovo and the massacres and ethnic cleansing committed by KLA troops.
While the circumstances are markedly different, several of today's key
actors in Kosovo were involved (under the auspices of the Croatian Armed
Forces) in the planning of both these operations. Moreover, the US mercenary
outfit MPRI, which collaborated with the Croatian Armed Forces in 1995,
is currently on contract with the KLA. NATO's casual response to the appointment
of Brigadier General Agim Ceku as KLA Chief of Staff was communicated by
Mr. Jamie Shea in a press briefing in May: "I have always made it clear,
and you have heard me say this, that NATO has no direct contacts with the
KLA. Who they appoint as their leaders, that is entirely their own affair
I don't have any comment on that whatever."30
While NATO says it "has no direct
contacts with the KLA," the evidence confirms the opposite. Amply documented,
KLA terrorism has been installed with NATO's tacit approval. The KLA had
(according to several reports) been receiving "covert support" and training
from the CIA and Germany's Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) since the mid-nineties.
Moreover. MPRI collaboration with the KLA predates the onslaught of the
The building up of KLA forces was
part of NATO planning. By mid-1998, "covert support" had been replaced
by official ("overt") support by the military alliance, in violation of
several UN Security Council resolutions. NATO officials, western heads
of State and heads of government, and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan,
not to mention ICTY chief prosecutor Louise Arbour, were fully cognisant
of General Ceku's involvement in the planning of Operation Storm and Operation
Scorched Earth. Canadian Major General Lewis McKenzie, who served under
the UN, confirmed that "the same officer who masterminded the 1993 Medak
offensive in Croatia that saw Canadian soldiers using deadly force to stop
horrendous atrocities against Serb civilians [had also] ordered the overrunning
of lightly armed UN outposts, in blatant contravention of international
law. His influence within the KLA does not augur well for its trustworthiness
during Kosovo's political evolution."32 Surely,
some Questions should have been asked.
Yet what is shaping up visibly in
the wake of the bombings in Kosovo is the continuity of NATO's operation
in the Balkans. Alongside the transfer of General Ceku to Kosovo, NATO
military personnel and UN bureaucrats previously stationed in Croatia and
Bosnia have also been routinely reassigned to Kosovo.
KFOR Commander Mike Jackson had
been routinely assigned to Kosovo following his stint in Bosnia-Herzegovina
and Croatia. His experience in "ethnic warfare," however, predates the
Balkans. From his earlier posting in Northern Ireland as a young Captain,
Jackson was second in command in the "Bloody Sunday" massacre of civilians
in Derry in 1972. Under the orders of Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford,
Captain Jackson and 13 other soldiers of his parachute regiment opened
fire "on a peaceful protest by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association
opposing discrimination against Catholics. In just 30 minutes, 13 people
were shot dead and a further 13 injured. Those who died were killed by
a single bullet to the head or body, indicating that they had been deliberately
targeted. No weapons were found on any of the deceased."33
Jackson's ignominious role in Bloody
Sunday did not hinder his military career from Northern Ireland in the
1970s and 1980s, he was reassigned to the theatre of ethnic warfare in
the Balkans. In the immediate wake of Operation Storm and the ethnic massacres
in Krajina, Jackson was put in charge as IFOR Commander for organising
the return of Serbs "to lands taken by Croatian HVO forces in the 1995
Krajina offensive."34 And in this capacity
General Jackson had "urged that the resettlement [of Krajina Serbs] not
[be] rushed to avoid tension [with the Croatians]," while also warning
returning Serbs "of the extent of the [land] mine threat."35
In retrospect, recalling the events of early 1996, very few Krajina Serbs
were allowed to return to their homes under the protection of the UN. According
to Veritas, a Belgrade-based organisation of Serbian refugees from Croatia,
some ten to fifteen thousand Serbs were able to resettle in Croatia.
And a similar process is unfolding
in Kosovo. The conduct of senior military officers (including Jackson and
Ceku) conforms to a consistent pattern; the same key individuals and the
same US mercenary outfit are now involved in Kosovo. While token efforts
are displayed to protect Serb and Roma civilians, those who have fled Kosovo
are not encouraged to return under UN protection. In post-war Kosovo, ethnic
cleansing implemented by the KLA has largely been accepted by the international
community as a fait accompli.
Moreover, while calling for democracy
and "good governance" in the Balkans, the US and its allies have installed
in Kosovo a paramilitary government with links to organised crime. The
foreseeable outcome is the outright criminalization of civilian state institutions
and the establishment of what is best described as a Mafia State. The complicity
of NATO and the alliance governments (namely their relentless support to
the KLA) points to the de facto criminalization of KFOR and of the UN peacekeeping
apparatus in Kosovo. The donor agencies and governments providing financial
support to the KLA (including funds approved by the US Congress in violation
of several UN Security Council resolutions) are, in this regard, also accessories
to the de facto criminalization of state institutions. Through the intermediation
of a paramilitary group (created and financed by Washington and Bonn),
NATO ultimately bears the burden of responsibility for the massacres and
ethnic cleansing of civilians in Kosovo.
Terror And The Market
State terror and the free market
seem to go hand in hand. The concurrent criminalization of state institutions
in Kosovo is not incompatible with the West's economic and strategic objectives
in the Balkans. Notwithstanding the massacres of civilians, the self-proclaimed
KLA administration has committed itself to establishing a "secure and stable
environment" for foreign investors and international financial institutions.
The Minister of Finance Adem Grobozci and other representatives of the
provisional government invited to various donor conferences are all KLA
appointees. In contrast, members of the KDL of Ibrahim Rugova (duly elected
in parliamentary elections) were not even invited to attend the Stabilization
Summit in Sarajevo in late July.
"Free market reforms" are envisaged
for Kosovo under the supervision of the Bretton Woods institutions largely
replicating the structures of the Rambouillet Agreement. Article 1 (Chapter
4a) of the Rambouillet Agreement stipulated that: "The economy of Kosovo
shall function in accordance with free market principles." The KLA government
will largely be responsible for implementing these reforms and ensuring
that loan conditionalities are met.
In close liaison with NATO, the
Bretton Woods institutions had already analysed the consequences of an
eventual military intervention leading to the military occupation of Kosovo.
Almost a year prior to the beginning of the war, the World Bank conducted
"simulations" which "anticipated the possibility of an emergency scenario
arising out of the tensions in Kosovo."36
The eventual "reconstruction" of
Kosovo financed by international debt largely purports to transfer Kosovo's
extensive wealth in mineral resources and coal to multinational capital.
In this regard, the KLA has already occupied (pending their privatisation)
the largest coal mine at Belacevac in Dobro Selo, northwest of Pristina.
In turn, foreign capital has its eyes rivetted on the massive Trepca mining
complex which constitutes "the most valuable piece of real estate in the
Balkans, worth at least $5 billion."37 The
Trebca complex not only includes copper and large reserves of zinc, but
also cadmium, gold, and silver. It has several smelting plants, 17 metal
treatment sites, a power plant and Yugoslavia's largest battery plant.
Northern Kosovo also has estimated reserves of 17 billion tons of coal
In the wake of the bombings, the
management of many of the state-owned enterprises and public utilities
were taken over by KLA appointees. In turn, the leaders of the Provisional
Government of Kosovo (PGK) have become the brokers of multinational capital,
committed to handing over the Kosovar economy at bargain prices to foreign
investors. The IMF's lethal economic therapy will be imposed, the provincial
economy will be dismantled, agriculture will be deregulated, local industrial
enterprises which have not been totally destroyed will be driven into bankruptcy.
The most profitable state assets
will eventually be transferred into the hands of foreign capital under
the World Bank-sponsored privatisation program. "Strong economic medicine"
imposed by external creditors will contribute to further boosting a criminal
economy (already firmly implanted in Albania) which feeds on poverty and
Moreover, the so-called reconstruction
of the Balkans by foreign capital will signify multi-billion dollar contracts
to foreign firms to rebuild Kosovo's infrastructure. More generally, the
proposed Marshall Plan for the Balkans financed by the World Bank and the
European Development Bank (EBRD) as well as private creditors will largely
benefit western mining, petroleum and construction companies while fuelling
the region's external debt well into the third millennium.
And Kosovo is slated to reimburse
this debt through the laundering of dirty money. Yugoslav banks in Kosovo
will be closed down, the banking system will be deregulated under the supervision
of western financial institutions. Narco-dollars from the multi-billion
dollar Balkans drug trade will be recycled toward servicing the external
debt as well as financing the costs of reconstruction. The lucrative flow
of narco-dollars thus ensures that foreign investors involved in the reconstruction
program will be able to reap substantial returns. In turn, the existence
of a Kosovar narco-State ensures the orderly reimbursement of international
donors and creditors. The latter are prepared to turn a blind eye. They
have a tacit vested interest in installing a government which facilitates
the laundering of drug money.
The pattern in Kosovo is, in this
regard, similar to that observed in neighbouring Albania. Since the early
1990s (culminating with the collapse of the financial pyramids in 1996-97),
the IMF's reforms have impoverished the Albanian population while spearheading
the national economy into bankruptcy. The IMF's deadly economic therapy
transforms countries into open territories. In Albania, and to a lesser
extent Macedonia, it has also contributed to fostering the growth of illicit
trade and the criminalization of state institutions.
1. PBS, Jim Lehrer Newsmaker Interview,
July 26 1999.
2. Tanjug Press Dispatch, May 14,
3. "Rugova Faced with a Choice of
Two Losses," Stratfor, July 29, 1999
4. New York Times, Feb. 2, 1999.
5. Financial Times (London), Aug.
6. See OSCE Mission in Kosovo, Decision
305, Permanent Council, 237th Plenary Meeting, PC Journal No. 237, Agenda
item 2, Vienna, July 1, 1999.
7. Statement at Sarajevo Summit,
July 31, 1999.
8. House Resolution 1425, Apr. 15,
9. Phillip Sherwell, "SAS teams
move in to help KLA 'rise from the ashes,'" Sunday Telegraph (London),
Apr. 18, 1999.
10. See Tammy Arbucki, "Building
a Bosnian Army,". Jane's lnternational Defence Review, Aug 1997.
11. Military Professional Resources,
lnc., "Personnel Needs," http://www.mpri.com/current/personnel.htm.
12. Associated Press (AP).
14. Quoted in Raymond Bonner, "War
Crimes Panel Finds Croat Troops Cleansed the Serbs," New York Times, Mar.
21, 1999. The actual number of civilians killed or missing was much larger.
17. Bonner, op. cit., n. 14.
18. Ken Silverstein, "Privatizing
War," The Nation, July 27, 1997.
19. See Mark Thompson, et al., "Generals
for Hire," Time, Jan.15, 1996, p.34.
20. Quoted in Silverstein, op cit.,
21. op cit., n. 19.
22. Bonner, op. cit., n. 14.
23. lCTY Weekly Press Briefing,
Mar. 24, 1999.
25. Slobodna Dalmacija, Split, Croatia,
Aug. 5, 1996.
26. Scott Taylor and Brian Nolan,
The Sunday Sun (Toronto), Nov. 2, 1998.
27. See Memorandum on the Violation
or the Human and Civil Rights or the Serbian People in the Republic of
28. Excerpts from a book by Scott
Taylor and Brian Nolan published in the Toronto Sun, Nov. 1, 1998.
30. NATO Press Briefing, May 14,
31. For further details, see Michel
Chossudovsky, "Kosovo 'Freedom Fighters' Financed by Organized Crime,"
Covert Action Quarterly, No. 67 (SpringSummer 1999), pp. 20-25.
32. Lewis McKenzie, "Soldier's View:
Nato Should Disarm the KLA 'Before It's Too Late,"' Vancouver Sun, June
33. Julie Hyland, "Head of NATO
force in Kosovo was second-in-command at 'Bloody Sunday' massacre in lreland."
World Socialist Web Site, June 19, 1999.
34. Jane's Defence Weekly, Vol.
25, No. 7, Feb. 14, 1996.
36. World Bank Development News,
Washington, D.C., Apr. 27, 1999.
37. Chris Hedges, "Below It All
in Kosovo, A War's Glittering Prize," New York Times, July 8, 1998.
The Academy Awards
The New American Cinema
John Lewis, ed. £56.95/£18.95
Duke University Press
In four sections: Movies and Money;
Cinema and Culture and lastly Independents and independence this is thirteen
essays from thirteen academics. Presumably it had no descending hierarchy
in mind, nor were they superstitious.
Funnily enough, the Academy in the
old days justified itself as something to be taken seriously by a kind
of morality of standards. It was all bound up with Religion. In the UK
this dates back to the inception of our oldest schools of learning and
religious characters such as Wycliffe and a theocratic approach. The process
of evaluation of evidence grew with scientific rationalism to mirror that
of the courts: opposing opinion being assayed and the different sides treated
with impartiality. At some point the blindfold comes off and the sword
of truth (a metaphor borrowed from the New Testament) divides, usually
wrongly, but not in such a manner as to call the higher processes (i.e.
conveniently God's) into question. But it was all about money really.
Today's experience tells us that
we can assume nothing with academic credentials. Many fine people may work
there but all manner of creatures end up in colleges and universities,
which are magnets for people with no talent just as Childrens' Homes are
magnets for abusers.
Several species of crackpot ideas
and foul gibberish pervade the educational institutions. Most people would
hold up film theory as harbouring particularly socially and intellectually
useless notions with which we can have no faith. What tends now to get
put on offer is an unconscious hierarchy of deranged standards as a prop
for little more than laughable attempts at self promotion.
Yes good old Money in the form of
Box office gross is a common enough determinant--even in the pretend egalitarian
world of college professors--of evaluative criteria, and surfaces throughout
the book. With the first paragraph of his own contribution, the editor
of the collection, Jon Lewis takes the trouble to illustrate (with some
crocodile tears) an aspect of film-making which he seems a little shocked
"The system stinks. It's fed by
greed and ego...[Hollywood has] been changing and always in the same direction,
which is more about money and much less about what movies are. I hate it,
I hate it. But you can't ignore it. As much as you keep reminding yourself
with the mantra, "It's all about the movies; it's about the movies," it's
about the money.
Joe Roth, Chairman Disney Film Division"
So not all about cuddly little fluffy
bunnies then. Lewis' own contribution, in its serious focus on the Corporate
junk-bond financed leveraged mergers and acquisition era of the 80s traces
roots back to the intrigue surrounding the combination of so-called Paramount
decision (ostensibly to promote free trade) and the Hollywood blacklist
(to restrict filthy pinkos trading). This is all pretty well-trodden ground
by now. Cue Ronnie Reagan as the front man for the Screen Actors Guild
joining with management to implement the ban against some of its members
in the 50s, then cut to a flash forward as he unleashes 'Reaganomics' fronting
for much the same crew of gangsters.
With the second section what each
author determines to be cultural currency at times stretches into some
far-fetched notions of value and relevance. With the third: well in its
idealism all our hopes lie.
The wisdom of illustrating his theories
by choosing the first Rambo movie as the 'locus classicus' of 'The Male
Rampage Film' is not clear to me in Fred Pfeil's essay of the same name
in the second section. His logic squirms uncomfortably, simply because
'First Blood' doesn't particularly fit the bi-polar thesis he slavishly
tries to impose:
"...the mass audience for Hollywood
product in the 1970s was offered a choice between two kinds of anti-establishment
film: a "left" version, in which the protagonist uncovers an evil conspiracy
of power elites and is usually defeated and killed before he can publisize
or contest it in any effective way (Chinatown, 1974; The Parallax View,
1974); and a "right" version, in which the established authorities are
so corrupt or impotent that they leave the hero no choice but to wage his
own war against the scum who threaten him, his family, and All That Is
Decent from below (Dirty Harry, 1972; Walking Tall, 1973). If so, Rambo;
First Blood was one of the first movies of the 80s to dream these two sides
or cycles together and thus to offer us the sight of a downscale, deauthorized
figure going native ...Stallone as canny proto-Indian "savage"..."
The exception does not prove a rule.
Later Pfiel takes all the Rambo films to be the same thing, yet the fact
is the first Rambo movie is qualitatively different from the sequels. His
theorizing is meaningless. Leaving aside the fact that the hero does contest
in an effective way and that he has no family, First Blood (1982) was directed
by Ted Kotcheff, with writing credits David Morrell (who wrote the novel)
and Michael Kozoll. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) was directed
by George P. Cosmatos with writing credits for Kevin Jarre (story) and
Sylvester Stallone. Rambo III (1988) was directed by our own Peter MacDonald
with writing credits Sheldon Lettich, Sylvester Stallone (the source is
It would seem to me that Sly cleverly
took the brand name (you feel like reminding Pheil that Rambo isn't real)
and started writing according to a more commercial logic to fit with the
All the films bearing the Rambo
brand are tainted because of old Ronnie again, who happened to mention
his admiration for one of the later films and how he would like to adopt
some of the character's approach to foreign policy/murdering people. It
could be that Reagan 'thought' this one up himself, but it is more likely
that his speech writers (and/or campaign managers) were trying to appeal
to the bloodlust of their imaginary Joe Six-pack voter. The stupid amount
of attention given to it probably diverted media attention away from the
litany of crimes being committed by Oliver North and the gang.
The first movie starts on about
Agent Orange and how it slowly killed Rambo's black buddy from The Nam,
the main character spends most of the time shooting at the Cops and the
National Guard and at the end of the movie our tough hero breaks down blubbering
about the mind shattering horrors of war--but Pfeil casually places it along
side the bally-ho of Reagan's re-election in the mid-80s, saying he will
analyse it later, but never gets around to explaining the contradiction
in terms of his argument. The sources cited for his line of thought are
sparse and clearly not up-to-date. He is just prejudiced against Rambo--first
he feigns intellectual detachment then promises intelligent analysis, later
just referring to the film as 'obnoxious' (p 172).
In the early 80s when a spate of
violent action adventures were successfully mass-marketed they were ignored
by academia who criticised their audience as trash watching gratuitous
trash which would numb their minds and make them violent. Eventually feeling
left out and never ones to miss out on self-indulgence, gratuitous trash
suddenly became suitable for pseudo-intellectualisation and we had all
these bores going on about semiotics in Terminator and feminist theory
in Alien 2.
On the more comfortable subject
of Die Hard Pheil starts to provide us with a Greimasian rectangle (a wee
diagram). Presumably you print it out on acetate and hang it over the screen
while you're watching the movie. We'll leave him to it.
But the premium grade film theory
gibberish is purveyed by Tania Modleski. Her essay "a Rose Is a Rose?"
demolishes the terms surely and purely in its opening line:
"If there ever was a purely masculine
genre, it is surely the war film."
So what about the brilliance of
Larissa Shepitko's "The Ascent." Modleski's first footnote states that
she is for hire while boasting about some huge endowment she has just received.
Now we know what she is we can haggle about the price.
To make things surely and purely
preposterous the article is predicated on a quote from Gilbert Adair which
she thinks is a 'thoughtful critique' (here's that surely again):
"It is surely time that film-makers
learned that the meticulous detailed aping of an atrocity is an atrocity;
that the hyper-realistic depiction of an obscenity cannot avoid being contaminated
with that obscenity; and that the unmediated representation of violence
constitutes in itself an act of violence against the spectator."
Yes the map is the territory. Modleski
then goes on to do what she and Gilbert find so distasteful in others--meticulous
detailed aping. Let me commit an act of violence by quoting her:
"Thus, since "being there" has so
far been out of the question for women (who are prohibited from combat),
their authority on any issue related to war is discredited from the outset,
and insofar as they may be inclined to question or oppose war (except in
and on the terms granted them by men), they find themselves consigned to
the ranks of the always already defeated."
This type of perversity enhances
the victimisation of women and she is factually wrong on a prohibition
against women being in combat. Pathetically so, although the article is
about 'Vietnam films' it escapes her notice that many women fought and
died in the NVA; similarly Russian armed forces contained women--indeed
perhaps the most symbolic act of World War 2 was the planting of the Soviet
flag on the Reichstag building: an act bravely completed by a female Soviet
To Modleski all 'Vietnam films'
are intrinsically evil. Speaking of Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of
"Here we see an example of the commonplace
phenomenon in Vietnam films in which exploited people (in this instance,
the prostitutes) are further exploited by the films themselves for the
symbolic value that they hold for the hero. Thus do the films perpetuate
the social and cultural insensitivity that led to America's involvement
in the war and the atrocities committed there."
Imagine believing that someone acting
the part of a prostitute in a film is the same as a human catastrophe on
the scale of the Vietnam war. Modleski's pathetic revisions, with a slender
grasp of reality are of no use to anyone: male, female or somewhere in
between. On this evidence she is only capable of trying to infect other
minds with imprecise thought delivered with the insouciant arrogance of
someone who has been getting away with it for too long.
Christopher Sharrett's analysis
of the reactionary responses to Stone's JFK contains stimulating, well-researched
material expressing legitimate concern with America's 'Deep Politics'--the
clandestine institutional political culture:
"Garrison's investigation was roundly
condemned not for legal impropriety, but for its assertions about the legitimacy
of the state. Perhaps more important, this investigation (and those of
many independent researchers) ultimately forces us into a reassessment
of some commonly and blithely held assumptions about the political-economic
order. Students of this matter cannot help but intuit John Dewey's assertion
that government is but the shadow cast by business, thus assassinations,
coups, and other forms of political violence flow from economic assumptions.
Garrison's later writing placed the JFK assassination within the context
of the CIA support of coups in Guatemala, Iran, Chile, the Congo, and elsewhere;
this work, largely unknown to Stone's audience, stands with the most important
progressive indictments of the real dynamics of contemporary state power
as it serves specific class interests. Stone's adaptation of Garrison's
work prompted media commentators to suggest that further conspiracy talk
might push a nation already suffering a profound legitimation crisis into
Sharrett was one of the consultants
to the US Congress' House select Committee on assassinations and is a much
needed saner voice than some of the psychobabble. It is a fair analysis
of Stone's work. It frees and opens up the implications--more is known now
about the reality of the US political culture and covert alliances of the
early 60s--of the dogged persistence of investigative journalists. That
this should find an expression in mass audience movies was too much for
the majority of commentators working for big business/the US press. And
it is also refreshing to see someone challenge the commonplace American
waking dream that the crimes associated with state power are so huge and
entrenched that they can only be taken as normality.
"...research shows that Shaw was
far more than an international businessman giving the odd tip to the CIA,
nor was he merely the shadowy protector, a la Monks in Oliver Twist, observing
the Ferrie/Banister gang of young anticommunist, anti-civil rights provocateurs,
which is the main role that the film ascribes to him. Cumulative study,
including work done by the Italian and Canadian media, suggests that Shaw
worked for U.S. intelligence since his service on the staff of General
Charles Thrasher, deputy commander of the Western theater of operations
during World War II. There is compelling evidence that Thrasher and Shaw
were among the U.S. army officers and other officials responsible for constructing
Operation Paperclip, which created the "rat lines" central to the migration
of nazi military brass, intelligence officials, and scientists, including
Reinhard Gehlen, who orchestrated the "Gehlen Org," a powerful arm of Western
intelligence within the eastern Bloc during the post war years; Klaus Barbie,
the notorious Butcher of Lyon; and Walter Dornberger and Wernher von Braun,
the scientists who pioneered the V-2 "buzz bomb" ballistic missile at Peenemunde
(murdering many slave laborers at the Nordhausen concentration camp in
the process) and became central to the construction of the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration (NASA). The "rat lines" project is chronicled
in documentary filmmaker Marcel Ophuls's Hotel Terminus (1988), among other
sources. During these operations, general Thrasher was simultaneously responsible
for the gratuitous murder of ordinary German POWs (mainly old men and boys)
while their officers actually became part of the U.S. state apparatus."
The title of the collection is now
something of an anachronism. I wonder if the 20th century will be romantically
thought of as being dominated by celluloid film which is now a medium no
longer required. What effect this will have on independent film makers,
distribution cartels and the whole junket marketing culture remains to
be seen. The last few screenings I have been to have been digital. Will
people still want to meet in the dark and watch a projection in complexes
whose screens are getting smaller as those at home get bigger?
my melon man'
Noise Water Meat (A History of
Sound in the Arts)
£24.95, ISBN 0-262-11242-4,
It just deliberately ignores huge
developments, movements and forms of music in favour of devising fables
from his own vain contemplations. Revealed is a man who is shall we say...
a plastic jug short of a full tuppaware set. But the omissions are no loss:
there is rather, a feeling of relief that he said nothing about--say the
whole of Jazz and Blues. Anyone with the misfortune to be set this as desired
reading as part of some dubious media course will probably find themselves
going back to the introduction to find out what the hell he is on about.
His statements on his intentions are a whisker away from satire:
"The book focuses on inscriptive
practices (but is in no way restricted to them), whereas ideas of vibration
and transmission occur only intermittently and have not been addressed
directly. The book ends with a contrast between the manner in which, with
Burroughs's virus, inscription has been sunk from the surface of bodies
into each and every cell (a shift that itself should complicate notions
about writing or inscribing on bodies), and the energetic configuration
and situation of bodies and environments found in Artaud's post-Rodez work
and McClure's meat science. Their use of energetic flows, derived from
Eastern bodily practices and elsewhere, poses a challenge to techniques
and tropes of inscription that have so strongly informed and problematized
modernism and suggests that any theorization of contemporary aurality will
have to take into account not only the changed status of inscription and
the historical background of transmission but also a figure or phenomenon,
particle and wave, capable of spatial elaboration and vica versa, which
So to utterly baffle the potential
reader Khan has chosen to 'contrast'--read perform the Vulcan mind meld
with--Burroughs (now that Wild Bill is safely full fathom five he feels
comfortable to exhibit his tiresome interpretations out of the range of
gun fire) with Artaud (let me take you to Junkie Town!) Just in case that
accidentally produces clarity of thought he will inject some McClure: that's
Michael, not Troy. Any persistent bloodhounds will be shaken off the trail
of meaning by the contortions of some ersatz Kundalini Yoga. He also couples
all this with uncritical musings on William Reich and--read them and weep--L.
Ron Hubbard. To go to such lengths to appear sophisticated must be a cry
Unbelievably that was presented
as an incentive to read this book. The pretence is that it is some kind
of new synthesis or approach to 'the' history of sound in the avant-garde,
yet if we dipped in at any point we read a poor misunderstood re-hash of
In actuality--if that is not too
intrusive--the book is an out-of-focus reinforcement dealing with ascription:
the old quasi-religious academic technique of giving the amen to something.
This is performed by a mind awash with all manner of acid-casualty-cosmic-debris
which was inscribed in his brain at some mid-eighties-post-modern-love-in
at a US west coast far-out, terminally groovey 'educational establishment.'
So on a more prosaic level--leaving aside the Goddess Shakti amongst many
other thousands of mutually exclusive terms he uses--it's a series of various
lectures (largely made up of quotes: some of which are interesting, and
padding) with his musing in between like some insipid but foul-smelling
glue. Reading his prose you get the feeling that the verbs and adjectives
are squabbling amongst themselves trying to run away from a series of oxymorons:
"As a dead Aristotle might have said." (page 221)
He is a devotee of the late John
Cage--who I have always thought seemed a bit of a non-event compared to
Much in the way people talk about
architecture as frozen music he has tried to merge...well who am I kidding
I haven't got a clue what he's trying to do. The book is impossible to
read because you disagree with every sentence. The Kundalini yoga stuff,
which just cuts in at any time like somebody selling Hare Krishna on the
streets, is like Newtonian Physics compared with his own scribbling which
sound like a cross between an encyclopedia salesman and some old showbiz
whore on the chat show circuit.
To properly review this book you
would have to hire a group of highly dedicated and knowledgeable experts,
get them to take years to sift through this thoroughly and then you could
come to the conclusion--which you knew all along--that this is an institutionalised
academic talking to other institutionalised academics. And who would want
to listen to that?
The quick way to review the book--the
method adopted tonight--is to go in through the back door: i.e. look up
the index and bibliography, weigh what he's selling, check for contentious
authors--he seems to be trying to replicate what Attali did in 'Noise'--unravel
his position on key issues; look what he recycles; look who he criticises,
look who he flatters and so on...
His general tone indicates that
Douglas Khan will probably never leave the safety of the institution and
join us on the streets. The students have left the auditorium but the professor,
thumbs behind lapels, still bellows out The Word:
"John Cage appears throughout the
book and is the subject of an entire section. He would occupy a central
position within any discussion of sound and art in this century because
of the importance and influence across the arts of his music, writings,
and ideas about sound throughout his long and prolific career. Moreover
, like Artaud he connects the first half with the second half of the century,
but unlike Artaud he lived to see the second half, almost all of it."
When it comes to other theorists
and musicians who are of an independent disposition and whose existence
and creative outlook could be said to challenge his worship of an image
of Cage he has constructed for himself, they are either wholly or partially
ignored or the subject of snide or pitifully inadequate remarks. Or all
three in the case of Pierre Schaeffer where the writing is nothing more
than a mis-reading of an interview in Re Records Magazine (vol. 2 Number
1) in 1987.
Unable to write anything of any
consequence on the matter he offers selective quotes to dismiss Schaeffer
(known for his seminal work in the late 40s with electronic recording at
Radio-diffusion-Television Francaise (RTF) in Paris, where he produced
several short studies in what he called Musique concrete).
Uncomprehending of Schaeffer's artistic
honesty and specific terms of reference he prefers to throw up a puerile
after-dinner anecdote--thinly disguised self-indulgence concerning you know
"He returned to the notion that
no music was possible outside of conventional musical sounds: "It took
me forty years to conclude that nothing is possible outside DoReMi...In
other words , I wasted my life." In 1988 I had occasion to describe Schaeffer's
lament to John Cage over the dinner table. He quickly responded. "He should
have kept going up the scale!"
It would seem no dissent from this
transparently foolish orthodoxy is tolerated. Despite the fact that he
knows nothing about what has been going on in Europe, he has detected that
Chris Cutler, the editor of Re Records has committed a crime against the
inquisition leading him to pronounce his own aut'o-da-fé:
"After reviewing an article on the
history of live electronic music, he [Cutler] felt compelled to "resist
the unquestioning inclusion of a randomly derived aleatory and raw environmental
sound in what we understand when we use the work [sic] music." Pitted specifically
against the threat posed by Cage, he argued:
If, suddenly, all sound is "music",
then by definition, there can be no such thing as sound that is not music.
The word music becomes meaningless, or rather it means "sound". But sound
already means that. And when the word music has been long minted and nurtured
to refer to a particular activity in respect to sound--namely, its conscious
and deliberate organization within a definite aesthetic and tradition--I
can see no convincing argument at this late stage for throwing these useful
limitations into the dustbin."
That's not good enough for professor
"Cutler tries to fend off the totalization
of Cagean thought, at a time when so much Cagean thought had been benignly
internalized, by rhetorically positing music as we know it and politically
marginalizing the other through common sense. The problems with Cage's
notion that all sound is music, which do not revolve around a music/not-music
distinction, will be taken up in chapter 6."
No we are not to use common sense,
we are to bow to whatever has been benignly inserted into us--here you have
his intentions in a nut shell: we must be followers: now bend over. His
chapter 6 vaunts itself as if it laid out some grand unification theory
relating to Cage's interest in sub-atomic vibration. It maintains that
if everything vibrates all the time then everything is always emitting
sound, Cutler's useful distinction on the human level of language and terms
is just not dealt with.
Much the same can be said of his
pat descriptions of the life (read the myth) of Burroughs: they are treatments
of grotesque veneration. Burroughs' irony remains undetected. Symbolism
becomes reality in the 'analysis'--if you can call this guff analysis:
"The Other half had become all others,
they had become all, and the theys were not necessarily biotic. Organism
has shifted the rise of the inorganic to the fall of the inorganic, all
on the wings of the life and death struggle of the virus, the internecine
being of the virus, fuckin' transitional bastard." (page 321)
The insidious elements to his ideas
on Burroughs are evident with well-rehearsed exclusions which reveal that
Professor Khan is just like all The Others:
"His own work was deeply informed
by a variety of scientific and quasi-scientific theories--by an obsession
with fact, as he was quick to say. It was within this culture of fact that
this notion of the virus grew and subsequently became well known among
a broad range of people, especially the beat and beyond literati, heady
punks, and other subcultured individuals, cybertypes, and urban degenerate
You know: street scum--the people
who don't count. Where exactly did this the culture of fact lead to, could
that be academia perchance?
His observations are that an essay
on Burroughs' audio experiments "broke the scholarly ice on the topic of
sound and voice..." The footnotes reveal that this is from a magazine Khan
edited, published by MIT in 1992. So pathetic a claim to fame necessitates
that he has to discredit everybody else with any knowledge of Burroughs.
Bad Karma Khan.
It should be pointed out that this
book, in as much as it deals with music, succeeds in one thing: it excludes
almost all of the music which almost every potential reader has ever held
with lifelong affection or gained pleasure from. Imagine if you will a
book which mentions Yoko Ono (even her plumbing) but pretends the Beatles
did not exist. And she should think herself lucky: he states quite clearly
that he is excluding women due to "practicalities of time and resources."
He is not clear at all why the music of "Charlie Parker, John Coltrane,
Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Ornete Colman, and others and of African-American
poetries and linguistic play" are excluded, he would appear to explain
this by saying that there is "still much work to be done." Yes and part
of that is tackling meaningless exclusion.
The real reason though is to amplify
a smug little coterie's, cliques and claques which he aspires to join rather
for a good music
On Saturday 27th November 1999, Sadie
Coles HQ and Cabinet Gallery presented a Rock 'n' Roll gig at the Scala,
London. Most of the performers were artists, playing Pop rock music in
front of an art crowd. Artist Angela Bulloch of Big Bottom was tediously
marking and counting the beat... Artist and curator Mathew Higgs was dancing
in front of the stage... Artist Wolfgang Tillmans was taking photos...
I wondered if it was comedy... but I seemed to be the only one to laugh.
The music reminded me at the time of Michael Nyman's or Steve Martland's
easy listening new music, sometimes too of a not-so-loud reference to noise
music, then of a more straight rock gig. What did they play?
When Frieze editor Mathew Slotover
is quoted in the Evening Standard's article 'Artful Rockers', saying that
Rock 'n' Roll "still carries connotations of rebellion and nonconformism"
and "some artists are still attracted to that kind of glamour" is it opening
or closing up the debate?
If music theory is often avoided
in art talks because it is too specialised and formalist, and Pop music
only dealt with from the consumer's point of view (that's what the music
people--and artists--like) then one is left with a safe realm, a realm where
"glamour and connotations of rebellion" can be performed through yet another
nice tune on a regular beat.
I can't deny the pleasure of all
the people who enjoyed the gig. But can music--which I would formally define
as creation of order (any order) in sound or noise, in what we hear--be
only a question of reference, taste, or a majority of taste?
J. Attali argues that in all culture noise is associated with destruction,
disorder, dirt, aggression, that noise is violence. For him, to make music
is a channelisation of noise, therefore a form of sacrifice. Since it is
a threat of death, noise is a concern of power and the function of music
is first ritualistic, it creates political order: "The game of music thus
resembles the game of power: to monopolise the right to violence. It provokes
anxiety and then provides a feeling of security..." Attali considers the
production of music as the creation, legitimisation and maintenance of
a form of order.
In Western cultures, the making
of music was for a long time the responsibility of performers/musicians.
In Antiquity they were often slaves, but mythology endowed them with supernatural
powers (Orpheus domesticated animals). Throughout the middle-ages, musicians
remained outside of society, condemned by the Church where music had started
to be written. They were itinerant, creating music and were circulating
it within all classes of society. From the 14th century, Church music became
secularised and autonomous from the Chant, and nobles would pay musicians
to play them light songs, solemn songs, to celebrate victories and to dance.
Musicians became professionals bound to a single master. Within three centuries,
the jongleurs had been replaced by salaried musicians playing scored music.
The notated tonal music produced
in Western Europe from the pre-Renaissance to the end of the 19th century
has been developed mainly through two groups, the hegemonic religions (Catholic
and Protestant churches) and the hegemonic social classes (initially the
aristocracy and later the bourgeoisie). What today we call 'classical music'
was created around the Platonic theories placing musical sounds on the
continuum of order/disorder. The fact that certain notes or chords sound
'right' with others was explained by mathematical rules.
But one should not confuse the mathematical
calculations of ratios with the way they are applied to the creation of
music and how they are used as a legitimisation of a specific order: in
fact their use value within the Western practice of music is more at a
cultural level than an influence on music itself. In the Theory of Harmonics2
in 1784, Keeble writes that "as their principles are in nature, they must
be fixed and immutable", claiming the universal validity of the Western
musical system. Until the end of the 19th century, so called 'classical
music' was composed around those rules.
Then composers and musicians started
to take non-western music more seriously, questioning the rules of tonality
and regularity of rhythm as the only way to hear and make music. The ratios
within sounds did not change: it was their use values. It is not because
Western ears are used to certain arrangements of notes and chords--around
the concept of the tension and the resolution of the tension--that composers
have to develop music only around those rules.
To simplify to the extreme a complex
evolution I will mention only some of the formal changes:
Chromatism (initiated by Wagner
and Debussy) replacing diatonism, the loss of hierarchy within the degrees,
complex chords and aggregates instead of chords in the traditional harmony,
dissonances that are not used to put the stability of the consonance into
focus but played for their own sound; Schonberg developing a system of
series as composition structures; Jazz introducing another form of scales;
Industrial noises regarded as musical sounds by the Futurists; Noises into
composition, Varese; Pierre Shaeffer using the recording techniques to
create a "musique concrete" through the editing of tapes, opening the way
to electroacoustic music; Boulez and Stockhausen following Schonberg's
work on systems of series and developing it into a 'total serialism' (rules
for heights, lengths, intensities); Xenakis using the computer for statistic
calculations as composition principles to create a scholastic music funded
on a structure of mass; Cage working on the idea of chance to create a
'non-interventionist' music; Reich and Riley using the repetitive process
to challenge the experience of music in time; La Monte Young and Max Neuhaus
transforming spaces into musical instruments; Improvising musicians extending
the technique on a variety of sound producing bodies as well as traditional
instruments, reclaiming the performance of music outside the hegemony of
the composer's score.
The composition rules that defined
the natural rightness of music and which were the base of 'classical music'
are the ones used for what I call Pop (which is different from popular).
Tonal composition on regular rhythm are to be found from traditional to
Progressive Rock, easy listening Jazz or reinterpretation of classical
melodies, most Dance music (Techno to Trance), to what I would describe
as the "musically-politically correct Pop" of the Scala's Gig. Of course
Pop is not consciously 'about' sounding 'right' and is not openly concerned
with the ratios within sound mentioned earlier. It is nevertheless the
way sound is used, as notes ordered on a classical scale (sometimes with
some so called "ethnic" influences) and arranged in tonal chords and melodies
on top of a metronome pace. The instruments are not clearly the ones from
the traditional orchestra (except that we see more and more violins around,
and that keyboards are built on the traditional tonal principle).
The other formal aspect of Pop that
is in accordance to the principles 'of the right music' is the regularity
of rhythm. Rhythm in Pop is the choice of rhythmical sequences repeated
throughout a piece, always on the 4/4 structure (some exceptions in Drum
& Bass on 3/4), marking the first beat. There are of course variations
in the way the sequences are produced and the pace but not, as far as I
know, in the reducing concept of rhythm as a repeated pattern. We all know
the overwhelming experience of a repeated pattern of rhythm, it is physical,
it makes us want to move, to dance. In Western cultures, people dance in
very defined circumstances. They don't always dance when they hear Pop--they
might think about it or remember dancing to certain music; but the argument
that Pop is based on regular rhythm because it is good to dance to does
not seem to be relevant to most situations where music is heard.
I am often given the example of
African music as the ultimate justification for the "natural and universal"
value of a regular rhythm. There is no Pop music that would slightly approach
the complexity of traditional African rhythms and on the other hand dance
and music making in traditional African Cultures are "interrelated components
of the same process" as Olly Wilson puts it in her article The Association
of Movement and Music as a Manifestation of a Black Conceptual Approach
to Music-Making3. She writes that "the Western
assumption of a division between consciously organised sound (music) and
movement associated with that sound (dance) usually does not exist there...
The music is the dance and the dance is the music." We are far from being
able to compare those practices with DJs playing for a crowd of dancers.
There are of course innovations
(or noise) within that Pop grid of regular rhythm and tonal melodies: the
rhythmical specificity of Punk was to accelerate the pace of Rock, the
way Rock had quickened the pace of Blues. Blues was cleaned by Rock of
its complexity and danger, and the melodies of Rock were simplified by
Punk. But the fact that the musicians didn't play their instruments in
the traditional way, over-amplification, noise, unsharp tuning or a raw
voice created what I call 'noise' within the Rock structure (and what I
find interesting in Punk), endangered it in a way. But the formal grid
was not fissured.
In Drum & Bass, the rhythm is
created mostly by the repetition of looped samples. There are real variations
and accelerations of pace through the juxtaposition of sequences, but within
an overall structure of extremely regular beats. In fact, the implacability
of the beats created by electronics tools is not endangered by the rhythmical
innovations (even if sometimes the drumming samples invert the traditional
hierarchy of instruments by creating the body of the music--the only noise
added to the frame).
Some dance music goes back to a
rhythmical structure where the first beat is not accentuated within the
rhythmical section by playing only the pace, the metronome becomes the
instrument. A simple melody (often in 4/4) would do the subdivisions. It
is as if the first bar of a dance piece or maybe a piano piece for children
of the classical period was quantized, sampled and looped. The level of
sound and the qualities of the chosen sounds change so that bits of classical
music can wear a contemporary sound and can be danced to.
The composition concept has moved
from the writing of a long musical sentence, with tensions and the resolutions
of tensions, to the repetition of shorter and shorter musical phrases.
In fact, the formal complexity of
classical and contemporary music can not be compared with Pop: the term
becomes irrelevant. It is the reason why Pop is usually talked about from
the audience point of view, within cultural studies and not in formal terms.
The fact that the musical tonal development is reduced is obvious, the
fact that rhythm is the repetition of a few patterns is clear, and this
is not about value judgements. Can the choice of ordering notes in a classical
way and repeating them on the base of identical rhythmical sequences be
neutral? How can such a choice avoid the reference to the political statement
of the "right order in music for the right sort of music?"
It seems to me that Pop music does
not need to legitimate its own order through an 'explanation', a musical
development, a sentence, a dense contrapuntic evolution, a long evolution
towards a resolution. It doesn't need to build itself from a simple order
(the right platonic one, the enlightenment one, the natural one) into a
more complex order (the simple order fully developed and illustrated through
for example: a symphony), it just needs to repeat itself because it is
not about representing a fixed order or power: it is power.
I hear Pop as a totalitarian formal
device, a well tested musical structure where power exercises itself. As
it does not illustrate, justify, question or endanger the order within
music, it plainly states it and loops it.
Pop has its strength in its ability
to integrate slight changes, stylistic variations, so called new sounds.
What I think Pop does is clean the dirt in music: Pop silences music.
Pop today is a formidable power
tool that co-opts opposition. Opposition within music (no atonal Rock but
progressive, avant garde Rock, never ever a rhythm that is not a repeated
pattern) and opposition within the political potency of music. It is the
slight flexibility of the frame that makes its strength. If it were rigid
it would break. It manages to carry and then annihilate social opposition,
political revolts, youth rebellions, identity or gender demarcations and
ethnic differences because what it does within the space of music, it also
does within the social realm. If classical music used to represent social
and gender order, I claim that Pop music now silences people, musicians,
listeners and everybody who hears it. What it states is just become 'normal',
Pop carries its legitimisation in
its name: Pop-ular. But Pop is not popular, it is the prerogative of Pop
to be popular. It is a 'simplification/repetition' of the class-representation
structure, the class-ical one. It uses the support of the majority principle--which
is difficult to question without going into a political analyses of the
idea of democracy. It also uses the support of centuries of tradition (which
goes unnoticed or is even negated): Pop is rarely acknowledged as the dressed
& looped samples of the Platonic and Enlightenment theories of music,
but rather as the expression of a youth culture that it has the luxury
or duty to represent.
Pop benefits from the legitimisation
of the revolt of a generation and it sits comfortably on the credibility
of a repressed minority of Black American musicians through its roots in
Blues and Jazz. A lot of people who were not heard otherwise chose the
Pop medium "to express themselves".
It is difficult to split the music
and the visual spectacle of Pop. What Madonna, Boy George, Kurt Cobain
and many others address in terms of sexual and body politics is more at
a textual and visual level than a musical one. The political aspect of
their practice is probably quite successful because it uses a medium that
is in itself not dangerous and usually not critical, but what is said in
the other physical space which is sound is about obedience to a power structure.
They might not have any problem with that power but I do. I do not trust
a message that tells me "be sexually free... dress the way you want...
disobey the rules... fuck the power;" when the subtext is: "There is a
beat and it will be regular for ever... This is how sounds should be put
together as it is in nature, and it has been so for centuries and centuries...
This has always been the power of music and this is popular."
As a product, Pop doesn't need to
create markets. Dance music for example is left to grow and evolve in clubs
by the work of young musicians and DJs who bring innovation into the frame.
The consumer's reaction is instantly tested in the space where the product
is actually reinvented in the context of a quick changing (life-time of
a piece of music before its come back?) but safe realm.
Pop is the ideal capitalistic product:
started with the recording industry, no heavy inputs, no research, self
feeding, self tested, adaptable to quick adjustments (but never really
changing), same products for a majority of consumers; recycling friendly
with the come-backs and nostalgia phenomena; widely cross fertilising other
economical sectors: from fashion ('listen to his clothes!' as Frank Zappa
had it4), home recordings and music equipment,
sonorous decoration for supermarkets, images for any kind of stationery
goods to the constant feeding of certain press.
I am often told that a lot of small
labels keep a real subculture of Pop alive, that even if the industry holds
a monopoly in terms of production and distribution, other kinds of Pop
music are offered outside the few "majors." Progressive or avant-garde
Rock and their opposition to the recording industry (or their non-acceptance
by it) do not weaken the economic and political power of the Pop business.
On the contrary: they feed it, they create its solid ground, its vital,
"healthy" and quiet opposition. The 'creative' investment of the overall
Pop industry is taken care of by those who think they can work without
the economic power of the entertainment industry. The small labels are
the guardians of the temple as long as they produce a music according to
the same ruling principles. Their strictly musical input as well as their
political positions are quickly sucked out and managed, if not with the
very same people, then with more flexible individuals who will reproduce
the product: the music, the 'attitude' and the sub-products. The structure
is strong: The periphery regenerates the centre.
The actual making of music becomes
marginal to fit the given instruments, the given tonal and regular rhythm
grid and the capitalist structures of distribution--the making of music
as we saw it at la Scala fitted the given instruments, the given effect
pedals and samplers, the given tonal system, the given rhythmical grid.
The power of Pop music is not only about production, centralisation, colonisation
and total distribution within capitalism: it is the fact that its form
is in total harmony with it all. There is a shift from the representation
of power to the unquestioned exercise of it. As Alice Creicher writes in
her article The Genius in the Bourgeois Society5
"the star doesn't deliver representation anymore because it is promiscuous
like the media itself, it doesn't hide capital anymore, it states it."
On a practical level, Rock standards,
strictly Pop bands tracks, dance music and all their stylistic variations,
easy listening classical music, reinterpretation of traditional jazz pieces,
artists' Pop bands, and all the other costumes of Pop are occupying most
social aural landscapes. Everything with a regular beat that sounds right.
It's on television, in the streets, in shopping malls, inside the shops,
in bars, in pubs, in public places, in cars, in parties, in video art,
in performance art clubs, in galleries, in music venues rented out by galleries.
There is only one space outside of specialised venues where a non-Pop music
is represented: cinema. There, lyricism, the uncanny, the frightening,
the diabolical, the alien, the ridiculous are very effectively edited with
contemporary-style compositions or extracts of contemporary music pieces.
Music is mimicked or reduced to a melody, a stylisation, a phrase, a song
or an effect, into what Adorno would call the fetishization of musical
pieces. Except for the cinema sound track, every other space where there
is a social link between people is occupied by Pop. H. Draxler writes in
the exhibition catalogue for "Market" by Group Material:6
"Today the media's mass rituals of subjugation guarantee domination outside
The ability to depoliticise the
message of Rock into Pop has become openly exposed: Janis Joplin's Blues
makes a perfect sound track for a Mercedes TV ad. Soft Drum & Bass
for a bank, Jimmy Hendrix for another car... a strings ensemble plays an
atonal chord for the flu symptoms: the message is clear.
Peggy Phelan writes that if visibility was an equalling power, then almost
naked women would rule the Western Culture...
Pop music--the notes arranged to
sound right on a regular rhythmic pattern--fulfils the aural space. It states
power through the reassertion of a fixed order to the people who share
the hearing. The social relations become defined by the power stated through
the music. It doesn't represent the divisions within society any more but
it creates unquestioned links between a redefined audience, a new social
contract. It co-opts opposition and empties political statements, the principle
of the right order in music for the right sort of music is disguised in
popular fun, in body politics through visual signifiers... in sonoric subjection.
1. Jacques Attali, Noise, the political
economy of music; Manchester University press, 1985.
2. John Keeble, The theory of harmonics;
London 1784; (quoted by Richard Leppert, in The sight of sound, Music,
Representation, and the History of the body; University of California Press).
3. Olly Wilson, The association
of movement and music as a manifestation of a black conceptual approach
to music making, in More Than Dancing, Essays on Afro-American music and
musicians, ed. by I.V. Jackson.
4. Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa
5. Alice Creicher, Das Genie als
Bederfnis der bergerlichen Gesellschaft, in Akademie, 1995.
6. Helmut Draxler, exhibition catalogue
for "Market", Group Material, 1995.
7. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked, the politics
Since coming to power in May 1997,
New Labour have deported over 93,000 people.
Enforcement figures for the first
9 months of 1999 are up 9.1% on the same period last year.
Deportations for the first 9 months
of 1999: 4,615 -- 625 less than the same period last year.
Refused and removed for the first
9 months of 1999: 22,650 -- 2,900 more than the same period in l998.
Total enforcements for the first
9 months of 1999: 27,365 -- 2,275 more than the same period in 1998.
Total enforcements under New Labour,
January to December 1998: 34,775.
Total enforcements under New Labour,
May to December 1997: 21,743.
On the 29 & 30 September 1999:
47 Asylum seekers had been detained
over 12 months, 171 Asylum seekers between 6 and 12 months.
Statistics from: Home Office
Research Development & Statistics Directorate. (All figures are provisional
and subject to revision.)
Immigration Laws Criminalise People--
The effect of immigration laws are
to criminalise people. It does not matter if they have committed any criminal
offence or not. The Immigration Act authorises detention and imprisonment
where there has been no offence, no charges no prosecution, no court intervention.
Criminalisation takes place through
Under immigration law immigrants,
migrants and refugees can be defined as being in the UK "illegally" or
"unlawfully." In this way people are defined as non-persons and as being
outside of the law. Immigration Officers regularly describe Third World
people as "illegals"--as having no identity other than as being devoid of
status in the UK.
Those who lose their claim for asylum
become "Bogus." All these definitions are ways of criminalising people.
Immigration laws are not static, but are constantly being redefined, made
harsher and harder.
Criminalisation takes place through
On Saturday 26 February 2000 the
The Times ran the following story on page two:
'Refugees flock to Germany and Britain',
by Stewart Tendler, Crime Correspondent
BRITAIN attracts more asylum-seekers
than any other country in Europe bar Germany, according to Home Office
figures issued yesterday.
The United Kingdom had 71,160 applications
in 1999 compared with Germany's 95,115, a survey of ten European nations
showed. In all there were 365,745 applications for countries including
Austria, Belgium, France, Ireland, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
Kosovo and other parts of the Federal
Republic of Yugoslavia accounted for more than 100,000 of the applications,
including 11,535 in the United Kingdom. Britain was also the most popular
country among asylum-seekers from Colombia, Croatia, Nigeria, Poland, Romania,
Somalia and Sri Lanka. The Home Office figures show that there were 6,110
applications in January against 7,180 in December. That is the lowest figure
for eight months. In May the number of applicants was 5,370 and since then
monthly figures have fluctuated between 6,130 and 7,355.
From November to January the average
was 6,570--a 40 per cent increase on the monthly average for the same period
in 1998-99. Processing applications rose steeply from 2,320 cases in December
to 4,040 in January, although the backlog continued to grow and has now
reached a record 104,890.
Kent County Council said yesterday
that dealing with child asylum-seekers will cost households an extra £3
next year on council tax.
This article should be condemned
in the strongest possible terms--not for its content but for the way 71,160
asylum applicants have been criminalised by the way the article has been
presented. By giving the story 'Refugees flock to Germany and Britain'
to a crime reporter The Times has labelled at one stroke 71,160 asylum
applicants as criminals. This is a grave injustice to those 71,160 people
seeking asylum. Surely this article should have and would normally come
under Home Affairs.
Criminalisation takes place through
On the same day the Electronic version
of BBC World News ran a story on immigration with a picture of a Asylum
Seeker at an airport. The picture was of a women very advanced in pregnancy
Criminalisation takes place through
a rise in Council Tax--
On Friday 25th February 2000 Kent
County Council announced they were increasing its rates by £3 per
household to cover a £1.7m shortfall in funds caused by an influx
of asylum claimants. And there are rumours that many other councils will
follow suit unless the government pledges more money.
Interviewers were able to find any
number of people to condemn the rise "caused" by the asylum seekers but
no one was able or wanted to point out that this was less than 1 penny
Refugees are not criminals--So
why lock them up?
At any one time, up to 1,000 asylum-seekers
are imprisoned in Britain.
On Monday 20th March 2000, a new
detention centre opened in Oakington, at an old army barracks just north
of Cambridge. This centre will initially hold up to 400 more people. These
will be individuals who are not suspected of having committed any crimes,
and will include women and young children.
The centre will operate like a prison.
Detainees will not be able to leave
the site or move between buildings on the site unless escorted by security
guards. There will be constant surveillance through CCTV cameras, a 24hour
gatehouse, and regular patrols around the centre. The accommodation blocks
will be surrounded by high fences. The Home Office has refused to allow
refugee families to use the houses already on the site on the pretext that
they are too "comfortable." Large accommodation blocks will be used instead.
The Home Office claims that the
purpose of this centre is to allow "Fast-tracking" of asylum claims in
under ten days. Past experience has shown this is highly unrealistic: the
average length of time for a claim to be processed has been 18 months,
and there is a large backlog of undecided claims due to Home Office inefficiency.
It is quite likely that innocent refugees will be imprisoned for long periods
at Oakington, or else deported without proper consideration.
The centre will be run by a private
company, Group 4, for profit. Group 4 and the Home Office have already
been sternly criticised in reports by the Chief Inspector of Prisons following
visits to refugee detentions centres/prisons at Campsfield (Oxfordshire),
Tinsley House (Gatwick) and Rochester detention/prison.
Cambridgeshire Against Refugee
Detention (CARD) tel: 01223-462187
National Coalition of Anti-Deportation
Tales of the
Bill dropped one of the bags as he
struggled to get the pram into the close. The woman downstairs was right
behind and she picked it up for him.
'Some day Bill, eh?' she said, but
he didn't answer. He pulled the pram up the last of the four steps and
held the door open for her to get in out the rain. 'Thanks,' he said, hand
out, but she passed by still carrying the bag with the eggs and milk and
frozen stuff. He reached out to take the bag but she held onto it and walked
a bit ahead. 'You're alright son, I'll take this,' she said, and she looped
the carrier over the arm already bearing her own shopping, then used her
free hand to take off the wee square of plastic she used to cover her blue
hair. She was a nosey old bastard, always had been, that's what Sharon
said. He remembered then that he had to remind Sharon about that call earlier,
but he didn't know what it had been about. If he hadn't written it down
he'd have to do it as soon as he got in. Factors. Factories? The bastards
wanted money anyway.
'Aye, it's a filthy day to be out
with the weans right enough,' she said. Young Billy was already half-way
up the first flight. Bill shouted after him, 'Billy, get back here!' but
the lad kept climbing.
'He's coming on grand the wee one,'
she said then, all smiles and close enough to him that he could smell stale
milky tea and strong fags off her and it gave him the boak. Ever since
the 'accident' he'd hated the smell of cigarettes, even though he'd been
a heavy smoker himself before it.
'That's him two now eh?' she asked.
Questions again. Sharon said she
was going to bust the old bastard one of these days what with her always
asking about him and the weans, and were they still getting the health
visitor up, her knowing fine well it was the Social checking up and just
wanting to get a bit of gossip for her pals down at the bingo.
'Billy, I'm not going to tell you
again, I swear it, get down here now!' he shouted then, but the lad was
too busy staring at old Mrs whatever-the-fuck-she-was-called, now nearing
the top of the second flight and her own front door.
Bill went up the stairs fast, Louise
firmly under his arm, and Billy made a bid to start up the second flight,
laughing excitedly like it was some game or something, but Bill grabbed
his arm hard and yanked him down off the third step, and the lad sort of
swung in mid-air, his arm twisting too fast so Bill dropped him and he
hit the landing, cushioned by his thick quilted 'Broncos' jacket, and when
he got up again he grabbed onto the railings and made a swift descent of
the first flight as Bill followed him down.
So Billy took one of the carriers,
and Bill managed with the pram under one arm, Louise under the other, and
the other two carriers hanging from the fingers clasped under Louise. Old
fuck-face was already inside but Bill knew she'd be standing at her wee
peek-hole at the door, watching out and seeing if he was doing anything
to the weans, ready to pounce on the fucking phone and tell her pals.
But eventually they got in, and
even though it was just the third floor it might as well have been the
top dancer of a high-rise. His fingers were all stiff and cramped, red
and wet and freezing cold. The boy's face was the same colour, his chin
and mouth all wet with snot and slabbers.
Bill stuck the telly on for Billy,
then put Louise on the couch behind where the lad was sitting. 'Right,
you watch her son,' he said, and went to the bog for a quick slash before
getting some grub for them. Louise could wait until she woke again, and
she'd be due a feed. The trickle at the bottom of the bottle told him she'd
almost finished the last batch but he couldn't be sure when exactly he'd
given her that--just before they went to the shops? That must've been, two,
half-past? What was it now anyway? She had to be overdue for another feed,
but he'd let her sleep anyway.
It didn't take long to get the stuff
out and into the fridge, but most of it went into the freezer. He meant
to check all the stuff against the receipt but he'd forgotten all about
it until he found the receipt in the third bag, so he took out what he'd
already put in the fridge and freezer then started checking it. Then it
became a waste of time when he realised that he'd been putting tins of
beans and spaghetti into the fridge. Should've been the cupboard, so he
stopped checking against the receipt. Sharon always said you should, but
it would take too long. Anyway, if she really wanted to do it she could
do it herself later.
He poured most of a tin of beans
on top of the three potato waffles and stuck the lot into the micro for
five minutes. Sharon usually cooked the waffles first but it was all he
same. He stayed well away from the micro when it was on--Sharon always said
how it was bad rays and shite coming out the thing so he always made sure
that Billy was in the room when they were cooking so he wouldn't get blasted
and end up fucked-up like him.
Starting to think about the accident
always got him het up to fuck, so he left the kitchen and went to the bathroom
to get a towel to dry his hair. Bastard rain had been on all day. Summertime.
It was a song that came back then, just a snatch, Summertime and the living
is easy. So, it was alright anyway, that was the shopping in, and a few
quid left so he could maybe see the guys for a jar later if Sharon got
home on time. This was, what, Thursday, aye, had to be, so she'd be home
He went back into the kitchen and
checked the calendar where Sharon marked up her hours in advance every
week. Thursday? Right--Thursday--eight to six. Billy helped him to get Louise
washed and changed and then it was back into the room and Billy wanted
to see even more cartoons, so that was okay, it kept him happy. Bill started
reading the paper, trying to get through the Sports pages, but it wasn't
really making much sense. He could get the headlines about this new signing
from some German club, but the name of the outfit stumped him time and
again and he kept having to go back to the start and try again. He had
to get the name right. That was the sort of thing the boys would laugh
at--if you tried to get your tongue round some foreign team or player's
name and made a cunt of it then you got a beasting for it. Fuck, wasn't
that how he'd had the 'accident' in the first place? Something trivial,
nothing at all really, but then there's a bit of name-calling and then
it's just mad fists and feet flying and jeers and strangers joining in
and it's just a bit of rough play but then he's on the deck and there's
that kick from nowhere and it all goes brilliant white then dead and it's
hospital-time, and will-you-be-bringing-charges, and sorry-we-can't keep
you and all that shite.
He eventually folded the paper and
let it lie in his lap. He was maybe dozing a bit what with the room getting
dry and too warm with the electric fire. That was making Lousie's skin
dry, so Sharon said, so he got up and turned it down a bit. Billy started
on about wanting crisps 'cos he knew they'd got some earlier, so he went
and got a couple of packets and that would keep him quiet for a wee while
anyway, and it was still more cartoons. It was almost six. Sharon would
be home soon if she managed her bus. That reminded him what he had to tell
her. That old bastard underneath. What the fuck was her name? He could
never get it, even though they'd been neighbours for what, three years,
more now? It didn't matter, but he would be sure to tell Sharon 'cos she
was a bit like-that with the old fuck, wanted to know if she put a foot
wrong. Something had been said one day, but he couldn't remember what it
was. It had put Sharon's nose out anyway, and she was dying for any excuse
to go down there and sort her out.
Something else to tell her. That
call. He went into the kitchenette and found a bit of paper, took it back
into the room, but there was no pen to be found. Into the bedroom. Billy
came in after him, not saying anything, just sort of girning stuff about
Mum and wanting something. What do you want? Moan, moan, girn. What is
it then? Grabbing at his legs, wanting lifted up, sucking his thumb and
all sorts. Back into the room and plonked him back in front of the telly.
The Superwings were coming on so Billy quieted again and slumped down at
Then it was old cartoons, the sort
Bill had watched himself when he was wee, different colours, different
faces altogether, but Billy didn't like them, started on about wanting
Superwings back. The phone started up, bastard thing was too loud, he'd
have to work out that volume button, get it turned down. Sharon. Late.
Something about that cow Julie not turning up, she had to stay 'til nine.
But there's a game on, I was going to go down see the boys and that--but
it's overtime, right, you're always moaning otherwise so tough, and that
He went back into the room. Louise
was still out for the count. Maybe seven before she'd wake again for a
feed. Half six? Billy was half conked out, eyelids giving it heavy close.
Fuck it then. He checked the paper. The game wasn't even on the telly,
only being on the satellite. Fuck all else on.
Bill checked what he had left. Twenty-three
quid and some change. Enough to get a few cans anyway and maybe a quarter-bottle,
that would never break the bank, and if she was getting a few extra hours
anyway, well, it was only fair seeing as he never got out the fucking door.
He made it quiet going down the
stairs. That old cow would know that Sharon wasn't home. He wasn't even
out the close when he remembered that he still had to write something down
about factories, factors, money overdue, whatever. He should've said to
her on the phone and that would've been that.
Round to the offy and a half-dozen
cans, but no quarter-bottle 'cos he remembered there was still some stuff
in the kitchen after the New Year, some brandy or rum or something that
Sharon had got in for her old dear coming up, so that would save a few
bob. Well, she could hardly complain if it was just a few cans. Then back
home rapid, quiet as fuck up the stairs, and Billy was asleep where he'd
left him, dead to the world.
It wasn't much past seven. Billy
looked alright, happy enough out for the count and Louise still breathing
nice and quiet right beside him. He kept the telly low, just some crappy
sit com but the jokes were too fast so he gave up watching and went back
to the paper. No point looking at the Sports pages either--why spend the
time trying to get the news on this and that, all foreign bastards anyway,
and he wouldn't get to see the lads tonight and tomorrow's gossip would
be all different. He went to the start of the paper, skipped all the heavy
politics shite with the usual beaming gobs and promises and election shite,
but then, near the start, came a familiar face, none other than good old
Elton, Elton John having his birthday. He was hardly recognisable, all
painted white face and done up in a dress and all sorts.
He put the paper down, remembering
that he had to write down that message before he forgot. The piece of paper
was still on the table where he'd left it earlier. He went through to the
kitchen and rooted about in the drawer under the cutlery drawer until he
got a pen, then went back in, wrote down 'facters called about money' and
then put it on the mantlepiece where Sharon would be sure to see it, so
that was that done.
He cracked open the third can. The
beer was sweet and warmish, nothing like drinking it in the pub. That reminded
him about the stuff that was left. In the cupboard over the cooker. He
went through. There were two bottles. One was dry vermouth, almost a full
half-bottle of that, and the other was some mad liqueur-type thing in a
cracking curvy dark-green bottle that had hardly been touched. Bendick,
Benidectin, fuck it, it was forty-odd percent so it was the real stuff.
Sharon would probably get back about
ten, what with the buses being a bit dodgy after six, so the wee one would
need fed and changed again before then. He went back in with the liqueur
stuff and a glass full of ice and checked on her. She was still sound.
The wee man had wakened again but was just lying looking up at the ceiling,
all sweaty and red. Alright son, he asked him, and the wee man just stared
on as if he was looking at something right through the roof, still dreaming
about something maybe. Bill fetched through some more crisps and a glass
of milk for Billy, but the boy just ate the crisps and got back to watching
the telly. It was a drama about vets, so he let him watch that, and went
back to the paper.
He found the page he'd been reading
earlier. That was it--old Elton was fifty, so he'd had a big party somewhere
and invited all and sundry who were pop stars or not, and it cost thirty
grand. He stopped and read it again. No, it wasn't thirty grand, it was
thirty grand for the cunt's outfit. No. He read it again. The fuck had
hired some hotel or other, and that cost him a hundred grand what with
the spread and all that and then the costume had cost twenty-something
grand to make, and then there was the cost of getting him to the place
because the whole outfit was so big, like a Marie Antoinette sort of get-up,
that he couldn't go in a car but it had to be a fucking removals van, and
he had the van all decked out with candelabra and all these hanger-on lads
dressed as angels and whatever and the whole thing altogether cost more
than three hundred grand. Three hundred thousand quid. He closed the paper
and went back to watching the box.
The liqueur stuff was nice. Very
very sweet, but nice with a bit of lemonade in it. Billy took some lemonade.
The glass of milk was still lying there, so Bill took that through and
stuck it in the fridge. Waste-not-want-not Sharon always said. So that
After eight the wee one was overdue
again, and even though she hadn't really stirred, Bill woke her up and
gave her another bottle. Billy had fallen asleep on the sofa so Bill draped
the sofa cover over him and tucked it under his neck in case he caught
some of that draft from the door.
Louise would probably be needing
another change but he left her. He was feeling a bit knacked now, and didn't
really fancy fucking about with basins of water and all that. Besides,
Sharon would be home soon, so they could do it together then. She might
want a charge of this stuff. There was enough left for a couple each.
But she didn't come back. It was
half-nine, then it was ten. There was a film on. He'd started watching
it but wasn't really following what was happening. Black and white, war-time
stuff, lovers separated, all that shite. There was some good stuff with
fighter planes and beach-scenes, sort of Dunkirk stuff, but then it got
bogged down in some mad plot so he flicked about and it was this one on
about politics, and there was the news, and such another one was on about
fucking stock prices and shite so eventually he put it back to the film
and turned it right down and put a music tape on. It was songs that his
Dad used to sing when he got pissed, all sort of maudlin and supposedly
stirring and that, and he didn't even really know the words but he stuck
it on anyway and hummed along.
He cracked open the last can. It
was almost eleven. She must've gone out with her mates or something. So
fuck her anyway. Billy woke and started geting hyper, crying about Mum
and wanting something again, and it was what-do-you-want but no answer,
only crying, and the crying eventually woke up Louise and when he pulled
back the cover to take her up he got a waft of shite and knew he couldn't
get away with leaving her any longer, and there was Billy about his knees
pulling and crying to get up, and he half kicked him away so he could get
through the door to the kitchen to get her bottle. If he fed her first,
that would quieten her, then he could change her again.
He got back into the room and settled
down. Billy had eaten the piece-and-stork he'd made him, and was starting
again with trying to get up between him and Louise, so he told him to get
down between his legs and watch telly 'til he'd fed Louise, and he did
for a few minutes, sort of sobbing and whining and rubbing his eyes and
Bill tried to feed Louise, but she wouldn't take the bottle, jerking away
like she was getting wind or something and kept up this mad crying, like
really painful, and he put her over his shoulder just like Sharon would,
and patted her back and patted her arse and waved her to and fro and the
more he did it the more he felt kind of sick in himself like it would be
him to belch first or maybe even throw-up, then Billy was between his legs
again and pulling at his arms and giving it scream, bawl, about Mum and
where's Mum, and Bill shouted to him to shut-up, and then to fuck-up, but
the lad kept going, giving it full-tilt 'til he was that way that he was
crying so hard that he wasn't making any noise at all and his face was
just this big red blot of pure misery and pain, so Bill shouted to him
again to shut-the-fuck-up but he just screamed even louder, eyes screwed
shut and tears and snot everywhere, and Louise shook her wee head away
from the bottle and let out a roar and it was Billy's fault for upsetting
her so Bill shouted again for Billy to SHUT-THE-FUCK-UP and as he did he
banged his knees together on either side of the boy's head and he dropped
right away onto the carpet.
Bill tried to get Louise to take
more of the bottle, but then she screamed again and shook her face away
from the bottle and then he remembered that he hadn't checked the milk
so he shook some onto his wrist like Sharon always did and he got a shock
at how hot it was. He grabbed her up and through to the bedroom, put her
in her cot and went back to see Billy. The lad was face down on the carpet.
Bill picked him up, turned him to face him, but the lad was out. It was
time for bed anyway.
Bill put the wee man in the centre
of the double bed, then pulled the covers up to his chin. He remembered
that night again, the kicks coming in, the flash of lightning.
He went to the bog and honked up
until there was nothing left. When he got back into the room, the wee man
was exactly where he'd left him, eyelids twitching, slabbers making a damp
patch on the pillow. Bill sat on the edge of the bed, leaned over, and
palmed his hand across his son's head. Something shifted beneath the lad's
scalp, a slight movement of bone, a ridge where it should be flat.
She would be home soon.
Even in the 'digital age' of advancing
video and computer markets, the scale and hype of Hollywood, its spin-offs
and the rest of the cinema industry lead films to dominate many peoples'
relationships with commercial popular culture. They tend to be the organising
centre for the private consumption of TV's visual wallpaper, while multiple
screens proliferate to cater for that special public submission to overwhelming
sounds and images. This strength of impact allows elements of film narratives,
styles and characters to become markers of experience and identity, so
that cinema is as thoroughly woven into social and cultural life as, say,
sport or music.
However, public discourse on cinema
has been surprisingly limited: film-as-art theory and philosophy, gee-whizz
journalism, technical studies, family viewing advice; all entailing a fair
degree of snobbery of one kind or another. But writing about films is now
catching up with the sophistication and diversity of the commodities it
addresses1, largely thanks to cultural and
media studies shifting the terms of debate on 'mass culture.' The sheer
complexity of responses to films, and thus the general significance of
cinema for modern cultures, can now be questioned along with the wider
social, economic and political dynamics of culture.
Established rhetorics of art, morality
and taste still have useful mileage for a range of interests: many films
are produced and marketed in terms of them being the 'cutting edge' of
experimental cinema as an art form. Claims made for their value relate
more to avant garde form and risky content, rather than any 'uplifting'
qualities; indeed, their controversial nature and success are more likely
to be attributed to regressive and reactionary tendencies, both of the
film maker and the audience. So-called independent or art-house films follow
commercial pressures just as much as the mainstream, but not necessarily
with the same budgets or agendas of Hollywood (that is, multinational)
companies. The films exploit niche marketing by targeting diverse audiences--combining
styles, genres and narrative structures in one product2.
This also makes them 'postmodern' so they tend to have cachet as art. And
as the major companies begin to exploit the profit potential of each new
wave of film makers, the names of the directors (as stars/auteurs) become
the promotional focus--rather than films being vehicles for their celebrity
actors or their titles functioning as commodities.
One effect of the breaking down
of conventional categories of genre and narrative is that films may be
relatively open-ended, confusing to viewers, or even downright unintelligible.
Other films and media images are referred to as much as real situations,
using pastiche and parody, while nostalgic images and styles bring versions
of the past firmly into the present. Horrific, sublime, unpresentable aspects
of human experience are not funnelled off in embarrassment into specialised
genres such as horror or pornography. Instead they are brought into the
centre of mundane existence. Significantly, these 'postmodern' films usually
strongly privilege white male middle class perspectives and choices--and
the film literature generally mirrors this tendency, especially ignoring
what non-middle class viewers might make of them. However, the frightening,
exotic or disgusting contexts that middle class protagonists struggle in
and out of are usually represented by poor and dangerous Black and/or working
class communities and characters.
So the 'slumming' in Something Wild,
After Hours, Blue Velvet, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid etc., contrasts with
earlier generations where magic and horror are located in the wealth and
decadence of upper class life (of course, many films continue this tradition).
Respectable lifestyles are portrayed as not only boring and sterile, but
totally insecure--hardly the morale-boosting stuff of aspiration and meritocracy
peddled elsewhere by education and the media. Slumming in the yuppie nightmare
is a cautionary tale--titillation, then reassurance for middle class viewers.
Waking from the bad dream, having sampled the terrifying but sublime environment
of the gutter (a commodity on offer in the supermarket of life), audiences
feel refreshed for the rigours of their professional lives. But how will
the inhabitants of the gutter (that is, poor, Black, and/or working class
viewers) respond to their portrayals? The film literature seems to find
it very difficult to pay attention to such questions.
But just as interpreting films need
not focus on questions of artistic, intellectual or political merit, neither
is there any inevitable identification with middle class characters and
dilemmas. Ordinary viewers will select some elements of the films, and
will enlarge on these in the imagination and in discussion. They can experiment,
identifying with different characters, positions and possibilities within
the narrative--and can switch among them during viewing and afterwards.
With their open-ended plots and bizarre characters, the new films in particular
are likely to stimulate very varied and complex feelings and thoughts,
in wider audiences, as they achieve higher box office returns and wider
cinema, video and TV distribution.
The yuppie nightmare soon retreated
into the more smug subgenre of 'x from hell', where 'x' may be a neighbour,
flatmate, employee, etc.--showing the further social alienation and paranoia
of recent generations of successful middle class consumers. Meanwhile the
mixed genre characteristics of the yuppie dilemma are used in films which
purport to apply more to waking life than to nightmares or romantic dreams,
such as in Cape Fear, Candyman, Deep Cover, Kalifornia, White Palace and
Pretty Woman. Alternatively, the slumming may be performed by the audience
carried along by the narrative in sampling unhappier lives or by parachuting
obviously middle class characters into lower class narratives (such as
in City of Hope, Short Cuts, Shopping and Lone Star).
The 1990s mixed genre films continue
to go further in blending fantasy and narrative layering. Quentin Tarantino's
Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction use the crudest of genre stories and characters,
stitched together with inventive camera direction, editing and plot devices.
The films twist and turn according to the minutiae of real human personality,
random accidents, banality and psychopathology of daily life, recalcitrant
complexity of the world and over-determination of events. A remarkable
kind of emotional and situational realism ensues, in the midst of elaborate
homages to just about the most unrealistic cinema styles imaginable. Tarantino's
scripts are compelling enough for their power to persist even through Tony
Scott's sentimentalism (True Romance), or Oliver Stone's moralising individualism
(Natural Born Killers)3. In general, even
though big budget mainstream films now routinely use the virtuoso camerawork,
editing techniques and narrative complexity learned from independent film
makers, their stories and characters are often even weaker and narrower
than before. As in the cases of cult and exploitation genres, new film
methods are mainly enlisted by Hollywood merely as a gloss on the superficiality
of conventional genres, and in the process the most interesting and powerful
aspects of the source material are lost4.
Except, perhaps, when the success of independent directors propels them
into the big budget arena--as in Tarantino's meteoric rise, or more modestly
in the case of David Lynch.
A body of films
David Lynch has been exemplary in
experimenting with style and genre. He is uncompromising in locating extremes
of sexuality, violence, fear and pleasure within ordinary life; transgresses
boundaries of taste and moral and political acceptability; and keeps to
his own trajectory despite fluctuations in popularity with both audiences
and the industry. He depicts Middle America as full of emotional excess,
signposted by his characters' weirdness, where scratching the surface reveals
rich and hysterical depths. The films can be read as critiques of bourgeois
social arrangements and morals, which suppress, fear and may be undone
by the effects of passion and fantasy on bodies and behaviour, relationships
Lynch's early films are notable
for bizarre, lurid, nightmare visions of grotesque bodily excrescence,
infantile emotion, dreams and a powerful sense of nostalgia for past eras
and lost innocence. These subjects are not treated by romanticising them:
typical moods are depression, rage and ambivalent desire. In the short
film The Grandmother (1970), and in Eraserhead (1976), these effects are
achieved against backdrops of industrial, urban and domestic blight, but
without relying on traditional surrealist or horror genre conventions.
Critics were thus left with no easy way of dismissing the films, except
for their weirdness--and this mute response no doubt helped Eraserhead become
a cult classic for horror audiences. Something similar might have happened
with Elephant Man (1980), if it hadn't been for the prop of a 'true' story
funded by the mainstream industry with corresponding budget and hype.
Dune (1984) failed even as cult,
partly because the source material (Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic) was too
vast. But Lynch continued to harness the body's vulnerability, power and
monstrosity--bypassing thought and language--to illuminate and complicate
personal dilemmas and their social contexts. From Dune onwards Lynch's
films deal explicitly with recognisable coming-of-age and family dramas.
Such developments possibly say as much about what was needed to consolidate
his move into the mainstream, as opposed to the director's 'artistic' ambition--for
example when market imperatives insist on appealing to younger audiences.5
Blue Velvet (1986) was a turning
point, set in an identifiable postwar America, and not the timeless, fantastic
worlds of its forerunners. In all Lynch films the implacable, menacing
presence of the flesh, raw nature, and their excesses of degradation and
ecstasy, are central motifs. In Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks (1989-1990) Wild
At Heart (1990), and Twin Peaks, Fire Walk With Me (1992), the fascination
of these images and experiences is thoroughly woven into depictions of
'real life'. It becomes difficult to distinguish fantasy from reality;
to identify boundaries between them; or even to know whether or not any
such boundaries exist at all--as in Lost Highway (1997).
The avalanche of criticism and analysis
following Blue Velvet's release was as contradictory as the film itself6.
Mainstream critics pigeonholed the narrative as small town or rites of
passage drama, film noir, psychological thriller, soft porn cult, nostalgia
film, gothic comedy or surrealism, or even as a religious parable of sin
and redemption. Cultural analysts tended to feel that blending styles and
images from several periods was superficial--everything being made equally
bizarre, as well as appearing normal, without sufficient context to make
it socially or politically meaningful. The 'unspeakably' fascinating images
and behaviour--dirt, nature, flesh, violence and perversion--were interpreted
as distractions, depicting evil in a way that evokes distaste rather than
horror. Worse still, in linking sexual desire with violence and voyeurism,
the psychological logic was said to leave the characters no better options.
But the use of songs, names, nicknames, media and advertising fragments,
plus images of the cruelty of nature, resonate strongly with all sorts
of unexpected significance. Bypassing rationality, such sounds and images
have more power to focus the hidden desires of the protagonists. They explode
into the viewer's awareness, in extremes of colour and lingering close
up, with an impact that can't easily be grasped by analysing the narrative.
For both characters and viewers, events in the film resemble dreams--where
apparently random elements condense, combine and multiply, uneasily reconstructed
in memory or description.
Critics and academics were frustrated
in their need to impose authoritative readings, in the absence of a congenial
'message'. So, every single review and analysis assumed that the final
scene represented Jeffrey's return to normal real life. But it could just
as easily be another twist in the nightmare. By crudely embedding Jeffrey's
dream or fantasy in a small town mystery, Lynch fulfils his ambition to
reveal strange desires lying beneath a respectable veneer. Yes, the film
does threaten safe middle class life. It depicts perverse inadequacy, the
fear, hatred, idealisation and stereotyping of women and the dangerous
potential of the criminal lower classes to invade and ruin the pleasant
security of the American Dream. These feelings aren't conveniently attributed
to an 'other'. They are hidden under the nice, clean-cut exterior of a
young man ready to take his place of power in the middle class scheme of
things, grounded in the trivia of romantic consumerism. Viewers who aren't
middle class may not make Lynch's and the critics' mistake, seeing Jeffrey
as representative of 'Everyman'. Instead we might glimpse and understand
a little more clearly the attitudes of those with power over us--attitudes
which may be multi-layered and complex, but which are also very concrete
in shaping the conduct of those in the professions, commerce, education
and the media.
The American nightmare
Wild At Heart is a family drama,
road movie and love story. Lynch transforms Barry Gifford's novel, focusing
again on the body's ecstasy, agony and violation, and the visual impact
of fire, sex and death. Sailor (Nicholas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) avoid
awareness of their excesses by weaving all experience into fairytale yearning
via images and narratives from rock and roll. Sex is their drug and their
anaesthetic, and as they lurch between catastrophes the past always catches
up with them. The past and the present are more complicated than in Blue
Velvet, however. The lovers seek freedom from Lula's well-off mother (Dianne
Ladd) whose status derives from gangsterism--in many ways more representative
of American economic history than shop owners.
The underclass hell looms, and the
concerns and illusions of Sailor, Lula, their family and community, collide
with and mirror the cruel animal passions of its denizens--personified by
Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe). They are distinguishable from the main protagonists
by the latters' race, suburban accoutrements and aspirations for themselves
and their children. So, the fate of a rich teenager affects the lovers
far more deeply than their own predicament, as she frets about her handbag
and her parents' anger while bleeding to death after a car crash. The film
can be read as reflecting the fantasies and fears of the new middle classes.
They escaped from the ghetto, but expressing dangerous passion could return
them there. To be safe, romance must stay within the class and race limits
staked out in geography and psychology, by conventional American social
Twin Peaks is a bizarre murder mystery
and comic soap opera, attracting huge TV audiences. Lynch parodies the
soaps, giving the characters absurd idiosyncrasies and relationships, although
sticking to emotional realism in the family and neighbourhood dramas depicted.
But everything hinges on the mystery of the naughty teen queen's murder.
The convoluted plot keeps fans of detective stories alert, identifying
with FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle Maclachlan). As before, the series
can be read in terms of the main character's fantasies. Only Cooper has
more than two dimensions--ace detective, father figure, scientist, masculine
ideal, bureaucrat, all-American WASP, new man, philosopher and mystic,
government representative, tourist, pervert, angel ... you name it! In
his desire to master truth, fight evil and control his world, he embodies
the middle class ambition for domination via knowledge and individual merit.
Displaying superhumanity, he charismatically enrols the entire community
to his agenda, so that by the end they all inhabit what amounts to his
imaginative world. Crucially, Twin Peaks shows that the whole project must
fail--the narrative, the TV concept and the worldview. Neither Lynch nor
Cooper, nor the reign of science and middle class values, can run the show,
or solve the problems--the nearer Cooper thinks he gets, the more the Twin
Peaks community falls apart. That Twin Peaks needed to go to such extremes
to reach this conclusion bears witness to the power and fascination of
In the feature film 'prequel', Twin
Peaks, Fire Walk With Me, this theme was spectacularly pared down to the
failure of the American nuclear family as well as the FBI. On TV we saw
the diverse manifestations of 'evil forces' (i.e. some of the more appalling
expressions of masculine insecurity) in an extended community. Whereas
the film begins with the authorities' arrogance and stupidity--obsessed
with their worldview, rituals and trivia, the incompetent FBI men chase
around pontificating about the nature of evil. Meanwhile, in the face of
forces which pose as benign, a young woman struggles to establish an identity
and a sense of agency over her life. Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) lurches
desperately between agony, anger and an ambivalent search for distraction
in drugs, sex and friendship. All of these she abuses, mirroring her father's
(Ray Wise's) denied cruelty and her mother's (Grace Zabriskie's) distant,
preoccupied neglect--in possibly the most powerful cinematic treatment ever
of long term sexual abuse. Navigating an intolerable course, some of her
troubled dreams begin to unravel, and she can see the dread reality more
clearly. Her father kills her, rather than allow truth to surface. And
the rest of the adult world, by implication, colludes. The community holds
onto its complacent ignorance, and the police maintain their delusions
of control and grandeur.
You take the high road...
Lost Highway in some ways closes
the circle. None of the details in the film are necessarily 'true'--we are
in the realms of identity loss and madness. The story--like the early films--tackles
the main character's existential chaos: it may represent Fred's doomed
attempt to fantasise solutions to his intolerable fears, since even during
the most shocking events we focus on his confusion. Despite an enviable
position and a job which is also a passion, he is uneasy and distrustful
of everything--his wife, his shadowy home, the world outside. Whatever the
circumstances of his metamorphosis into Pete, it surely can't be coincidence
that he escapes from himself into a carefree working class youth. Except
that abuse, deceit and injustice quickly filter into this incarnation too--much
of it down to him. Then, mistrusting his own thoughts, perceptions and
feelings, he has nowhere else to go. No one else, in either Fred or Pete's
life, has much more of a grip on 'reality'. Authorities (such as the police
or Pete's parents) seem especially stupid and ineffective. And Patricia
Arquette's characters are full of compelling but unintelligible needs and
motives. It is very tempting to see the film as excavating masculine insecurity
and infantility; or even as a sustained metaphor for the artificiality
of cinematic contrivances in general. Or, to stretch the analogy, a commentary
on the complacency of middle class discourses of knowledge, psychological
integrity and consistency, and individualistic agency and control over
one's own life.
However, this film makes no attempt
to give this (admittedly extreme) dilemma of conventional aspirations an
optimistic outcome--a resolution. A yuppie nightmare you will not wake from,
very frustrating for the viewer, with no feelgood factor and none too promising
at the box office: Lost Highway may be a logical conclusion to Lynch's
films in the way I have read them, implying that bourgeois social, cultural
or political philosophy furnishes only fantasy, and not solutions. To mainstream
critics this makes the film 'enigmatic', 'meaningless' or 'hollow'8--just
as middle class discourses in general are typically reluctant to envisage,
to acknowledge, or to respect any other kind of discourse.
...and I'll take the low road
By representing the dreams and fantasies
of diverse modern middle class American characters, the films build complex
pictures of the way such individuals and groups bring their passions to
bear upon their own lives and their surroundings. From a static picture
of the small-town lumpen-bourgeoisie, through the strivings and insecurities
of more mobile fractions of the middle classes, we reach an absurd allegory
of white America itself. The small town boy grows up, from shop owner to
professional, gangster, FBI hotshot--or even a famous film director. Then,
Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway finish the job of pulling apart all
of the stereotypical elements of this macho mythos--things certainly don't
improve when the patriarchs fantasise themselves as saints, or disavow
responsibility for evil. The weight of history operates on the inner lives
of the characters--their biographical, emotional baggage--and on threads
of money, class, sex, race and power entwined in the social history of
families, neighbourhoods and societies. The weirdness, though bizarre,
rings true--in the gaps between what we see making the characters tick,
what they think, say, feel and believe about themselves, and how they explain
their actions. We're reminded of our own experience of our inconsistencies,
quirks and foibles, our unaccountable and unruly emotions, and those of
people close to us.
Lynch's latest film, The Straight
Story (1999), reinforces these points by negating any sign of inconveniently
messy inner, or public, life. An ailing 73-year-old ex-trucker drives 300
miles on a lawnmower to visit an estranged brother. We learn little about
this 'Gump on a grasscutter' from his family, friends and neighbours, or
from the down-home counselling assorted strangers derive from him on his
journey. Everyone accepts their lot: traumas from war, poverty, ill health,
family tragedy and conflict must be adapted to--meekly and unreflectively.
Agency is impossible, collectivity unimaginable, struggle inconceivable.
The rhetoric is conveyed in the warm sentimental glow of muted and unthreatening
quirkiness; the superb photography, editing and acting; and also in Alvin
Straight's kindly words of wisdom (which are unerring insults to anyone
harbouring a sense of the real injustices of the world). Truly the dreams
and fantasies of diverse modern middle class American viewers!
These resonances may be even more
meaningful to lower class viewers, in the light of the pretensions of those
who seek to know, teach, deploy, administer and police us. They are secure
in 'knowing' the rationality of their systems, the comprehensiveness of
their knowledge, rightfulness of their power, and, often enough, the ignorance
and inferiority they think they see in their charges (especially those
more uppity than Alvin Straight et al). Whereas we may suspect that strange
and venal wishes, fears and hatreds must lie under their cool, superior
demeanours, just as they do under our uncouth common-ness.
The films can reinforce these vague,
uncomfortable suspicions--we don't have to rely purely on our own disquiet,
pain or fury to confirm it. And, through necessity, those without the resources
for, or interest in, building illusions of individual superiority might
realise that social and cultural strength has the potential to weave our
collective weaknesses into the possibility of a better life--except that
distortions of power and wealth get in the way. But there is no reason
to expect the film makers and producers to be aware of these possible kinds
of impacts of their films; and scarcely any more likelihood of film criticism
comprehending them either.
The main method the films use to
achieve their strongest effects is to create images that virtually defy
words, set in contrast to the visual clichés of high and low culture,
fashion and taste. Poignant, disgusting, intimate, tragic, sublime and
terrible experiences are just as likely to come upon us during the mundane
everyday as they are in special circumstances, and the films exploit this
irony to the full when such moments occur at crucial points in the narrative.
In concentrating and escalating the viewer's gut responses they provide
a focus to highlight the significance of events and situations for the
However, mainstream entertainment
critics and academic analysts depend on reading films as texts or as art,
wishing to discover value and meaning within the object of their study
itself. Popular audiences prefer the recognition of pleasure and pain,
both in the intransigence of the world and in the fantasy of doing something
different about it. Fantasy is not just escapism, however. For viewers
who routinely face drudgery, degradation and domination, fantasy can connect
with the possibility of effecting change in real life. But this is not
the same world as the one professionally inhabited by those who 'know'
for a living. Their discourse can't accommodate the immediacy and visual
power the new films use to emotionally engage their viewers. Likewise,
art cinema buffs can't handle their vulgar appeal to popular audiences
not schooled in aesthetic subtlety. So it comes as no surprise that the
tricks of the new film trade owe much to advertising--which also relies
on engaging a mass audience's familiarity rather than its contempt.
Cultural theorists wrangle over
whether or not the meaning of film images are sites of 'struggle'--still
concerned with claiming the correct reading, even while agreeing that many
are present. Searching for secret knowledge, they are frustrated by stories
that don't yield straightforward answers and by viewers for whom the last
thing desired is a lesson. The Political Correctness Pundits, for example,
focus mainly on what they see as the negative effects of a film--desiring
to police popular culture. The typical strategy is to dream up stereotyped
fictional 'ideal' viewers who get attributed narrow and fixed responses.
The ensuing interpretations are then universalised as the only significant
political understandings (unless you're reactionary).
Lynch's films are usually trivialised
as well, as the pigeonholing of Blue Velvet suggests. But since the viewing
audience is so diverse, with highly ambivalent responses, such analyses
miss the point--as do the common elitist complaints of superficiality, narcissism
and style over substance, and the loss of meaning. Much of the more recent
trend of cultural populism is scarcely more promising, in its tendency
to glorify the subversive opportunities afforded by consumer choice in
a saturated media market--seeming to confuse the potential for 'reading
against the grain' with its de facto achievement on a mass scale.9
The new film criticism has begun
to go beyond the arbitration of taste and morality. And by interpreting
the (potential) responses of specific types of viewers, the dangers of
uncritical populism are at least partially side-stepped. But there is still
a strong proclivity for privileging certain viewer and subject positions
and, in doing so, downplaying others. Most noticeably, social class is
consistently treated as subsidiary to gender, race and sexuality, even
when such analysis turns out to be incoherent without a firm grounding
in class dynamics.10
But, in general, the most significant
development in recent film criticism might be its tentative abandonment
of elitism, in no longer simply treating films as special opportunities
for enlightened and universal judgements. Films are part of the debris
of our material cultural environments--and how they will be used is not
determined from within their structure or by objective qualities, but depends
on how users articulate responses to them. And this is no new, postmodern
phenomenon. Symbolic material, fantasy and myth has been woven in many
subversive and revolutionary directions--in the peasant cultures of early
modern Europe, at the beginnings of industrialism, in carnival and religious
heresy, native and aboriginal societies, and in the persistent murmurings
of lower class collective cultures11. Media
images may not be our religion, but they form a significant part of our
mythic worlds. The best that traditionally leftist critics usually manage
to concede is that there might be 'positive misreadings' which can prompt
slight changes for the better in an aimless, distracted audience. However,
we might prefer to remain distracted from their aims.12
Media and cultural critics and academics
need to claim to know the pleasures of ordinary people, assuming the capacity
to define our interests in ways that can establish status for their forms
of knowledge, institutions and careers. The film readings given here try
to enter the terrain of this discourse from the position of an outsider
with different motives13. Cinema films are
prominent in general awareness, and in their incorporation into popular
imagination. Without worrying about the 'rightness' or 'goodness' of it,
we may appropriate film imagery in line with what we desire the meanings
to be, for particular purposes. Video technology does allow a level of
control over watching and reflecting on films, so that ordinary viewers
can be in the relatively unusual position of distancing ourselves from
the spectacle even while being flooded by it.14
Many contemporary films do, as it happens, lend themselves to this, in
their mixtures of nostalgia and futurism, novelty and pastiche, violence,
sex, comedy, magic and banality.
If the professionally knowledgeable
have to distance themselves from culture in order to objectify and monitor
it; radicals these days all too often pretend to exist outside of their
own living culture, hating what capitalism makes of it--and have lost their
1. Studies in this category would
include: Fred Pfeil (1995) White Guys: Studies in Postmodern Domination
and Difference, Verso; Yvonne Tasker (1998) Working Girls: Gender and Sexuality
in Popular Cinema, Routledge; S. Craig Watkins (1998) Representing: Hip
Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema, University of Chicago Press;
Sharon Willis (1997) High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood
Film, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.
2. Genre-bending and recent developments
in the US film industry are described by: Thomas Schatz, 'The New Hollywood,'
and Jim Collins, 'Genericity in the Nineties: Eclectic Irony and the New
Sincerity', both in Jim Collins et al (Eds.) (1993) Film Theory Goes to
the Movies, Routledge; and in Timothy Corrigan (1991) A Cinema Without
Walls: Movies and Culture After Vietnam, Routledge.
3. For what Stone did with Tarantino's
script, see ref, note 1. See Sharon Willis, 'Borrowed Style: Quentin Tarantino's
Figures of Masculinity', in High Contrast (ref. note 2). And while it makes
sense to concentrate on other cinema production functions, so as to counter
the hype of director-as-author, directors are the most visible focus in
the motivation for these mixed genre films, and thus allow a more convenient
cognitive mapping of this region of contemporary cinema. See: Yvonne Tasker
(1998), 'Performers and Producers', in Working Girls (ref. note 1); and
Lizzie Francke (1994) Script Girls: Women Screenwriting in Hollywood, Routledge.
4. For example, pornography: Linda
Ruth Williams (1993) 'Erotic Thrillers and Rude Women', Sight & Sound,
Vol. 3, No. 7, pp. 12-14; or horror: Carol J. Clover (1992) Men, Women
and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, BFI.
5. Accounts of Lynch's early films
are given in: Michael Chion (1995) David Lynch, BFI; Corrigan (ref. note
3); and John Alexander (1993) The Films of David Lynch, Letts.
6. A range of perspectives on Blue
Velvet can be found in: Michael Atkinson (1997) Blue Velvet, BFI; Peter
Brunette & David Wills (1989) Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory,
Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press; Chion (ref. note 6); Corrigan
(ref. note 3); Barbara Creed (1988) 'A Journey Through Blue Velvet', New
Formations, Vol. 6, pp. 97-117; Norman Denzin (1987) 'Blue Velvet: Postmodern
Contradictions', Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 5, pp. 461-73; Fredric
Jameson (1989) 'Nostalgia for the Present', South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol.
88, pp. 53-64; and Jed Sekoff (1994) 'Blue Velvet: the Surface of Suffering',
Free Associations, Vol. 31, pp. 421-46.
7. Sharon Willis (1997) convincingly
argues that Wild At Heart violently displaces various middle class anxieties
into its treatment of race and gender ('Do The Wrong Thing: David Lynch's
Perverse Style', in High Contrast, ref. note 2). But this insight is left
hanging, almost as an afterthought.
8. On Lost Highway, see: Marina
Warner (1997) 'Voodoo Road', Sight & Sound, Vol. 7, No. 8, pp. 6-10;
David Lynch & Barry Gifford, (1997) Lost Highway, Faber & Faber;
Kim Newman (1997) [review], Sight & Sound, Vol. 7, No. 9, pp. 48-9.
9. An incisive critique can be found
in Jim McGuigan (1992) Cultural Populism, Routledge.
10. Yvonne Tasker dissects representations
of women and their sexuality in terms of the economic and social implications
of women's employment (Working Girls, ref. note 2). Her discussion works
partly due to its explicit attention to the articulation of social class
interests in film narratives, producers and viewers. But despite recurring
throughout the book, there is little sense that such questions need to
be foundational--as in Sharon Willis' analysis of Wild At Heart (see note
11. See, for example, E.P. Thompson's
studies, and the work of James C. Scott--in particular, Domination: The
Arts of Resistance, Yale University Press (1990). Tricia Rose shows how
fruitful a sensitivity to grassroots audiences can be, in Black Noise:
Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, University Press of
New England (1994). Ron Eyerman also discusses Black American culture and
politics: 'Moving Culture', in Mike Featherstone & Scott Lash (Eds.)
(1999) Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World, Sage.
12 See 'Natural Born Cultures' (note
13. If, as I believe, collective
grass-roots action is always both political and cultural, then radical
left criticism of popular culture should avoid elitism. But, to put it
mildly, this seems rare.
14. Thanks to Stefan Szczelkun for
Zine & Comics
In the El Borbah and Big
Baby collections, Charles Burns finally gets the treatment his work
deserves, these two stylish large format volumes from Fantagraphics, showcase
Burns' ultra-clean scalpel-sharp lines in true black and white, not the
murky grey and off-white that comics readers usually have to put up with.
Facetasm--a creepy mix &
match book of gross face mutations!--is a collaboration between Burns and
Gary Panter (Jimbo comic, "Pee Wee's Playhouse" designer). It takes the
form of one of those kids flip books--where you build up faces identikit-style
from different hair, eyes and mouths. The pages of mutants, zombies, robots,
monsters, aliens and some very odd looking humanoids alternate between
the artist's, there's a marked contrast between Burns' ultra smooth lines
and Panter's scratchy more primitive style.
Whilst I feel it necessary to point
out that I bought the larger, collectable 1992 edition of Facetasm
when it came out, this new version is more satisfying, the smaller format
makes it easier to play with, there's some extra monsters and a thoughtfully
provided space to insert your own picture!
Gary Panter's Burning Monster
is one of the first titles in a new sketchbook series issued by maverick
French screenprinters Le Dernier Cri, his ultra-scratchy, almost totally
self-obliterating sketches of monsters and monster trucks alongside holiday
and wedding scenes make me think of those biro-scrawl encrusted fag packets
sometimes found on pub tables. Gary Panters most recent work Pink Donkey's
Coot Country is not available in any shops, it's a web animation exclusive
for the cartoon network; www.cartoonnetwork.com/wpt/coot/index.html
Also in the Le Dernier Cri sketchbook
series is Caroline et Ses Amis. Caroline Sury's scratchy sketchbook
wander around Marseille, calling in at the Post Office and Boulangerie,
running the gamut of loitering track-suited youths, dropping in on numerous
friends' studios and bars, centrespread is unsurprisingly of the Dernier
Cri screenprinting/bookbinding studio, there's a recipe for fish soup as
Julie Doucet's My New York Diary
is a collection of three autobiographical comics, the title story is a
powerful account of the brief and rather miserable time she lived in the
Big Apple. Moving in with a boyfriend she'd only just met proves to be
a mistake. Julie soon gets distracted and bogged down with too much cheap
beer, too many drugs, too much TV and the poor quality drawing paper she
has to work on! She misses her cat, suffers increasingly frequent epileptic
seizures and feels trapped by her overbearing asshole of a boyfriend and
the sheer remoteness of living in a shitty NY suburb. It's just too much
having to put up with all this crap when she should really be living downtown
and hanging out with New York's cartooning fraternity. Despite the desperation
of her situation, Julie doesn't seem to get too bitter, perhaps drawing
this strip seven years later helped her come to terms with it all, putting
it down to experience, she swiftly gets the hell out of New York and leaves
for the cartoon artists Mecca of Seattle.
Cheap Date magazine started
out as a magazine about second-hand clothes but soon evolved into a more
all-encompassing anti-fashion/anti-lifestyle magazine. Cheap Date
the book has plenty of new articles together with the best parts from six
issues of the magazines. The contents are just as varied and unpredictable
as a junk shop or jumble sale. Interviews with people off the telly jostle
with an eulogy to the Stylophone, celebrity pin-ups fight for space with
Old Bangers. Editor Kira has assembled an ultra-eclectic gang of contributors,
skip-scroungers, ketchup dispenser historians, ex-teenage Goths, dandies
on the dole, Anti Consumerism Campaigners, Oxfam obsessives, crap collectors,
zinesters, junk shop addicts, obsolete technology aficionados, inspired
entrepreneurs, the fashion-victimised and assorted celebs.
Cheap Date interviews their
style-idols and then goes out shopping with them. It pays homage to Flexipop
magazine with the goofy "Tale of Putney Turner" photo story--starring Wreckless
Eric no less!, and bravely goes where others fear to tread--inside Christopher
Biggin's Flat! In a ground-breaking photojournalism story certain to be
picked up soon by the newspapers, Cheap Date exposes shop-dropping
a subversive new craze sweeping the high street: its the opposite of shop-lifting,
recycle old clothes by leaving them in shops! Get a copy now, unless you're
a real cheapskate and prefer to wait a couple of years in the hope of finding
a copy for 29p at the local Mencap shop....
Stephen's Second Little Book
Of Charity Shopping by Cheap Date contributor Stephen Drennan
features ten of his favourite recent finds from Bighton and Hove's numerous
charity shops. Each item is lovingly described together with the price
paid and shop location details. Superb illustrations by Erica "Girlfrenzy"
Smith and endpapers patterned with charity shop logos make this a cute,
neat little book, and unlike Drennan's writing for Cheap Date which
is for some archaic reason hand-written, his own Second Little Book
Of Charity Shopping is neatly typeset and thankfully we're spared the
Coming from the opposite direction
of Cheap Date yet similar in many ways is Things, a publication
put together by history of design post-graduates "as a forum for the free
discussion of objects, their histories and meanings." Things significantly
avoids calling itself a Journal, the writing is relaxed and accessible
and avoids being too academic or theoretical. Each issue begins with "contents",
three or four long pieces, followed by "other things" with approximately
25 short pieces--"texts, exhibitions, ideas"--this eclectic, zine-like section
is the most interesting part; a recent issue covered: disappearances in
Soviet Photography, Donkey Jackets, Taylorism & scientific management,
children's games past and present, the '98 England v. Argentina World Cup
Second Round, the Museum of Collectors, Cod and a poem about Picasso's
Pots. The issues I've seen vary from 130-200 pages long and have all been
completely different, the lively mixture of research based writing exhibition
and book reviews with more personal musings, selected literary quotes and
snatches of oral history works extremely well.
Cool And Strange Music! Magazine
#15--"dedicated to unusual sounds" is required reading for anyone into the
vast field of what has come to be known as "Incredibly Strange Music".
Recent issues have featured Julie London, Wildman Fischer, Alvino Rey,
Claudine Longet, Mrs Miller, Hanna Barbera Records, Elvis Parody Records,
Star Wars Cash-in Records, Twist Records and Music from Car Horns--this
gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect. Issue 15's Julie (Cry Me
A River) London article is accompanied by a full colour 2 page spread of
her sultry album covers, and I particularly appreciated the thoughtful
and considerate "Once is Enough! Recordings you don't need to hear a second
time" article, it's enough to just know that some of these records exist
without having to hear them.
With snazzy layouts, colour covers
and cartoons by Wayno (best known here for his illustrations in the Guardian
Guide) C&SM! is looking more and more like a proper magazine,
but the lively letters pages and overlap/interchange between readers and
contributors reveal their zine roots. With the golden days of finding Incredibly
Strange records at charity shops and car boot sales now long gone, the
extensive CD reviews section is particularly useful for keeping track of
new and reissued material--much of which you're unlikely to see mentioned
anywhere else, I'm keeping an eye out for the Ramonetures LP--16 classic
Ramones tunes played instrumental surf guitar Ventures style!
My only complaint is that Cool
And Strange Music! comes out too frequently, I've only just finished
reading the last one and made a shopping list of records to track down
when a new issue arrives!
Fucked Up And Photocopied: Instant
Art of the Punk Rock Movement, is an impressively hefty 240 page collection
of American Punk gig flyers accompanied with photos and short pieces of
writing. More than 100 band members, concert organisers, Punks, ex-Punks
and poster-makers have contributed material from their personal collections
by coming up with photocopied posters that have been lovingly kept for
Most large US cities have ultra-cheap
photocopy shops and concentrated "downtown" locations with plenty going
on, these factors combine to produce a tradition of flyposting, that sadly
there is no UK equivalent of. Fly posting--as an attention grabbing, quick
and cheap form of communication--thrives in such an environment according
to 'Winston Smith': his hometown San Francisco had an active flyposting
circuit, he loved making posters, but didn't happen to know any bands--so
he just invented band names and went ahead sticking their posters up all
over San Francisco. The book is divided into regions, Northern California,
Southern California, the Pacific North West etc., in this way each section
gives a flavour of the importance and vibrancy of local scenes, each with
their own set of bands and venues.
Initially I was a disappointed that
there's very little about creation of the posters/artwork, but there's
not really much that needs to be explained--the posters themselves say it
all, they combine information, art and the method of communication on an
8 1/2 x 11 inch sheet of paper. Collages, photos, drawing and stencilled,
hand-drawn or pricey letrasetted text were the quickest, most accessible
methods of making posters in the pre home computer age. It's interesting
to see very early work by Gary Panter, the Hernandez brothers and Raymond
Pettibon--all of whom retain a Punky edge or content in their current work.
Sadly most UK readers won't have
the fun of being able to flick through the book saying "I was there!" My
copy has already started acting as a repository for Punkabilia, there's
a flyer for a 1978 Slaughter and the Dogs gig inside the back cover.
The Fucked Up And Photocopied
editors have done an impressive job of assembling so much US Punk ephemera,
their book gets extra Punk points for being defiantly bar codeless but
is guilty of wimping out in a most un-Punk way by not daring to have the
full title visible on the front cover or spine!
Check My Chops is a fine
example of an all-round personal zine with a bit of everything, I read
it cover to cover the morning it dropped through the letterbox rather than
the usual reviewing technique of filing it in a pile of magazines and forgetting
about it. Publisher 'Dave tha Chimp' is one hyperactive ape and keeps plenty
busy with pen, sketchbook and camera. Issue 5 has stories of his travels
as he swings from New York to Japan, Germany, California and Portugal,
there's photos of Motel signs and the desert, cartoons, reviews of skateparks
and sideburns as well all the other usual things that zines review, there's
even some poems as well. Layout and lettering is all done by hand in a
nice 'n' chunky skateart/graffiti style, no computers appear to have been
used, the tall-and-thin A3-folded-in-half format is different and effective.
Check My Chops is bursting with monkey energy, an organised chaos
feel, with every inch of background space crammed full of collages and
doodlings is reminiscent of Bugs 'n' Drugs.
Parasol Post creates its
own cross-fertilisation of fringe and mainstream cultures, the result is
a surrealistic, sometimes disconcerting zine. The Association of Autonomous
Astronauts, Zoë Ball, Leicestershire Psychogeography, Chris Evans,
umbrella symbology, Grateful Dead Conspiracy Theory, a rant in praise of
Lard and a possibly non-fictitious Stewart Home interview are all haphazardly
juxtaposed leaving the reader to sort them out. The transcript of a Jerry
Springer show with couples scrapping over fundamental philosophical principles:
"I am so an existentialist, Bitch!" is a precisely observed classic parody
that surely deserves to be filmed! Serious subversives or cheeky wisearses?
Do these people really want to make a revolution and have fun at the same
time? Parasol Post's lo-fi presentation and home-grown mix of articles
of uncertain origin with loopy press clippings may not be to everyone's
taste, if you don't get it, don't get it.
El Borbah and Big Baby, both Fantagraphics,
Facetasm, Gates of Heck, £8.95,
Burning Monster and Caroline et
Ses Amis, £5.50, Le Dernier Cri, 41 rue Jobin, 13001 Marseille, France
available in UK from disinfotainment.
My New York Diary, Drawn & Quarterly,
Cheap Date antidotal anti-fashion,
£7.50 inc. p/p, Slab-O-Concrete, PO Box 148, Hove, BN3 3DQ, www.slab-o-concrete.demon.co.uk
Stephen's Second Little Book Of
Charity Shopping, £1.25 inc. p/p, Fabgear Books, PO Box 2927, Brighton,
Things, £6.00 inc. p+p, PO
Box 10632, London, SW3 4ZF
Cool And Strange Music! Magazine,
£3.00/$4.95, 1101 Colby Ave., Everett, WA 98201 USA, www.coolandstrange.com
available in UK from disinfotainment.
Fucked Up And Photocopied £29.95
Kill Your Idols/Gingko Press Inc., 5768 Paradise Dr., Suite J, Corte Madera,
CA 94925, USA
Check My Chops is £1 and an
A5 stamped addressed envelope. Send cunningly concealed cash or unused
postage stamps to; CHIMP, 27 Puteaux House, Cranbrook Estate, Mace Street,
Bethnal Green, London, E2 0RF.
Parasol Post send some stamps or
trade your stuff; to 24 Marfitt St., Leicester, LE4 6RN
disinfotainment PO Box 664 London
E3 4 QR www.mpawson.demon.co.uk
'It could be
Now what has 'good' criticism to
look like... I would say first that it recognises the figural nature of
its language. Further the non-referentiality of its discourse in respect
of critical readings which may or may not have happened literally. Recognising
just these two conditions would release--or lead to the release of--criticism
from its own ontological crudities...1
Now look harder. Your probably saying,
"Hey! That's just a full-stop. I've seen one of those before!" But that
just goes to show how stupid you are. [...] That black, black circle says
a lot about death, it says a lot about modern anxiety, it says a lot about
our whole concept of what kind of concept a concept really is, it says
a lot about everything and a lot about nothing. And it says a helluva lot
about the here and now. Hey! Let's take another look at it: It could be
an eye. It could be an arsehole.2
Based on his writings for New Left
Review, Art Monthly, Art & Design and a vast body of primary and secondary
literature, Julian Stallabrass' High Art Lite is a sustained critique of
London-based Young British Artists of the 1990s, a manufactured 'movement'
obsessed with commerce and cults of the personal "purchased at the price
of triviality." (p2) Stallabrass coins the evaluative term "High Art Lite"
to describe this body of work rather than settle for more commonly used
terms such as yBa, Brit Art and the Britpack. "Naming a tendency is easy,"
he writes. "Showing that it deserves a name, is coherent and distinctive
enough to need a category to contain it, is another matter." (p2) Stallabrass
should be commended for having chosen to evaluate the work in such a transparent
fashion. The "lite" of Stallabrass' term obviously relates negatively to
two key issues of this art: commercialism (sponsorship from leisure industries
such as Becks) and quality (Stallabrass' claim that this work is not really
high art but a branding exercise, a mediated, dumbed-down substitute for
fast-living lifestyle junkies on an art diet who have "made a very smooth
ride for themselves."). (p217)
In order to substantiate these claims,
Stallabrass begins by focusing on the role of personality in high art lite,
looking at Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, Tracy Emin and Gavin Turk. Hirst, who
is simultaneously a media darling and an enfant terrible sensationalist,
is his main target here. There is little doubt that Hirst's work mixes
the spectacular with the literal, and in this sense, is a great boon to
the British tabloids and the lifestyle industries. This simultaneously
appeals to the art cognoscenti in the widest sense: "...Hirst in a naive,
sincere way does appear to be caught up with the big themes of the human
condition." (p23) "Hirst, then, despite his Goldsmiths training, serves
as the tendency's Douanier Rousseau." (p25) Such facile, faux-naive philosophising
does not mean Hirst's work must therefore be facile, as Stallabrass implies.
To argue this would be to commit the intentional fallacy. Hirst, like most
artists since the 50s, is, of course, wise to this, adopting a highly successful
Warholian "what you see is what you see" approach. This allows him to be
all things to all men. In order to evade the triteness of Hirst's personal
references to "life and death" and popular culture -- which Stallabrass
disparagingly characterises as "hammer-horror" -- sympathetic critics have
constructed a lineage with "the authentic sources of his art", (e.g. The
Cabinet of Curiosities, Protestant Iconoclastic still-life painting, Burkeian
and Lyotardian theories of the Sublime, Francis Bacon and post-war European
Existentialism, Museological Art of the 80s, etc.). (p25)
Characterising such sources as 'authentic',
risks intimating that the world as known through the mass media fatalistically
confirms the actual world. The mass media may be fatalistic (it would like
to think so) but this does not entail that this is true of all popular
culture which demands a diverse range of factionalised, active consumers.
According to a hard-line materialist reading, art and popular culture are
both superstructures, myths which disguise the 'real' workings of the world.
An attempt to discredit the yBa as a whole by revealing their 'real' workings
will be reductionist insofar as it seeks to reinstate the legitimacy of
the Theory industry as an arbitrator of the real over the fragmented praxis
of cultural production. Stallabrass is more than aware that criticism is
just another form of representation or myth:
"...for criticism to be truly effective,
it must take on the art world as a whole, showing how it is thoroughly
entangled with the society, its economy and politics. Such criticism will
have to start with an examination of its own apparent powerlessness in
the market-led vacuum." (p272).
However, while calling for artists
and their promoters to be more reflexive and critical, Stallabrass is often
just as reluctant to examine the Marxist premises of his own judgments.
Of course, this in no sense mitigates his concern with the lack of active
negotiation of such critical issues in high art lite. Indeed, Stallabrass'
overtly critical stance is a long overdue corrective to what he characterises
as the "schoolboy relativism" which has long plagued the art world. (p264)
The urgency of this task exonerates his tendency to avoid the paralysing
self-reflexiveness of much recent art historiography.
Stallabrass charts how artists became
less interested in controlling or contributing to the critical debate surrounding
their work, demonstrating the numerous ways in which the 90s witnessed
the re-emergence of the traditional division of labour between critics
and artists, with a concomitant dwindling interest in the practice of Theory.
In one sense this is a result of the failure of critical postmodernism
in the 80s, which became increasingly totalitarian and predictable in its
deconstruction of the postmodern trinity of race, class and gender: "It
was not cheery stuff, and only rarely did it allow the viewer any leeway,
any response other than the sanctioned one, or any sense of its subjects
other than as powerless victims." (p86) Stallabrass contends that, in its
critical relativism, 90s art was equally predicable, being little more
than an empty collage of ready-made elements. For Stallabrass, abdication
of critical responsibility is as much a travesty as it is a symptom of
postmodernist relativism: "It is as though this generation have learned
their postmodern lessons too well, ditching its persistent but ungrounded
moralising in favour of its licence to sanction anything except judgment."
(p95) Hirst, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Sam Taylor-Wood, Marcus Harvey, Matt
Collishaw, Abigail Lane and Douglas Gordon among many others are all guilty
of utilising this debauched "feature of the tabloid press: the knowing
exploitation of their subjects, the indifference to their subjects' feelings
or their fate when set against the imperatives to produce spectacular copy,
to best rivals and pull in profit." (p139) This formulates shallow, 'lite'
art, spectacular, clear products and crude puns tailor-made to attract
the attention of Charles Saatchi as is "most clearly seen in the prevalence
of the one-liner work of art [which] makes its points swiftly with conventional
On the face of things this is a
fairly convincing argument. However, we need to ask how important it is
for artists to make "judgments". Favouring poetic, unstable signifiers
does not necessarily mean that the work has to be shallow, it could equally
be read as signalling a commitment to complexity. Stallabrass distrusts
intuitive decision-making because, being a vague and mystificactory concept,
it grants art relative autonomy, meaning that it cannot be readily subjected
to materialist institutional analysis. This is highlighted when he illustrates
his thesis with an embarrassing attempt to produce a series of 'Hirsts':
"A large cabinet with shelves on which stand jars of brightly coloured
sweets--gob-stoppers, Smarties, Refreshers and the like. The title: Knows
Candy." (p27) This lacklustre satire indicates that something needs to
be said in defence of praxis, that there needs to be an acknowledgement
of the difference between thinking about things and making things. Recognition
of this factor is lacking in Stallabrass' discussion which means it risks
becoming histrionic, destructive rather than constructive. Stallabrass'
critique of high art lite's lack of self-reflexiveness may be justified,
but it perhaps confuses the ways in which art and criticism can operate.
While artists' readings may be questionable from an historical materialist
viewpoint, we must consider criticism as being of no more importance than
any other influence. Distaste for high art lite's historicism only demonstrates
that the hierarchies of art historians and artists are not identical. Crucially,
however, Stallabrass sees this familiar issue as having gone beyond mere
disagreement and recondite dispute:
"the attitude is not only of a repudiation
of arcane jargon, of language that excludes the majority, but also of a
suspicion of whole categories of knowledge, of the process of acquiring
learning, and even of sustained thought itself." (p105)
In this sense, Stallabrass' dislike
of the populist lack of critical ambition of London-based scene of the
90s is warranted.
"To play dumb is not just to defend
yourself against attack for being high-brow but to take the first steps
from saving your art from being ignored. The new art provoked conservative
critics, certainly, but also learned a good deal from them, accepting as
valid their attack on liberal (and previously left-leaning) art as obscure,
elitist and boring." (p86-87)
Certainly, in much 90s art, the
free play of the signifier was little more than a marketing tool (bigger
audiences) and peer group aesthetic (who know better). Poststructuralist
inspired polyvalence and pluralism became serviceable tools "for saying
everything and nothing, for stamping a work with a mark of value, while
never being reductive, never subjecting discourse to closure, never trampling
on anyone's subjectivity, never completing a thought." (p123) Failing to
recognise the irony of this situation, Liz Ellis made a similar point in
the feminist journal n.paradoxa:
"Sarah Lucas makes it clear that
she is not making work of social or political or critical meaning, she
says: 'Just look at the picture and think what you like.' [...] [We are
therefore] returned to the old, tired familiar notion of artist as moral
relativist, removed from the rest of the world, at liberty to make and
say and do without the necessity for explanation or intellectual framework.
This role does have social-political implications, and however weary these
graduates of Goldsmiths may be, many others are passionately involved in
these poststructuralist debates. To choose not to join the messy debates
over the language of experience, the themes of difference and otherness
is to adopt a political and intellectual position. The narcissistic self-referential,
free-enterprise nature of the work to the exclusion of any other outside
factors ultimately locates the work as politically right wing."3
Indeed, it is a truism to say that
apolitical stances are political. The problem with this view is that it
does not tell us anything about the specific ways in which 90s models of
'apolitical practice' were political. This is vulgar materialism, characterising
high art lite as the direct 'reflection' of the base in order to make the
'critical' claim that it must be bad because its defenders are bad critics,
and capitalist collaborators. Given that art was and is the product of
capitalist societies, this should lead swiftly to the conclusion that all
art is inherently reactionary. Holding to this (essentially accurate) belief
would mean failing to distinguish between promotional strategies and the
differing qualities of high art lite since it encourages a complacent unwillingness
to pay any detailed attention to culture. Such stagnant materialism is
hardly dialectical. It is equally unwise to claim that ideology is such
a direct form of cultural exchange that it can be tokenistically illustrated
(narcissism is not necessarily right wing). Assuming that the historically
ambivalent attitude of the political avant-garde towards consumerism, is
'acted' out ad nauseum by the yBa myth declines to consider the fact that
the belief that art can have a transparent relationship with the 'political'
and the 'ethical' has been thoroughly re-worked since the late 60s. Materialist
criticism must now face up to a (convenient) postmodernist orthodoxy which
asks questions such as: "Why should the ethical and political dominate
cultural praxis, and who is in a position to decide what is political and
ethical?" Given the "disappearance of any agreed perspective from which
to judge things", Stallabrass' critical intervention is a hazardous project.
Rather than adopting a static, vulgar
Marxist position, Stallabrass seeks to verify the reactionary character
of high art lite by examining the issue of image to gauge the value of
its intentions. For Stallabrass, the yBas were not interested in the production
of art as a site of conflict but as a media identity which could be clearly
defined and marketed: "as long as the work is considered only as the product
of a persona rather than of a wider culture, it becomes impossible to place."
(p95) As such, Hirst's cigarettes mainly represent a 'Hirst' rather than
'death,' Hume's door paintings mainly represent a 'Hume' rather than 'life
and death', Turk's autosculptures mainly represent 'Gavin Turk' rather
than 'fame', Emin's tent mainly represents 'Tracy Emin' rather than 'sex
and death'. While this is certainly true, it does not render other readings
of the works obsolete (even if they tend to be bland and predictable).
Art requires the humanist concept of signature/authenticity to concur or
reject, high art lite just happens to be childishly obsessed with this
factor. Are the art objects of Hirst and Turk "critique or exemplification
or both at once?" (p46) This is an old chestnut. Such works are not overtly
critical of commodity fetishism, but, given that all objects in a capitalist
society are commodities and fetishes anyway, how could they be otherwise?
Is high art lite nothing more than yet another literalist Warholian employment
of the Catch-22 of 'new' art, a bourgeois construct used to 'critique'
bourgeois constructs? Yes and no. The difference, Stallabrass indicates,
lies in ambition. Hume's paintings are mirrors; he either defends his work
with "brief ambivalent remarks" (p98) or his presence is non-existent.
Warhol was passive in every respect. For Stallabrass, then, Warhol's interviews
do not compare with Hirst and Hume's since they are not authentically committed
to inauthenticity. "...once a certain complexity of bluff and counter-bluff
is reached, there is no way of knowing what any statement really means."
(p95-96) This strategy is autoerotic, rather than rhetorical, "well digested
Baudrillard, turned to deeply conservative ends." (p151) It could be a
hall of mirrors. It could be an arsehole.
Taking on the relativist arsehole
gazing either/or alogic of 90s art is a thankless task which haunts this
"For theory, the combination of
a false but ineluctable authenticity from which the art is supposed to
issue and the neutral, non-judgmental position that it adopts, is lethal.
[...] While it dethrones critical thought, irony enthrones the artist,
for to see irony in the work is to believe that the individual creator
has taken an attitude towards their work, and towards the viewer. The masks,
then, do finally fall away in the grasping of irony, for we have to believe
that the artist is at least serious about irony (or if ironic about irony,
at least serious about the irony with which irony is taken--I could go on.)"
This double bind was unquestionably
at the heart of the mystifying accounts which supported the yBa. Again,
this way of thinking is clearly a product of the critical postmodernism
taught in art schools in the 80s and early 90s. Critical strategies designed
to disrupt the production of meaning and knowledge, such as deconstruction,
tended towards aestheticism in practice. Accordingly, high art lite often
fails to properly consider contradiction, the desire to demonstrate the
impossibility of judgment leads to idealism--i.e. every work is seen to
contain contradiction, end of story. To see a difference between things
is to see specific qualities uniquely contrasted with each other. To see
unspecific, indeterminate differences is a contradiction--it is to see nothing
at all. High art lite tends to come down on the side of (supposedly) irreducible
complexity as the universal result, the only thing that is new is the element
Stallabrass argues that this came
to be seen as the only available position for criticism in the 90s, a position
exemplified by the ironic double-coding of Matthew Collings' writing.
"One of the virtues of Matthew Collings'
book, Blimey!, is that it offers a consistent pastiche of conventional
art world talk. His meandering prose, inability to sustain an argument
and thinking in soundbites is an exemplification of that talk, and its
careless but consistent mislaying of all that is important." (p105)
Can Collings' version of events
be challenged effectively? The Collings satirized by Private Eye is virtually
indistinguishable from the real Collings, whose writing is already a "pastiche
of the tyranny of received opinion that governs the art world." (p106)
Even Stallabrass' garish pink book jacket, compete with Chapman brother's
illustration, and soundbite chapter headings in a borrowed font pay homage
to Collings while deriding him. This does not prevent Stallabrass from
shrewdly examining the "Decline and Fall of Art Criticism". Numerous indicators
of decline are cited: published idiocies are growing in number, pop stars
have become critics, lifestyle magazines produce feeble features on art,
art journals have become picture sheets for the purposes of name-dropping,
criticism is anodyne promotion, "an adjunct to the business of art, and
the art of business." (p266-267) Transcript is rightly castigated for its
use of the interview form, which in feigning authenticity is consequently
lacking in critical distance and intellectual responsibility. That which
does profess to be theoretically reflexive and critical is found equally
wanting. John Roberts and Dave Beech's construction of the 'philistine'
as a defence of the yBa is taken to task for its patronising attempt to
validate the "pure pleasures of the body [...] against the corrupt machinations
of the intellect" as though this bourgeois cliché was the 'voice
of the excluded', a 'proletarian' challenge to the hegemony of institutionalised
theory in the '80s." (p119)
"The working class is allied with
the wild body, with unregulated hedonism, with violence, drug abuse and
filthy sex. For the majority of working class people who are not fans of
the Sunday Sport, this simple-minded identification of their culture with
the products of pornmongers and media monopolists is pretty insulting."4
Is high art lite's non-reflexive
form of cognition totalising, or are there alternatives? According to Stallabrass:
"theory's standard configuration
of intellectual disciplines may not be the most effective tools to use,
since the art has thoroughly inoculated itself against most of them in
Either this bleak picture is correct
or Stallabrass is immoderately close to the culture he rebukes. Just as
the apathetic modernist flaneur's fascination with 'low culture' was inseparable
from life in the big city, exorbitantly ironic double-coding and an overwrought
obsession with conspicuous consumption are predominantly products of London.
Elsewhere in Britain, where this theatre of ostentation is of little importance,
many artists have been able to ignore metropolitan peer group aesthetics
and promotional criticism to produce work which, intentionally speaking
at least, is romantic (though not naively so). Like the art he analyses,
suffering as it does from falsely presenting parochial situations as though
they were the products of national consensus, Stallabrass' critique becomes
less meaningful outwith its mega-municipal context. His detailed discussion
of the relationship between art and private capital in "The Market and
the State" and "Saatchi and Sensation" are mainly relevant to those intimately
involved with the machinations of the promotional sectors of the London
art scene in which there is a massive boost of capital from the City's
corporate purse. Equally, institutional critique of soundbites such as
"Young British Art", "Cool Britannia" and the "Third Way" do not apply
easily in Scotland on cultural and constitutional grounds ("yBa" and "Cool
Britannia" oversimplify a complex set of post-colonial identities which
are based primarily on London's diverse ethnographic and economic constituency;
Labour does not have a majority in the Scottish Parliament.) Moreover it
is clear that Scottish-based artists, working predominately in the public
domain, have, for several years, been able to establish international reputations
while maintaining a distance from London, and therefore must be approached
differently. The chapter entitled "The Britishness of British Art" is an
astute analysis of the unitary and nostalgic images of the working-class
and the "corpse" formally known as Britain (read non-gentrified inner-city
London, its suburbs and pastoral South East England) which forms the aestheticised
subject matter of much high art lite, but could, perhaps, have introduced
more into the debate over what is meant by the use of terms such as "British"
and "Britishness" outwith this area of the UK.
With regard to Saatchi's sovereignty
over such litigious terms as "British Art", Stallabrass comments that "the
reduction of state funds to the public sector has played a role in the
appearance of a more populist art, though hardly rendered in the polite
colours that would pacify the conservatives" who argued at the end of the
70s that minimal and conceptual art were the expression of state bureaucracy.
(p222) It is true to say that high art lite is the consequence of a fully
fledged monetarist policy for arts funding, the new (publicly unaccountable)
orthodoxy. However, the critical attacks on the institutionalised art world
in the late 70s were initiated by Marxists principally inspired by Raymond
Williams, Herbert Marcuse and the New Left Review, not, as Stallabrass
argues, by conservatives.5
"Ironically the conservative trend
in the visual arts ran riot. This was due, above all, to the confusion
and paranoia left in the wake of an onslaught against modernism launched
by pseudo-Marxist-writers, some of whom never understood the basic problems
(confusing art with the market). They left destruction in their wake with
no practicable alternative. The few theories that did emerge were difficult
to apply to the traditional media to which they were by and large addressed,
and misinterpretation brought the old reactionaries out in strength."6
The major problem with Stallabrass'
pessimistic criticism might be that it fortuitously echoes the Marxist
critiques of the end of the 1970s. The highly negative, combative assertions
made then served as the main catalyst for the factionalisation and privatisation
of British art in the early 1980s, a corollary of which was the suffocation
of 'critical postmodernist' discourses on British practices.
Stallabrass' negativity nonetheless
raises anxious questions about what 'real' art might be. Following George
Walden, Stallabrass cites The Simpsons as a model:
"The Simpsons critique is radical
because it implies that fallibility and corruption are not just a matter
of individuals but of systems, and it offers some small and faintly glimpsed
positive elements to set against the dystopian vision, particularly the
feelings of the main characters for each other. The challenge such a programme
offers to high art lite is the following: is there anything that it does
that art can do better (other than sell unique objects to millionaires?)."
This much might imply that Stallabrass
is seeking catharsis or redemption. He is happy to settle for art which
is 'critical', sympathetically citing BANK for their policing of the yBa
with "distinct curatorial interventions." (p66) It could be argued to the
contrary that BANK were highly conservative artists, entirely reliant on
the inadequacies of the London art scene, and that their parasitic work
only helped to reinforce the status quo. Besides, BANK were tiresome, The
Simpsons is entertaining.
If the 90s lead to a reintroduction
of the old hierarchies of artist (passive producer of autonomous objects)
and critic (explicator of objects), it also created hybrids such as the
artist-curator, much heralded as the model of 90s art practice. Stallabrass
is sceptical regarding the value of such developments:
"While there is a certain radical
charge in the act of negation against the industry of high culture, nothing
is recommended in its place except the loosest and hippest of liberalisms,
defended but also defanged by irony. [...] The result is a lot of shows
which all claim to be unique but which all say much the same thing: that
they are 'alternative'. The most important claim that these exhibitions
make is negative: it is to proclaim what they are not." (p65)
As an "alternative alternative"
Stallabrass praises the South London artist run space Beaconsfield, claiming
that the "extraordinary variety of detritus which [Tomoko] Takahashi had
assembled was a reminder or the capitalist economy". (p77) Mark Wallinger
is commended for using the techniques of high art lite to "convey a message
without patronising the viewer or settling into propaganda." (p227) Michael
Landy's Scrapheap Services (1995) is handled benevolently, mainly because
Landy is unambiguous about his political commitments. (p287) This, again,
raises difficult questions concerning intentionality. If all yBas had resolutely
announced leftist sympathies would this improve the standing of their work?
In this light, Stallbrass' defence of Takahashi, Wallinger and Landy is
far from convincing, but it does at least indicate that there is a possibility
of adopting a different model to that which he denigrates with great clarity:
"To refuse to offer neatly packaged
solutions, to recognise complexity and ambiguity, does not have to entail
refusing to say anything at all." (p152-153)
1. Michael Baldwin, Manuscript notes
from a diary kept during the production of Art & Language's Museum
Paintings, early 1986.
2. "Matthew Collings' Diary", Private
3. Liz Ellis, "A critique in three
parts of the Britpack phenomenon and particularly the critical reception
of Bank, Sarah Lucas and Sam Taylor-Wood", 1997, @ http://web.ukonline.co.uk/members/n.paradoxa/ellis.htm
Stallabrass writes: "Since Lucas makes no adverse comment on the material
she uses, the work enacts what the newspaper itself does, glorying in its
own bad taste and stupidity, amusing its readers with its crude and philistine
attitudes. If the work has an effect, it is in placing the viewer in a
situation where voyeurism and the pleasures of looking collide with conventional
liberal attitudes." (p93)
4. A comparable critique of Roberts
and Beech can be found in Stewart Homes' Disputations on Art, Anarchy and
Assholism, Sabotage Editions, 1996.
5. "Modernism is the realisation
of the 'progressive' ideology of the New Class and the modern state as
an evaluative and ordering view of art." Andrew Brighton, "The Radicalism
of 'Falls the Shadow'", Artscribe International, No. 59, September/October
1986, p50. Richard Cork and Peter Fuller also heavily promoted such ideas
between 1976 and 1978
6. David Hall, "Artists Thoughts
in on the '70s in Words and Pictures", Studio International, 1980, p31.
For more on this see my "The Fall and Rise of Crisis Criticism", Visual
Culture in Britain, No.3, Summer 2000, University of Northumbria.
On a number of occasions, most notably
during his inaugural address as President, Bill Clinton has paid tribute
to one of the people who taught him as a student, a man called Carroll
Quigley.1 To at least 99% of those who heard
the speech, the name meant nothing. But it sent a major frisson through
a section of American conspiracy theorists. They knew who Carroll Quigley
was; what they didn't know was why the President of the United States was
naming him in such a public way.
The American conspiracy theorist
has always known that there were people out to destroy the paradise that
was mythical America, land of the brave, home of the free. But they kept
changing their minds about the identity of the evil conspirators. Was it
the Catholics? The Masons? The Jews? The bankers? The East coast elite
of 'old money'? Fabians? After 1917 they knew it was International Communism
but they weren't sure if there was someone else behind the Red Menace.
Some suspected that Communism was merely a front for international Jewry
(weren't Marx and Engels Jews?). Sometimes all the suspects were amalgamated
into one vast, muddled, fudge as in this early 1950s formulation in which
the threat was a 'Fabian, Rhodes Scholar, Zionist, Pinko, Communist, New
Deal, Fair Deal, Socialist-minded gang'.2
In the mid-1960s the most important
of the American conspiracy theory groups of the time, the John Birch Society,
discovered the 1920s writing of a dead English writer called Nesta Webster.
Webster had been quite widely read in Britain just after WW1 and she claimed
to detect behind both French and Russian Revolutions the presence of an
18th century Masonic lodge called the Illuminati. On finding Webster, the
Birchers looked as though they were about to move from being the most fervent
exponents of the Great Communist Conspiracy Theory--Birch leader Robert
Welch famously called President Eisenhower a 'conscious agent of international
communism'--to a belief in the Illuminati as the all-powerful secret group
pulling the strings behind the facade.3 But
just as the organisation was about to make this shift, the Birchers' discovered
a book by the aforementioned Professor Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope.
Which is where the story gets interesting.
Quigley's Tragedy and Hope was published
in New York by Macmillan in 1966. It was 1300 pages long. Its subtitle,
a history of the world in our time, gives a sense of its ambition and scope;
yet the 1300 pages carried no documentation, no sources of any kind. Educated
at Harvard and Princeton, Quigley taught at the School of Foreign Service,
Harvard, Yale, the Brookings Institute and the Foreign Service Institute
of the State Department--all major league, American ruling class institutions.4
Despite his impeccable academic
credentials, the book being published by a major firm, and its unusual
length and scope, Tragedy and Hope attracted only two tiny, dismissive,
reviews from Quigley's peers.5 The American
academic world blanked the book. Having had no reviews, the book didn't
sell and Macmillan destroyed the plates from which the first edition had
been printed.6 When the American writer Robert
Eringer tracked Quigley down just before his death, Quigley warned him
that writing about him and his book could get Eringer into trouble.
What had Quigley done to deserve
this extraordinary treatment? He had done two things. First, unusually
for a mainstream American historian, Quigley had described in some detail
the rise of what he calls 'finance capital' in 20th century history. Second,
more importantly, he included two sections, amounting to less than 20 of
the book's 1300 pages, which described the formation and some of the activities
of an organisation known as the Round Table and its origins in the megalomaniacal
fantasies of the 19th century British imperialist Cecil Rhodes.
In the sections of Tragedy and Hope
which caused Quigley problems, he claims that an organisation, variously
titled the Rhodes-Milner Group, the Round Table, and just the Milner group,
had virtual control over British foreign policy for much of the first half
of this century when Britain was one of the world's leading powers. The
inner core of this group, the Round Table, was a secret society founded
by Cecil Rhodes. Using Rhodes' money, this group set up the Round Table
groups in then British Dominions; the Council on Foreign Relations in the
U.S.; the network of Royal Institutes of International Affairs; the various
Institutes of Pacific Relations; controlled The Times and the Observer,
All Souls in Oxford and the Rhodes Scholarship program; was largely responsible
for the destruction of the League of Nations and the appeasement policies
of the 1930s and converted the British Empire into the Commonwealth. These
'gracious and cultivated men of somewhat limited social experience' as
Quigley describes them, 'constantly thought in terms of Anglo-American
solidarity, of political partition and federation... were convinced that
they could gracefully civilise the Boers of South Africa, the Irish, the
Arabs and the Hindus... and were largely responsible for the partition
of Ireland, Palestine and India, and for the federations of South Africa,
Central Africa and the West Indies.'7 And
so on and so on.
It is not that the Round Table people
have been unknown. The names Quigley gives--e.g. in the inner group: Rhodes,
Rothschild, William Stead, Viscount Esher, Milner, Abe Bailey, Earl Grey,
H.A.L. Fisher, Jan Smuts, Leopold Amery, the Astors--are well known.8
The Round Table group are conventionally
viewed as a group of enthusiastic imperialists who had a period of some
visibility and influence in the 1910-20 period. Their journal, The Round
Table, was well known between the wars, and is in many university libraries.
(It continued until the mid 1970s, folded and was relaunched in the 1980s.)
Orthodox historians who have written
about the Round Table people offer accounts of the period which are, more
or less, consonant with Quigley's thesis.9
Toynbee, for example, attributes the Royal Institute of International Affairs
to the Round Table people; and Butler, himself part of the group in Quigley's
longer account, acknowledges that the so-called 'Cliveden Set' of the 1930s
were, as Quigley claims, merely the Round Table at one of their regular
In his biography of Rhodes, Flint
gives a good deal of room to an account of the size and possible influence
of the Rhodes Scholar network. He writes of 'the excessive number of Rhodes
Scholars in the Kennedy Administration' and of the Rhodes Scholars forming
'a recognisable elite in Canada.'10 Apparently
unaware of Quigley, Flint notes that 'in each of the white settled Commonwealth
countries, South Africa and the United States, a similar, if less influential
elite, had emerged... and since 1948 India, Pakistan and Ceylon may be
experiencing a similar development... Rhodes Scholars created links between
American, British and Commonwealth "establishments"... and they have played
a role in creating the "special relationship" between the U.S., Britain
and the dominions after 1945.'11
Kendle, although he dismisses Quigley's
thesis without an explanation, is of particular interest: he, at least,
had read Tragedy and Hope. No other historian of the period seems to have
Enter the 'radical right'
The one group of people who took
Quigley to heart were the conspiracy theorists of the 'radical right' in
America for whom Tragedy and Hope became a kind of bible. Here was the
proof, the academically respectable proof, of the great conspiracy. It
may not have been quite the conspiracy they had in mind, but it was a conspiracy
none the less.13 Only a handful of academics
have taken Quigley on board--Shoup and Minter, Carl Oglesby, Pieterse and
van der Pijl--and none of them are mainstream Anglo-American historians.14
To that august body Quigley remains unknown--or unmentionable.
Quigley's sketchy account of the
Round Table in Tragedy and Hope comes to a halt after WW2. The Round Table
was one manifestation of the power of the British Empire and, as that disintegrated
after the war, to be replaced by the new American economic empire, so the
Round Table network's influence waned. The Rhodes Scholar network is still
there;15 the Council on Foreign Relations
(CFR) is still the single dominant force in the formation of American foreign
policy;16 and from the CFR grew the Trilateral
Commission in the early 1970s. President Clinton has been a member of both--as
well as a Rhodes Scholar.17 Even without the
article of endorsement by the Trilateral Commission founder, David Rockefeller,
just before the 1992 presidential election,18
Bill Clinton was obviously Jimmy Carter 2--another southern Democrat governor,
sponsored and groomed by the Trilateral/CFR networks.19
The Royal Institute of International Affairs is still going strong in this
country but much of its standing as an 'unofficial foreign office' has
declined with the rise of other foreign policy think tanks. The last sighting
of the Round Table as an organisation I have seen is a reference to it
in the early 1970s.20
Quigley's thesis presents the familiar
problems raised by the existence of all such elite groups: how to decide
whether any particular policy outcome advocated by such groups was in fact
the result of their advocacy. Even in his book solely about the Round Table
network, Quigley mostly alleges rather than actually proving, the causal
connections. (But the fact that he was so comprehensively blanked by academic
history is, of course, a rather substantial hint that was on to something.)
In a sense what Quigley describes
as the Round Table's conspiracy is merely the traditional behaviour of
the British ruling class--only systematised slightly. Instinctively secretive,
until recently more or less protected from public scrutiny by its control
of the mass media and from academic investigation by its control of the
universities, in a sense the British ruling class is the most successful
'conspiracy' ever seen. But Quigley claimed more than that. He actually
asserts the existence of an honest-to-goodness secret society operating
at the heart of British foreign policy in the years between the war whose
activities can be traced across the British Commonwealth and the United
States. For an establishment professor of history this was a remarkable
thing to have done in 1966 when discussion of the influence of elite management
groups such as the CFR, RIIA and Bilderberg--especially the latter--was confined
almost exclusively to the far right. These days such groups are discussed
a little more openly; but the fact that the minutes of the 1999 Bilderberg
meeting were leaked and posted on the Internet was not reported by any
of the major British print media. It is thus perhaps not a surprise that
Anglo-American historians remain almost completely ignorant of, or silent
on, the existence of Quigley's two books.
1. An early sighting of Clinton's
esteem for Quigley is in Antaeus: Journals, Notebooks and Diaries, ed.
Daniel Halpern (London: Collins Harvill, 1989). This is on p. 73 from the
then largely unknown Governor Bill Clinton: 'I had a course in western
civilisation with a remarkable man, the late Carroll Quigley. Half the
people at Georgetown thought he was a bit crazy and the other half thought
he was a genius. They were both right.'
This is discussed in Daniel Brandt,
'Clinton, Quigley, and Conspiracy', in NameBase Newsline, no. 1 April 1993--a
supplement to subscribers to Brandt's NameBase data base. This is available
on line at www.pir.org
2. Cited on p.77 of George Thayer,
The Farther Shore of Politics (London: Allen Lane/Penguin, 1968).
3. On Nesta Webster and the Bircher's
discovery of her, see Richard Gilman, Behind World Revolution: the Strange
Career of Nesta H. Webster, (Ann Arbor: Insight Books, 1982), especially
4. Quigley's entry is in Who's Who
in America, 1966 through 1977.
5. In Virginia Quarterly Review,
Spring 1966, and Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social
Science, November 1966.
6. Robert Eringer, The Global Manipulators
(Bristol: Pentacle Books, 1980) p.9. Tragedy and Hope was eventually reprinted
in 1974 by the 'radical right' and has been in print ever since.
7. Tragedy and Hope p. 954.
8. Quigley wrote a book exclusively
about the Round Table network which, though written in 1949, was not published
until after his death. It is in this book, The Anglo-American Establishment
(New York: Books in Focus, 1981), that the details of the group's membership
and alleged activities are given.
9. D. C. Ellinwood Jnr., 'The Round
Table Movement and India 1909-20' in the Journal of Commonwealth Political
Studies, November 1971; A. L. Rowse, All Souls and Appeasement (London:
Macmillan, 1961); M. G. Fry, Illusions of Security (Toronto: University
of Toronto, 1972); W. B. Nimocks, 'Lord Milner's Kindergarten and the Origins
of the Round Table' in South Atlantic Quarterly, Autumn 1964; D. C. Watt,
Personalities and Policies (London: Longman's, London 1965); J. Kendle,
The Round Table Movement and Imperial Union (Toronto: University of Toronto,
1975); J. R.M. Butler, Lord Lothian (London: Macmillan, 1960); F. Madden
and D.K. Fieldhouse (eds.) Oxford and the Idea of the Commonwealth (London:
Croom Helm, 1982); David Astor, Tribal Feeling (London: John Murray, 1964);
Arnold Toynbee, Acquaintances (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967).
10. John Flint, Cecil Rhodes (Hutchinson,
London, 1976). In the US, six in the State Department and at least 12 in
the upper reaches of the administration. See Arthur Schlesinger, A Thousand
Days (London 1975) p. 181. JFK's father was close to the Round Table people
while U.S. Ambassador to London in the 1930s. In Canada, Flint provides
a list, circa 1973, beginning with the Governor General, three cabinet
ministers, head of the armed forces, most of the permanent officials in
the civil service, etc etc. Flint pp. 244-5.
11 Flint p. 245.
12. Kendle p. 305--the last paragraph
of the book.
13 See for example the best known
of the Bircher's books, None Dare Call It Conspiracy by Gary Allen and
Larry Abraham (Seal Beach, California; Concord Press, 1971).
14. Carl Oglesby, The Yankee and
Cowboy War (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1977); Laurence Shoup and William
Minter, Imperial Brain Trust (London and New York: Monthly Review Press,
1977); Kees van der Pijl, The Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class (London:
Verso, 1984); Jan Nederveen Pieterse, Empire and Emancipation (London:
Pluto, 1989). Shoup and Minter are American Marxists and are only interested
in the Round Table as the parent body of the Council on Foreign Relations;
Oglesby is a maverick historian, former SDS activist, so far from mainstream
intellectual life as to be publicly interested in the Kennedy assassination;
Pieterse and Pijls are Dutch Marxists.
15. They had a great reunion in
Oxford, attended by the Queen, in 1983. See Time, July 11 1983. When that
article was published, Time had six Rhodes Scholars on it.
16. This is extensively and repeatedly
documented by the Website calling itself roundtable at www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/2807
17. So obvious has Clinton's education
in the Anglo-American elite become, even the Sunday Telegraph had a long
piece on the Rhodes Scholars connection, sneering at the Rhodies in the
Clinton administration as 'charming dreamers'. See 21 March 1983, p. 22.
18. New York Times, October 16 1992.
19. On Jimmy Carter and the Trilateral
Commission, see for example, Jeff Frieden, 'The Trilateral Commission:
Economics and Politics in the 1970s', in Monthly Review, December 1977.
20. Cecil King, Diaries (London
1975) p. 52.
The Non Place Urban Realm
The following material represents
responses to a series of artist/ political public forums presented at the
South London Gallery (SLG), Peckham, London, August 1999, under the title
Non Place Urban Realm. The aim of the project was, in the gallery's words,
to "explore urban renewal in the city through art and cultural practices
in the form of an Exhibition, Open Forum and reading Room."
The theme and issues involved
were critical to the situation in South London itself, but also held a
more widespread relevance with respect to aspects of inner city regeneration
and gentrification in cities throughout Europe, particularly in terms of
developments during the last decade.
The exhibition featured photographs
and videotapes by three artists, from Spain, France and Ireland, respectively
Marcelo Exposito, Marc Pataut and Paul O'Neill. That their work was not
solely intended for gallery consumption was reflected in the way that emphasis
was placed, during the exhibition, upon the discussion forums. Pataut's
photographs were part of a long-term project initiated by the French group
Ne Pas Plier, working with inhabitants of Le Terrain, an area of wasteland
within Paris. Expositio's video, October in the North: Storm from the Northwest,
was made in collaboration with, and distributed by educational and public
institutions in the Basque region of Spain.
These particular 'artworks' were
contextualised through discussion forums with Brian Holmes and Marcello
Expositio, both of whom spoke about the local and historical determinants
upon the work displayed in the gallery.
The 'reading room' acted as a
temporary but open archive of underground journals, magazines and pamphlets,
the majority of which engaged critically with urban space (Inventory, Transgressions,
and the publications of the London Psychogeographical Association among
others). Many of the speakers visiting the gallery on particular days added
their texts, posters and slides to this space, thus allowing a temporal
map of the overall project to accumulate in conjunction with the project's
The kingpin of the project was
undoubtedly the open forum, with public discussions taking place every
other day during a period of just under a fortnight. Events took the form
of presentations by two speakers, followed by questions and discussion
from the floor. Debates lasted, on occasion, well beyond the gallery's
closing time, continuing in the street, pub, or cafe.
The following speakers contributed
to Non Place Urban Realm: Anna Best (artist) and MUF Architects (artists'/architects'
collective); Gustav Metzger (artist) and Jane Rendell (writer/researcher);
Pavel Büchler (artist/professor) and Marcel Exposito (artist); Graham
Harwood of Mongrel (cross-disciplinary media group) and Fiambrera (artists'/activists'
group); John Jordan (artist/member of Reclaim the Streets) and Brian Holmes
(activist, Ne Pas Plier).
Non Place Urban Realm was curated
by Montse Romani, who attempted to realise a new model of exhibition: less
a presentation of finished artwork than a process of discussion, exchange
and engagement. Put simply, she responded to the question: "How can the
gallery be used by independent and potentially radical cultural practitioners?"
This openness of approach was reflected in the different ways the gallery
was actually employed by the various speakers: to present previous projects,
test untried ideas, to debate specific, closely targeted topics or themes.
For many, the project encoded
in Non Place Urban Realm was an important forum and meeting point for practices
which, in essence, share various political concerns and territories: these
are socially-engaged, artistic-cultural practices that find their own forms
of reception and exchange within the totality of everyday life. Many of
these practices are emphatically collaborative in intent and action, drawing
upon collective endeavour, on dialogue and participation, in order to realise,
recognise, and develop their consciously critical work.
The 'Non-Place' as Critical Site
Anthony Iles, Craig Martin, Peter
Anthony Iles: In a way both
the show and the discussion forums were problematic, because we were talking
about radical practice with a complicit awareness of the kind of space
we were in [the SLG], but also an almost unspoken agreement to not actually
deal with this.
Peter Suchin: There did seem
to be a kind of convention of agreement as to what those areas that should
be challenged were.
Craig Martin: The reason
behind this being that you are not going to achieve anything if you critique
the very structure you are in, in terms of the power structure of the gallery
itself. Particularly as the time available for discussion is so short.
Hopefully some of the pieces to be published might begin to look at this
problem of the institution, as well as refer to what took place on the
PS: Because there's something
about setting up a series of talks in a gallery and actually marketing
them as political or radical talks that appears to be merely a letting-off
of steam. We can have this little space within culture to criticise culture,
but then it's back to all the little aesthetic things.
AI: I don't think that is
the case, I think there was a sense of urgency in connection with the fact
that all these people had managed to get to this space at the same time
and were quite up for engaging in a debate about ongoing artistic and political
practices, exchanging views with each other and interested in hearing particular
PS: It could have been that
it wasn't a spurious situation (a nice, politicised discussion in the gallery
and then it's off back to our everyday lives). People actually want to
find within our culture different values than those we normally see foregrounded.
This is why at least some of those talks were well attended and why there
was a lot of audience input, with some extremely intelligent points being
AI: A lot of the practices
under discussion aren't gallery based, and don't depend upon the gallery
in order to find a mode of reception or mediation. They occur in other
spaces and through other means. In this case, an institutional space was
turned into something useful in terms of providing a space for intelligent,
This general openness was also encouraged
by the way some people attended several of the events, so that you would
see the same people at different forums, even though these dealt with entirely
different topics. And also the way that different speakers approached their
presentations--Brian Holmes of Ne Pas Plier (NPP) literally acting as the
host, passing around the microphone, this particular discussion being one
of the most relaxed I ever attended, with the speakers sitting on the floor,
members of the audience sitting in the speaker's chair, and Holmes emphasising
that anyone who wanted to could have their chance to speak.
PS: There seemed to me to
be a big difference between the two speakers present, though Holmes had
obviously talked publicly about NPP before (it felt, on one level, quite
rehearsed) his presentation had an openness about it which was absent from
John Jordan's talk of Reclaim the Streets (RTS). The latter showed great
enthusiasm for the things he discussed, for RTS' practice generally. But
this apparent certainty closed things down a bit, it felt a bit too narrow.
AI: I think that is a difference
between political situations prior to the actual forum and the reporting
of them. For Brian Holmes it was a case of introducing NPP to an audience
who probably hadn't heard very much, if anything about them before, whereas
RTS are very well known in London (particularly after the events of June
18).1 John Jordan was aware of this, and knew
he had to be quite down the line and put his case across in a strong, direct
PS: But the practice of RTS
appears to result in one-off festivals or moments of disruption--perhaps
quite powerful for a short while--but then they end and that's it. Back
to the old order of things. RTS repeat an erstwhile successful disruption
but NPP look to be much more mobile, trying different approaches, not letting
themselves get caught up in one single way of working.
CM: There's also the matter
of creating some kind of workable structure or network, RTS seem to have
an almost readymade audience of artists or activists but NPP utilise previously
untried strategies that involve passers by who might otherwise not have
become interested in what NPP were trying to do. The latter is much more
community or 'citizen-driven'.
AI: The two groups deal with
very different territory, though there's a convergence in that they both
try to produce a space within the street, in the centre of the city, where
direct action is involved. This fits in with Hakim Bey's idea of the Temporary
Autonomous Zone where there's a zone that's open to any kind of behaviour,
a temporary permissive society that might last for days, or just for a
CM: You're right to bring in the
idea of the temporary and of the carnivalesque in which the temporary is
PS: Yes, this temporary nature
is mapped out in particular forms. The contrast would be that NPP's work
looks open to development but that of RTS manifests itself in a public
party, the very existence of which appears to refuse capitalist values
but which in fact doesn't really have much momentum.
AI: I think it does have
a momentum in that RTS' actions have got bigger every time they've done
something, whilst NPP uses both short term and long term strategies. They're
involved long-term in projects with nurses' unions or Sans Papier4,
and work with pedagogic structures outside of institutions, with particular
goals. RTS usually organise two major events per year. There are specific
actions directed against road building or against the City--perhaps they
are against Capitalism at large. These are semi-spontaneous actions, but
the whole idea is to open up a space in the city, to literally "reclaim
the streets" and then allow any behaviour that goes on within this new
social/cultural space. RTS take no responsibility for what happens there,
they simply appropriate a space.
PS: From what John Jordan
was describing, the spaces produced by RTS were akin to Rock festivals.
The question that is indirectly raised is "how can an ongoing critical
space be established and maintained?" One that isn't immediately recuperated
or which is just part of a gallery programme.
AI: Many of the practices involved
in Non-Place Urban Realm were working to construct and project out into
the street, into everyday life, critical spaces originally formed within
galleries or other institutions. Fiambrera have also done this by literally
working in the streets, with and within their own community, in an attempt
to directly link debates and actions with people's lives. Marcello Exposito
produce video work that involves a mixed public and its memories in an
attempt to expand the ways such work might be "consumed" or received. Mongrel's
projects develop out of workshops where people are given access to video
and other equipment that might allow them to represent themselves collectively.
In Anna Best's work there is an emphasis upon the blurring of the roles
of participant and audience. To what extent these different approaches
are able to generate genuinely critical spaces is debatable. The actions
carried out by RTS are "hit and run" but they initiate important dialogues,
and are, as a consequence of their experimental nature, open to further
development. The actions attempt to radicalise public space, to expand
upon what might be done there.
CM: An important question
is whether or not one can keep such activities radical or critical, since
there is such a limited temporal aspect to such interventions.
AI: Also, they are always
changing, transforming: increasingly RTS and similar groups are looking
at the nature of global capital. June 18 came out of the need to address
this, given that the old left-wing model of revolution no longer seems
valid--if it ever was. You've got to work on many levels, on the street,
through the Internet--there were hackers trying to break into computer systems,
just as people were trying to physically occupy the Liffey Exchange. That
relates to Critical Art Ensemble's view that public space is still there
but is being eroded; you can act in that physical space but you need to
act in "communication space," in "data space" too.
CM: That's an idea of a concrete
rather than a temporal one. To assert that differently, it's almost as
if these things don't act all the time in the same way that carnival eventually
ceases and order is restored.
PS: And it is a kind of letting-off
of steam, as in Bakhtin's idea of carnival, a moment in which the entire
society is restructured, overturned even, but then the period of disruption
ends. The repressive apparatus becomes even more repressive. I still feel
in two minds about the art world being a space in which it is possible
to talk about politically radical things and situations but not to actually
change things. Walter Benjamin writes about a similar situation in the
epilogue to his essay on mechanical reproduction--one is given, in capitalism,
a certain freedom of speech but not freedom of action.5
AI: But what was positive
about the SLG discussions was that there was a continuity of debate, not
just one solo event. Several important issues were revisited in subsequent
discussions. It's important to situate such exchanges within debates that
occur within the media, in the academy, on the Net, at activist meetings,
and in other galleries--all these define the field and practice of art and
of the political. The good thing is that hopefully both these "fields"
can manifest themselves within many different forums and situations. I
saw the forums as contributing to ongoing practices, and I think that if
you look at the diversity of some of these practices, but also where they
converge, then you see that all these things are going to be carried on.
CM: Moving on to a different
but related concern, that of experience, away from structures and back
to a material base, of direct action or actual experience--can we think
of experience as a kind of rupture or a tearing the subject from him or
PS: Is that to imply that
there isn't a fixed self, but that unless someone (an "activist" of some
kind) creates a rupture people won't realise that there are other possibilities,
that they'll stay within the fixed frame of Capitalism? One of my impressions
on the day on which Jordan and Holmes spoke was that the audience didn't
just consist of art world people. There appeared to be a lot of people
there who were interested in holding a critical discussion about Capitalism,
who weren't happy with how things are--I know that proving this is another
thing again! But you don't need experts in galleries to tell everyone else
what's wrong, they already know what's wrong, but how to do something about
this might be the point at which some guidance or suggestions might be
useful. That's where Ne Pas Plier and other active groups are important.
The disenchantment is already present, and having nice new Nike trainers,
or whatever, isn't going to sort it out.
CM: I want to go back to
the notion of the experiential or phenomenological--are these groups trying
to set up a context which will allow people to have a different kind of
conscious perception of everyday life, through various kinds of suggestion
which have nothing at all to do with the marketing of an object (whether
an art object or not)?
PS: It's more--a sort of--forcing
people into dealing with their embodied selves, an attempt to make people
aware of themselves and of the kind of culture they inhabit, in order that
this side of things isn't drowned out by the constant hammerings of commodity
culture. Holmes was talking about how the extreme liberalism of the left
made him want to become, almost, a card-carrying Marxist. Certain positions
which had once seemed dogmatic no longer seem so, so much as necessary
and critical in the face of an 'anything goes' politics (which is a politics
of indifference). Because if you are totally open you are letting certain
prevalent sign systems and values occupy that openness. That's what Capitalism
seems to do all the time, it fills spaces and censors things by not allowing
alternative readings a place.
AI: One of the most important
things linking the participants of Non-Place Urban Realm is an almost total
adherence to the staples of Postmodern theory: plurality, multiplicity,
the making of artworks that can be read from several positions simultaneously.
It's an opening up into new readings too.
PS: That reminds me of Roland
Barthes' essay "Rhetoric of the Image", in which he uses the term "anchorage",
referring to how meanings can be allowed to drift, to be relatively open,
but not so open that all specific meaning is lost. In the present case
we're talking about holding on to meanings that are in serious opposition
to Capitalism, are antagonistic to the central trends of culture based,
increasingly, on the commodity.6
AI: In what Holmes was saying
there's almost a notion of the citizen and of basic human rights, and of
needing to express a concern for these in the face of governments and business
cartels forgetting or effacing these things.
PS: This is like going back
to an Enlightenment model of the self, which can sound very old-fashioned
in a way but perhaps needs defending.
AI: RTS appear to forget,
when they produce their spaces of "delirious" subjectivity some of these
things; you're basically in the space of the carnival and your subjectivity
PS: Yes, but there's also
a kind of dogmatism in the carnival, only certain kinds of responses are
encouraged. Carnival doesn't allow for diversity, it brings along only
one model of a "break" with Capitalism--if it's actually a break.
AI: I completely disagree.
In such situations you have hundreds of business people photocopying £10
notes and throwing them out the window, which is kind of carnivalesque
behaviour but these are people who are supposedly the kind carnival is
PS: It's radical for 5 minutes,
as it were, I still don't see how that leads to anything more substantial
in terms of social change; it's a party mentality: the party stops and
everyone sobers up. What kind of space does it create? It doesn't create
a space for critical thought, it's a temporary space.
AI: No, I don't think so.
There were people there who were interested in getting their issues across,
or sitting down and quietly protesting in the road.
CM: I want to bring in the idea
of the nomadic. Can you say the nomadic is more transgressive than just
squatting somewhere? We've been talking about creating spaces but the forums
were concerned with non-space, or "non-place" in the actual title.
PS: Which could be "non-sense".
CM: Well this brings in the
idea of the impossible--is a non-space an impossible space? All these people
are trying to create space, not a non-space or a negative space.
AI: Non-space is the space
that Capitalism produces, economically-produced space. These people who
define themselves as in opposition to Capitalism are trying to produce
meaningful spaces within the architecture and power of Capitalism.7
PS: The meaning of the term
seems to be linked to the various different versions of Utopia (as opposed
to actually existing things). I suppose that's a problem with what we are
talking about--a potential space and not one that's realised; and if it's
realised it's just a rupture, it's temporary. There has to be a Utopian
strand in all this; by using the imagination, a thinking out of other possibilities.
AI: That's important in terms
of Marcello Exposito--the way his video was constructed, and how he works
generally, by a constant remapping, to achieve a space that allows for
different activities and different lives. He does try to distribute it
in a meaningful way, a way that is useful.
PS: There's a long-standing
argument that that's what certain types of artists do and have long done,
they create models of alternatives, and these models are distributed in
the form of a piece of writing or a painting or some other media. For example:art
as an alternative realm or a space that's in opposition to Capitalism,
even if it is only as a representation or is a device for holding the idea
of a possibility. The other thing is to do with Holmes stressing in his
talk that NPP weren't just about the imagination, that they were trying
to create breaks in the realm of Capitalism, so it's taking that theory
further, because you can sit in a room and plan things, or you can write
books "forever", but it won't change the actual space. Activism, again,
is what's being emphasised as important there.
CM: The way that Infocentre8
work is through the provision of information really--which is also something
that the Internet might embody too.
AI: There was the reading
room set up in the SLG during the talks. That's the result of a curatorial
decision, a relevant one in that it relates to alternative readings of
urban space (Psychogeography for example), many of which are to be found
in underground publications.
PS: Part of the issue here
is the "underground" nature of it. When I was involved with Here &
Now we'd invite people to meetings and they'd say it wasn't their thing,
as though it was a consumer choice. They didn't see discussions of "the
political" as their territory, as though they shouldn't have any views
on anything they weren't an "expert" on.
CM: There's something implied
by the tactics of NPP: it's not overtly political, the politics are masked
by something that allows a way in for other people. The problem with underground
magazines is distribution, for one thing, but also, they're loaded with
a history a lot of people aren't able to grasp: we're sitting here talking
about all this because we've been party to a certain didactic availability.
This educative aspect is what, in theory, the reading room should be able
to achieve, though I don't know whether it actually does that, whereas
with NPP the poster is used to achieve that much more.
PS: This suggests that despite
the massive power of the spectacle it is still possible to disrupt it with
quite simple, traditional means; perhaps sometimes one has to focus upon
those means, because they're available, and they can circumvent high-level
technology, they're not trapped by that.
AI: Interesting things to
bring up are the similarities between the practices of Mongrel and NPP,
in that they both work with communities. Mongrel organise workshops very
much concerned with new technology, with the idea that such technology
can be emancipatory. The quality of the things they put out (which are
made in collaboration with a whole range of people) is often very high.
PS: Yes in the text by Mongrel
[below] they refer to the way that software as it's conventionally structured
comes with a readymade idea about how it should be used.
AI: Mongrel talk about breaking
the frameworks that are built into the software. They hack into this and
redesign it so that it can be used in a direct way in schools or other
places where they're holding workshops, providing a very, very simplified
programme. Then they put it onto the Net.
PS: That's like the NPP thing
of stripping the sign of its meaning and then giving it to the user to
make something new of it. It's a version of detournement.
AI: And a practical version
of that, not one merely in the symbolic realm. This provides the tools
for protest--it's what NPP do, really.
PS: At the end of the presentations
by Holmes and Jordan, Gustav Metzger asked a question about the relationship
between these contemporary forms of disruption or intervention and work
by the Constructivists and the other avant garde critical groups of the
20th century. I don't think any of the speakers directly replied to this
but it throws up another question: how can issues, modes of knowledge,
or skills that you might develop in an art context be reinterpreted and
reframed in another context, so that people without any specialist training
can nonetheless employ such skills to make something or say something?
AI: Metzger's point was an
important one to make and I think he was right to be wary of the cultural
amnesia on behalf of certain groups.
PS: Insofar as there was
any answer at all to what he said, "no connection" appeared to be the implied
"reply." This is a problem with respect to keeping things that challenge
Capitalism's conventions going, maintaining a critical position over time,
and not letting oppositional forms just peter out. Terms such as "the archive"
or "storage" or perhaps even "tradition" or "critical persistence" come
to mind here.
AI: There still is a keenness
to engage with movements such as Constructivism, though developments in
the 1960s are probably more to the fore in the minds of current activists.
Constructivism may be tainted for contemporary groups by it being seen
as more directly linked to earlier, "out-moded" left-wing politics, but
its importance hasn't been lost for those groups that are attempting to
bring art and everyday life together, and who are interested in encouraging
people to take greater control over their own lives.
PS: Maybe there is an awareness,
but how widespread is that awareness? Is it located in only a few left-wing
groups or is it "bubbling under the surface" in a much more widespread
way? There may be a lot of 'referencing' of radicality going on but it's
quite shallow, and doesn't seem to be about picking up certain radical
strands and taking them further.
AI: Russian Constructivism
is already inscribed in art history. It would be problematic for radical
practices to put too much emphasis on appropriating such old forms, which
are too close to the Academy.
PS: But one doesn't want
those things to be forgotten either. Capitalism constantly brings new things
to the fore, certainly in the art world, and that's how the forgetting
seems to take place, by an instant obliteration of the past. New books
are constantly coming out on Walter Benjamin, now that he has become the
subject for numerous Ph.Ds. But what's really important about his work
appears to be often missed, i.e. some of his ideas from the 1930s such
as his discussion of the Paris arcades, which can be applied to contemporary
structures such as shopping centres and to the mass production of commodities.
His work isn't "out of date" just because it was carried out 70 years ago.
Now that higher education is itself an industry and a business, critical
theory has itself become a form of fashion. Fashion is something Benjamin
himself discussed,and his ideas are still relevant now. They should be
kept and built upon, not just swept away or otherwise lost when Benjamin
himself ceases to be a fashionable topic of research.9
AI: Though there are some
very limiting readings of Benjamin there are also some very "enlightened"
ones. He is being applied to the current situation: for example there are
many theoreticians of the Internet using his work. They're talking about
time, progress, experience, all of which Benjamin theorised.
PS: The issues are there,
I just get a bit worried that he's been turned into an academic star. Going
back to Mongrel and technology, more and more Capitalism is promoting the
Internet as a new way to do business and go shopping, though the Internet
was formerly seen as being anti-establishment, a genuinely democratic means
of communication that operated outside of commodity culture (even if it
originated as a military technology). The Net is now being reinscribed
as a great new shopping arena, and that's quite frightening in a way.
AI: That potential recuperation
has been talked about on the Net for some time. It's a case of a given
technology not being either inherently emancipatory or inherently repressive:
it depends on what you do with it. At the same time new forms of identity--hybrid
forms--are being developed (Mongrel promote this hybrid form).
PS: New technologies generate
new relationships; but, without labouring it too much, isn't that what
Constructivism was to a large extent about--new technologies and circumstances
producing new possibilities, and presumably a democratisation of things?
There's a problem though, in that if you misread Constructivism (as well
as other radical stances such as those of De Stijl) you might see them
as being involved with a redesigning of Capitalism, as though to just make
it a bit nicer or something, and not as a critique of an increasingly entrenched
consumer culture (even if that phrase is normally used to refer to more
AI: There's an acute understanding
of, and willingness to engage, with the contemporary groups we've talked
about, with Capitalism, and this is where there is a connection with Constructivism
and other early 20th century groups.
PS: In a sense, all you can
do is keep breaking at the barrier, as it were, keep trying new approaches,
new criticisms in all media, and hopefully you can change things, even
if only very slowly.
AI: There were two crucial
reasons why I was interested in Non Place Urban Realm as a project: the
involvement of many critical practices, and the territory around which
the involvement takes place (the city and the urban, and the various different
critiques dealing with these, from the Surrealists to the Situationists,
and beyond this to Net theory).
PS: What aspects of Net theory
AI: Net theory has been responsible
for building tools for thinking about the Internet, using Benjamin's work
(as we've already mentioned) but also using the metaphor of the city to
"think" the Internet.
PS: The contemporary city
itself needs a metaphor for it to be able to be thought--it's almost too
great a "concept" to grasp mentally. It's a kind of modern sublime.
AI: That's the point! The
Internet is supposed to be sublime. That's why we think of it in terms
of the unconscious and the city. The SLG talks were good in that they indicated
that contemporary radical groupings are aware of earlier critiques of Capitalism
and the city: Dada, the Surrealists again--but they have moved on the debates
too, and are very engaged with theory. There's an energy and an effort
to continue these critiques, but to remember the earlier practice from
within a new space and context.
PS: But when Metzger asked
that question at the SLG there was, I still feel, an awkward silence; you
Anthony Iles and Craig Martin
constitute 'What we Call Progress'. Peter Suchin is a painter and critic.
1. "June 18" refers to the day of
disruptions in the City of London in 1999, when a collective formed from
diverse activist groups assembled for the "Carnival Against Capitalism",
in which RTS played a prominent part. The participants in the present discussion
have tried to maintain a broad scope with respect to the issues considered
here; however, the talks by Brian Holmes and John Jordan on the 17th August,
together with the related public exchanges, recur as a constant reference
point throughout the conversation.
2. Hakim Bey, TAZ: The Temporary
Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, Autonomedia, 1991.
3. References in this discussion
to carnival and the carnivalesque draw on ideas found Mikhail Bakhtin's
Rabelais and His World, Indiana University Press, 1984.
4. Sans Papier is a movement supportive
of immigrants or refugees who are literally "without papers".
5. See The Work of Art in the Age
of Mechanical Reproduction in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Fontana,
6. "Rhetoric of the Image" is included
in Barthes' Image-Music-Text, Fontana, 1977.
7. On The Production of Space see
the work of that title by Henri Lefebvre, Blackwell, 1991.
8. Infocentre was a "drop in" space
located in Hackney, London, and co-ordinated by Henrietta Hesse and Jakob
Jakobssen. It closed in the summer of 1999, having been in operation for
approximately one year.
9. Benjamin's vast but incomplete
work on the Paris arcades has recently been translated as The Arcades Project,
Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1999. It is given a detailed exposition
and analysis by Susan Buck-Morss in her book The Dialectics of Seeing,
A general request was sent
out to those involved in the Non Place Urban Realm debates to expand upon
the discussions held in the gallery. Several responses are included below.
MSDM (Collaborative arts unit)
We titled the video The Public Art
of Campaigning, and there was a rationale behind this. When we met Elaine
in March of this year at Moncrieff Place she was campaigning against a
public art project that Southwark Council was using to evict her from the
space her business had occupied for over 14 years. Her campaigning methods,
combining direct action with site specific intervention in the space, looked
to us like an art that is public should be like, bringing the question
of democracy into the urban aesthetic debate.
Moncrieff Place is a small plaza
in Peckham Rye, which is the main shopping street. In the planner's words,
"Moncrieff Place contains the town centre cinema and is one of the main
access points from the car park to the town centre, it is a strategic gateway
in the town centre's development, without it the town centre does not exist."
The street is noted for its mix of high street retailers, and small street
markets. It is a mixed area, with many immigrants in a predominantly black
neighbourhood. Until now the market traders were licensed to use the site
and there are usually two stalls at the entrance to Moncrieff Place.
In the video, people speculate about
who will really benefit from the improvements. It is suggested that the
cinema is behind the council, pressuring them to invest money embellishing
the area. What we suggest is that Moncrieff Place is part of a much wider
process of uneven development, and gentrification in particular, that is
happening in many large cities. It is a generalised process of deinvestment
and reinvestment, of devalorisation and revalorisation of land and property
by real estate companies, banks and the state, under the auspices of a
return of the middle class back to inner city areas. To areas previously
constructed as dangerous, dirty and poor but now being repackaged as safe
UEDs: urban entertainment destinations.
However, Moncrieff Place has obtained
a new status. It has become a contested site. A space in the heart of the
so called global economy where its social cultural and economic oppositions
come to light. The Peckham Partnership's delivery plan indicates that by
the end of 1997 the Moncrieff works should have been completed. This means
that since the commissioning of the project in 1996 the traders succeeded
in keeping its status as a contested site. We found that the current project
was not the first to be commissioned for Moncrieff. The first project was
proposed by Lilian Lin and was a fibre optic sculpture of lights. It was
made without any consultation, and the traders were told they would have
The traders started campaigning,
collecting signatures, and the council cancelled the plans. In 1998 Free
Form Arts were commissioned to build public art projects for the area,
due to their record with community based approaches. They invited an open
call for submissions to be judged by the local community and traders through
consultation. The proposals were made public in the Rye Lane chapel, and
the International Carpet of Flowers, designed by Anne Wiles, was selected.
Briefly, the concept was to create
the effect of a red carpet that is rolled out for the premier of a film,
in reference to its location in front of the cinema. It would be made of
bricks of glass encapsulating flowers and illuminated from below by fibre
optics. The flowers would represent the cultures of Peckham and the world
developed through workshops at local schools and community groups. In addition
the overall plan for Moncrieff Place would include upgrading the building
frontages, painting them silver, providing a giant screen for projections
and light shows in the front face of the cinema and additional interactive
When we met Elaine, the planning
details were about to go through, to be approved by Southwark property
and planning. Elaine was still collecting signatures against the plans
and campaigning on the site for the project as she was trading, selling
T-shirts in the middle of the winter. The campaign reflected our concerns
about peoples' right to the city and because we were interested in theories
about the social production of space and the uneven development that occurs
under capitalism, for us there was a sense of urgency in starting the video
because negotiations were going on between the traders and the council,
and the campaign could stop at any time.
A week later the campaign was on
hold because the council had made a deal with the traders that they could
When on the following week we interviewed
the project manager at the Peckham Partnership, the most recent plans indicated
that the traders would be moved to the side, to the wall near Woolworths.
That was the day before there would be the meeting at the town hall. We
were given a copy of the plans which we shared with Elaine, and that provoked
a series of events which led to the committee's disapproval of the Partnership's
tactics and ruled in favour of the traders keeping their places. The latest
news is that the project is going back into consultation.
The most interesting aspect is that
the Moncrieff case is not an isolated phenomena in Peckham or even in the
borough. With massive urban development come other contested sites, other
groups of people campaigning against their evictions, usually in response
to a specific redevelopment project such as in Moncrieff Place. We can
mention a few cases included in what we call the 'contested sites' database,
including: 1-51 Peckham High Street, the Tooley Street residents, the East
Dulwich estate residents, the Crystal Palace Park campaigners, the 121
in Brixton, and finally the group of homeless people living in the Bullring,
It's all part of the gentrification
of South London whose infrastructure appears now as a multiplicity of UED
projects, including the Millennium Dome, the London Eye, Imax cinema, Jubilee
Gardens, Tate gallery, UCI at Crystal Palace Park and more specifically
in Peckham, the Arch, the Pulse, the Zoetrobe, the new library and now
Moncrieff Place, taking its cue from larger UED's that have become trendy
in the USA and across the world. Barcelona for example is the model for
Lord Rogers' and John Prescott's Urban Task force.
If we look at the development of
Peckham we see all the characteristics of an emerging fantasy city specifically
its 'themo-centrism' and solipsism in creating an environment of illusion
that ignores what's happening in its own neighbourhood, that ignores hopelessness,
unemployment, social injustice, evictions, while transforming sites into
promotional spaces. In the video the city officials talk about the overall
look, divided into themes of colour, light and animation used to create
a new identity for the town centre.
Another concern is that these fantasy
cities are the culmination of a long term trend in which private space
replaces public space. The majority of large scale UED initiatives are
created by public development agencies in joint business with private partners
from the real estate and entertainment industry. In the case of Peckham,
from the £31 million budget for improvements to the town centre £18.3
million (more than 50%) comes from the private sector. We know that these
private investors will have control over what the streets look like, who
will be allowed in and what kind of activities will go on there.
That's why we should be able to
place the aesthetic debate about the International Carpet of Flowers within
the context of broader struggles over the meaning of democracy. All of
the rhetoric around the redevelopment of public spaces invokes the idea
of the unitary public sphere, characterised by its inclusiveness and openness,
even though it is structured more by exclusions and attempts to erase the
traces of these exclusions.
The enclosure of flowers in glass
bricks symbolising all communities, represent social space as a substantial
unity and is in itself a fantasy that contains its own spatial politics.
Our concern is that it legitimises the exclusion of anyone that destabilises
that form of representation. In the video we can see the rhetoric of democracy,
mobilised by the city officials when they talk about a town for everybody,
but this is in itself an authoritarian voice, and a nostalgic image of
space because in the reality, we can not recover what we never had.
Our interest in Elaine's campaign
was precisely what we interpret as a confrontation with this authoritarian
vision of a unitary social space, and a counter image to the redevelopment.
Employing slogans like "stalls on, art off", the entrance to Moncrieff
Place was transformed into a strategic frontier, forcing the people as
well as the city officials to testify to a conflict they are trying to
conceal. Campaigns like these can disclose the evictions that occur when
theme projects are presented as symbols of social cohesion. It would be
good not to think of public space as a theme park pre-packaged for users,
but as a result of the practice or counter-practice by people in their
Non space urban action
Adam Scrivener (Member of the group
The SLG is a quite a big space and
it was interesting, if somewhat ironic, to observe its compartmentalisation
for the show Non Place Urban Realm. The show was an interesting and worthwhile
one; and yet an opportunity was missed. The SLG is an art gallery and whatever
goes on in there it remains so. This is due to its architectural purpose,
the economy, and power structures that support and maintain it. In short,
it too is an example of how space is produced. It is a blank space, a non-space,
an available container for art. Therefore the show could have tackled this
by making the space more widely available to a greater number of people
who didn't necessarily come from fine art backgrounds. Perhaps this expanded
field of contributors would have ignored these spatial and aesthetic conventions,
and would have made more of the locality, the architecture, its symbolised
interior, by putting it into service of completely differing and heterogeneous
It is a question of theory and praxis.
J18, for example, was extremely worthwhile as a carnivalesque action although
few ideas were communicated. In fact, with the amount of video cameras
wielded that day, it seemed as if documentation had overtaken agency and
idea. Moreover, they have attempted to build on that day's events by creating
a post-mortem document for the Anarchists' Bookfair--rather than integrating
this self-reflexive critique into the action in the first place. Likewise,
most art shows plonk their work into some gallery or public space and then
"talk about it" after the fact. Rarely is there an artwork made that has
an on-going sociality, or political imperative--projects start and they
also finish. The circus comes to town and then it goes away again leaving
some glossy memento mori in its wake.
An awareness of the production of
space is a political and social consciousness that, like other themes of
revolutionary critique, is concerned with the transformation of everyday
life--of being here and now--its object is immaterial. Change can only occur
through the continuous attempt to initiate experiments, autonomous productions,
and direct interventions which are not only underpinned by theory and critique
but are constantly responsive to the people they are encouraging and the
situations they are addressing.
Forms and platforms for communication
and exchange are necessary for collective action; this is why the talks
at Non Place seem to have been more successful than its exhibits. Yet we
should not be sidetracked by yet more objects of contemplation, more documents
and videos. We should be moving toward an unmediated, restless, collective
movement of idea and action intertwined, which is simultaneously active
and reactive, spawning a force that will smash this puny existence once
and for all.
Fiambrera in its Place
(artist/activist group based in
Fiambrera were not scheduled to
talk at Non Place Urban Realm, we just happened to be there and had to
perform as a kind of substitute. It is funny, since that is quite our "ethos"
generally, we "just happen to be somewhere" and just assume the consequences
of that "being there".
Now that we come to consider it,
we do not usually happen to be in art galleries, museums or places of that
kind, and not because we belong to any sort of irreducible radical tribe,
but possibly just because we happen to be somewhere else... somewhere else
where usually, and it is not our fault, there's conflict going on, there
are evictions going on, there are nasty things going on.
By definition, a fiambrera has never
been in a no-place. A fiambrera is the Spanish word for lunchbox: the group
adopted the name after frequenting gallery openings and finding that they
could fill up their fiambreras with food for the week.
Intervening The City
A Proposal for an Alternative
Forum and a "Sustainable" City Falling Down to Pieces.
Last February in Seville a "Euromediterranean
Conference on Sustainable Cities" was organised by Seville City Council,
and since they did not invite anyone else apart from professional politicians
and developers, we had to organise something of our own.
There were alternative meetings,
conferences and the like... and there was a Fiambrera proposal to join
some people and work on other level. We choose La Alameda, a barrio [district]
in the centre of Seville, with all the predictable circumstances: years
of abandonment, bad housing and a growing rate of evictions as a preparation
for a massive assault of developers and gentrifiers.
We were some 60 people and had some
30,000 pesetas (£150). We organised 5 groups and worked on different
issues, trying to relate all of the results. It was of central importance
to be able to offer a common image for the whole alternative forum, something
that was cheap, effective, politically significant, and aesthetically well
built. After observing our surroundings we came to this:
"Si 8 Do", is more or less the contrary
of the official motto of the Sevilla Council, "No 8 Do", which must be
read as "Thou have not abandoned me" and it is a reference to a distinction
that some medieval king gave to Seville.
The motto is on absolutely everything
in Seville: buses, uniforms, street posts... and quite obviously ours means
"thou have abandoned me". We started using these little flags with the
changed motto, just by placing them on every dog-shit we found in the street,
and there were hundreds of them.
Fiambrera should register the "dog-shit
index" as a sociological and urbanistic tool to detect the availability
of green areas (none at all in our barrio) and the degree of abandonment
of a district (months and months without any cleaning brigade).
Of course this action was widely
commented on by the local press and among the neighbours who had to realise
how their barrio was subject to a scheduled degradation and how evictions
would soon be following. In this aspect and as soon as we started working
in the barrio we discovered some places where people would know what we
were talking about more quickly.
That was the case with the Calle
Arrayan, a narrow street leading to the barrio market. A narrow street
that was threatened by a big wall, some ten metres high, that had been
falling to pieces for years (in Seville some months before a similar wall
had fallen suddenly and killed several people).
We decided to organise something
there, and together with the neighbours we came to the concept of "experimental
wall": a wall whose falling onto the people crossing the street would be
used to test some security systems against falling walls: plastic helmets
So we got our plastic helmets, put
the Si 8 Do motto on them (people already recognised the same initiative
as in the dog-shit flags: los de las mierdas! los de las mierdas!) and
we arranged two tables at each end of the street, so when anybody went
through that street he/she would be asked kindly, on behalf of the city
council, to wear the helmet while passing through, just in case the wall
The reactions would vary widely:
from obedience, to insults to the supposed council members offering the
helmets... till they realised about the Si 8 Do motto... After the days
working there, the most important result to us has been the creation of
autonomous groups able to deal with some of the tools we introduced.
So, on the commonly saturated environment
of the barrio, it was easy to realise how many yellow boards there were.
They announced the supposed agreement to build low-cost houses, and had
been there for over a year without any result. So one of our groups started
interfering with them systematically with an interval of some days between
them. That led us into a massive media campaign and a debate on the housing
policy in La Alameda.
To prevent evictions from happening
easily, we started working on one of the most present (and hateful) council
campaigns, one that used these boards: Which came to mean: "If you are
not registered: you are nobody." We got some of the original posters and
worked out this other which says: "You may well be registered, and even
so you are nobody when gentrification comes."
This has been a tool ever since
used by the evictions alarm committee organised by people in La Alameda.
Sometimes it has gained us some crucial minutes in which to contact other
people and get stronger, effectively avoiding evictions.
Technologies of Location
Mongrel (Hybrid group working with
art and technology)
Forgetting the invisible city is
a normality for most of us, a common sense that can help amass someone
an empire, a small business or, as in Bristol, transport people half way
around the world against their will. This forgetting offers us a temporary
blindness that allows us to go about our daily business, walking past the
sick, the homeless or the building built on glories that meant other people's
In the same way that we forget the
map and remember the journey, we also forget the software that wrote this
text. Software exists in some form of invisible shadow world of process
something like the key we find in maps. Software is establishing models
by which things are done yet, like believing the objectivity of maps, we
forget that software is derived from certain cultural positions. Software
can never just be a tool; it is always culturally and politically positioned,
and part of this positioning is the invisibility of the software in construction.
We follow our menu items like we
follow our maps moving from place to place transfixed by the representation
we see before us, while seeing nothing of the social geographies from which
they were derived and on which they act. We ignore the built-in cultural
and political bias--the implicit totalitarianism of prescribed menu options--
instead we are transfixed by the outcome of our interaction with applications.
We forget the program in order to get on with the task.
Although maps depict what is actually
visible, they also visualise what is invisible in everyday experience and
through the selectivity of the mapmaker certain elements are shown and
given relative importance whilst others are not. The map is an abstract
visual composition, a view from a vertical rather than horizontal plain,
usually drawn at a constant scale across its surface.
Software attempts to visualise and
structure creative processes and procedures along instrumental lines. It
objectifies the invisible cultural constructs within the work, reducing
it to a series of binary choices that are hierarchically defined. This
is an everyday experience, and through the selectivity of the programmer
certain elements are shown and given relative importance whilst others
This series of statements explains
something of the apparent objectivity we feel when looking at a map. It
is also a pointer toward why this graphic illusion of our urban space is
so compelling over and above its use as a method of knowing where we are
and where we are going. It is also obvious that maps present only one possible
version of the Earth's surface, an edict fiction constructed from factual
observation. This fiction maps itself onto the cities exterior--the city
image as a mediated concept, the city as seen from elsewhere.
The modern map presupposes a certain
world view, a specific style of visual geography, one that takes a kind
of birds-eye view. The map is a scale drawing not an exact reproduction.
The map is a symbolic representation by an agreed set of symbols figures,
lines and shading.
Software also presupposes a certain
world-view, a specific set of visual devices such as menu names and items
like File, Edit, View, and their subsets; Cut; Paste, Save, Save As, Open
and so on. These represent a specific style of visual geography of the
creative processes that acts as a distance to its subject. Software is
a systematic modelling of the creative process not an exact reproduction
of that process. Software is a symbolic representation of creative processes
by a culturally agreed set of symbols menu items and processes of interaction.
October in the North: Storm from
the Northwest (A videotape, 92 minutes, 1995) is a project which was undertaken
as part of "puente de pasaje", a programme of 12 artist interventions which
took place in Bilbao during 1995. It was produced by Carta Blanca, commissioned
by Corinne Diserens and co-ordinated by Franck Larcade. The project did
not simply entail producing a videotape, but also designing its own mode
of distribution. The tape is a synthesis between audio-visual material
and varying modes of representation which spring from diverse social, cultural
and political sources. These sources include those drawn from heterogeneous
symbolic constructions, contrasting and occasionally antagonistic. Copies
of the videotape, in domestic format, can be found stored and made accessible
to the public in diverse, often unconnected, archives and video libraries.
In this way distinct social groups have free access to the work, in which
they find images and recognisable forms of self-representation recontextualised
through a complex, multi-faceted audio-visual device. The work was first
shown in Bilbao at the "puente: seminario internacional", an interdisciplinary
event dedicated to analysing the transformation of industrial cities in
the so-called "Atlantic Axis".
The following text (originally published
in hika, an independent Basque magazine which concentrates on contemporary
thought and politics) gave an account of the project and announced its
availability to the public.
October in the North: Storm from
the Northwest actively refuses to offer a standardised map in any geographical,
temporal, historical or social sense; quite the reverse. Instead, it chooses
to dismantle preconceived cartographies. I see it as a critical reading
of partial aspects of a concrete geographical, urban and social environment.
It deals essentially with a discontinuous journey across time and space
via fragments of social and urban landscapes in transformation, but in
no way attempts to present any type of globalised or systematic overview
The videotape revolves around a
central leitmotiv in the visual representations of what is known as Greater
Bilbao: the journey down the length of the Ria (the river) from the heart
of the great city out towards the sea. The journey outlined in "Puerto
de Bilbao" (Port of Bilbao, a film dating from 1920 attributed to the Azkona
brothers, restored and preserved by the Filmoteca Vasca) is inter-cut,
opposed and deconstructed at various points throughout its originally linear
and descriptive narrative. It is a metaphorical dispersal and fragmentation
brought to bear upon a physical, temporal and historical axis. Another
dimension is added to the institutional and media representation of the
demolition of the last cranes in Bilbao's Abandoibarra [the urban area
which is been re-developed around Guggenheim-Bilbao Museum and Euskalduna
Palace]. It allows us to read the loss of physical spaces within the old
industrial city--where social and class antagonisms were made visible--as
a metaphor of the symbolic dissolution of the central character of the
proletariat as social subject in the conflict between capital and labour
under the classic Leftist view. Later on, breaking down the barriers of
temporal distance, the vision of an industrial landscape in ruins and on
the point of annihilation runs parallel to and can be confused with the
same landscape decades earlier, incomplete and still in progress.
Storm from the Northwest: a final
metaphor, at the end of the proposed journey; the waves lashing against
the breakwater remind us of other waves used to symbolise the unstoppable
advance of the revolution (in Eisenstein's "Potemkin"). Turbulent October
weather conditions (Basque poet Gabriel Celaya: "Everything is terribly
sad, and so beautiful!") overlap with the events of October 1984 which
saw the civil unrest in Euskalduna. Engineering, meteorology and the techniques
and technologies for the control and domination of natural forces (Marcuse:
the domination of man over man "through" the domination of nature) are
aligned with the technocratic imaginary of a futuristic Bilbao. There is
an extended prologue and epilogue which centre on the mining district,
the hub which generated the staggering amounts of capital which, in the
hands of the local bourgeoisie, supported the industrial development of
the region, through the systematic and insatiable exploitation of human
and natural resources.
There are many ways to read and
recount history. Almost always, the most suspect is that which is disseminated
by those who control and impose the narrative mechanisms; those who decide
who should speak, when and to what ends. Santos Zunzunegui at the beginning
of the tape, tells about the work of the historian being like a work of
montage. There are many alternative experiences and readings of History,
as well as personal and collective (hi)stories which deserve to be told,
heard and remembered. I want to say that opposing the dominant narratives
is above all a political task, that some of us have decided to take this
on by rearranging sounds and images. To resist hegemonic narrative methods
and offer a different arrangement of sounds and pictures is to truly contribute
to the possibility of a collective and alternative reorganisation of experience.
I mean this in the sense that Goddard says that those who work with images
move in occupied territory-- and in occupied territory one must choose to
be part of the resistance. Or in the sense that Deleuze states that an
act of resistance has two sides: under the form of an artwork, under the
form of human struggle--this is without doubt one of the ways one can connect
art with life.
It pleases me immensely that my
work provokes so many questions, but only in as much that I can respond
with many others. Gallarta is a village which grew up at the foot of the
mines in the shadow of the pit workings. Old Gallarta was demolished during
the 60s and 70s in order to continue the mining there. Due to the protests
of some of its inhabitants, the authorities gave in to the building of
the new village, as it stands, nearby. On the site of the original village
there is now an immense hole. It is salutary to consider the visual contrast
between this impressive crater in the earth and the monumental presence
of the new architecture in the future institutional Greater Bilbao, somewhat
utopian and overblown. Or the contrast between the large figures that adorn
the technocratic dream of a perfectly controlled socio-economic development
and the smaller ones that inhabit people's daily work and their strategies
for survival. Or the gulf between the diverse ways that different people
and social groups read images and history.
Marcelo Expósito, Bilbao/Valencia,
October 1995/ February 1996. Translated by Anna Milsom.