Backto the Old School
A Means of Mutation
Sound and Vision
To the Judges
Tower of Babel supplement
Pavel Buchler, Studio
Simon Herbert, Performance
Peter Suchin, Aspects
of Art Criticism
Chris Byrne, Malcolm Dickson
Porn into Art
A Quality Cinema
In the Eye of the
New Media, Old
Uncle Sam's New
Tales of the Great
There is a plaque on the wall of
the Glasgow Royal Infirmary which states that it was here from 1861 to
1869 that Joseph Lister initiated his anti-septic proceedure for performing
operations. Eight years is a long time to initiate anything. What it took
him so long to convince the ruling bodies of was that doctors washing their
hands between operations with carbolic soap and the use of anti-septic
sprays to kill germs would greatly decrease the death rate in hospitals.
It took him so long not because of the difficulty people had in grasping
what he was on about, but because of resistence to his claims. Resistence
from within. Doctors would find it hard to admit that the blood was on
their hands. They found it hard to admit that they were the cause of death.
The established proceedures were defended by those who had established
them as the basis of their carreers. This should be regarded as an advance.
"There was one Italian who possessed
the scientific spirit, that was Leonardo da vinci. But he confided his
thoughts to diaries and remained unknown and useless in his time."
Lord Acton, The Renaissance, Lectures
on Modern History.
This is a remarkable fact. During
renaissances censorship. A clash between new learning and old. The blotting
out of significant thought which questions the order of things.
For those who are in the ascendancy
in a 'renaissance', but whose real methods of exerting power are hidden,
for the infamous, a historical inversion occurs:
"Lorenzo de' Medici once said that
his buildings were the only works that would outlast him; and it is common
in the secular characters of that epoch, unlike the priesthood, not to
believe in those things that are abiding, and not to regard organisations
that are humble and obscure at first and bloom by slow degrees for the
use of another age."
His crimes were not useless to the
nation. Acton is saying that Medici's--the Borgias--reputation lies now in
the way they did things, not in the monuments and cultural artefacts they
ordered constructed as a monument, as a facade.
With the case of Dr. Ismail Besikci
the scientific spirit was not kept to diaries or notebooks: his work "Socio-Economic
and Ethnic Foundations of the Structure of eastern Anatolia" was rewarded
by a 12 year sentence. Besikci was also one of the first Turkish intellectuals
to support and defend the armed national struggle led by the Kurdistan
Workers party (the PKK) which began in 1984. As he said to his prosecutors:
"One of the most important prerequisites
of modern civilisatiuon is the creation of an environment in which different
voices can be heard, different views can develop. I am not the defendant...I
defend science ...I defend the universal values of my time ...What they
want to try is thought, science ...they are endeavouring to try me--but
history will try them."
As we go to press we have been informed
of a fire-bomb attack on the Kurdish Community Centre in Haringay, North
London. The centre serves more than 4,000 Kurdish refugees.
This edition of Variant contains
two supplements, from Hull Time Based Arts and Streetlevel Photoworks.
We are open to future colloborations
with other organisations. For details contact the editors.
Back to the old
There's a crisis in contemporary
art. The jump into the laissez faire joys of the popular and profane, propelled
by a surge of deceitful anti-intellectualism and pap travelogue art criticism,
has left a vacuum where once there was a proud reflective heart. As the
homogeneous products of years of economic selection and pruning in art
schools stumble forward, bereft of an understanding of what exactly the
conceptualism of neo is all about, those with memories long enough to remember
effective political action, critical discourse and radical art sharpen
their collective knifes ready for the innocent chipmunks of British Art.
A backlash is under way.
The powerful combination of boredom,
irritation and anger at the inane, self satisfied, distended head of British
Art has seen to that. The vapid marketing of an art purporting to celebrate
the popular, the everyday, has exhausted itself and its audience. This
rediscovery of the joys of nestling next to the glory of popular culture
has been marketed as conveniently side-stepping the traditional image of
art as elitist and socially exclusive. However the self serving belief
that deep rooted political, economic and social gulfs can be magically
vanished by popular gestures--'some techno music in a gallery'--is once again
crumbling. That we've been here before is perhaps all the more frightening.
Such transparent moves towards the popular were the easy crutch of many
a second rate curator and artist during those 'halcyon days of the sixties'.
As Robert Garnet has written, this tourist infatuation with the pleasures
of the popular is "the easiest and oldest move in the book".1
Similarly while reports of their
demise are no doubt over exaggerated, the architects of much of this hogwash,
the international super curators, are also finally starting to get some
flack. Bloated on the easy pickings of "a generation of artists, who have
largely disavowed their claims to authorship, who create a deliberately
dumb art that refuses to answer back, that can, therefore neatly be slotted
into any theme or group exhibition 'authored by a big name curator'"2,
their time is finally up. When artists renowned for whoring after any authority
start complaining about the stupidity of curators, you know something is
rotten in the belly of the beast.
However, accepting the reality and
need for some kind of developed critique of what passes as British Art
is one thing, but my troubling suspicion is that in the rush to expose
the phantasm of success this critique is slowly turning into a crusade
to roll back the advances that have been made. Separating out the strands
of interest from a morass of hype and confusion is obviously difficult.
Yes much 'yba' is laddish, puerile, ignorant and numbingly celebratory
of 'popular culture', but equally within this murky nebula much is of genuine
interest. My worry about the domino effect of a backlash is that in the
ferment of its reactionary zeal, it loses sight of facets of artists' work
which exist outside the hype.
One aspect of the backlash against
the gravy train of young British art has centred on its perceived laddishness.
With the media frenzy for art there has increasingly appeared to be a confluence
between the new lad, loaded with hedonistic virility, and the art word
doppleganger, pissed on Becks.
In a culture cancerously consumed
with misogynist contempt for women, over loaded with images of pubescent
'chicks' and where statistics of male violence are escalating, this celebration
of a masculinity of social irresponsibility, stupidity and ignorance has
none too surprisingly deeply angered many. For not only has the new lad
been held up as a paradigm of nineties masculinity, but perhaps more troubling
this cut-out has become the sanctioned template for 'successful' women
artists. The spectre of the female lad shouting 'bollocks' and flashing
her tits haunts much of the discussion about 'yba'.
In the recently published book 'Occupational
Hazard' Heidi Reitmaier succinctly articulates her own hostility at this
resurrected fake in a pointed critique of Sarah Lucas' work. For Reitmaier,
Lucas' constructed persona and coverage are all too familiar. Granted the
honourary position of being one of the boys, Lucas' transgressive acts
are then arrogantly 'rubber stamped' by male critics. Her work far from
being emancipatory, is for Reitmaier, all too easily assimilated, discussed
and categorised. As Reitmaier writes, the consequence of all this is to
"reduce the work to trite clichés which demand attention only because
of how loud one is shouting rather than what one is shouting about".3
This scenario is depressingly familiar.
From the Bloomsbury group to the abstract expressionists, artistic culture
has always tokenistically welcomed the "mannish female artist". When, as
Reitmaier writes, "Lucas is represented as a particular kind of person
and then fostered on all and sundry as the fait accompli of feminism, feminist
art and feminist art criticism"4,
you can hear generations of woman artists/writers howl in despair.
Reitmaier's assessment of the highly
restricted space created by the manufacture of a sanctioned template for
'transgressive' behaviour is spot on. Unfortunately I find her argument
loses much of its persuasiveness when the work of Cathy de Monchaux is
presented as a more expansive paradigm of what a nineties women artist
could be. It's in Reitmaier's championing of de Monchaux that the dangers
of a backlash against 'yba' become apparent. Far from critiquing the more
ridiculous rhetoric of funky, vulgar British art, we instead are presented
with what amounts to little more than a reactionary retreat.
In sighting de Monchaux as a corrective
to Lucas and all the 'Bad Girls', Reitmaier proposes that de Monchaux's
work "will purposefully disallow the reduction of the female and contemporary
artistic femininity to an essential Bad Girl Stance".5
However, I find it more likely that one limiting essentialist conception
of gender identity is simply replaced by another.
Fundamental to an appreciation of
de Monchaux's work is a belief in gender polarity. Reitmaier writes that
de Monchaux engages in a "subversion of spheres of male artistic technical
facility [that brings] to the fore the hierarchy between male artisan and
female crafts person".6
Now once upon a time this modernist hierarchy did exist, and lo it was
omnipotent. The trashing of 'female' craft skills by the testosterone fueled
mythology of 'masculine' technical prowess ruled the roost in many a sculpture
and painting department. Now, although they linger on in some art school
departments, such dinosaurs are nearly extinct. Artists today simply don't
share a belief in the kind of sex role theory7
that undermines the perceived success and frisson of de Monchaux's work.
Incompetence and technical mastery are traits which can be more uniformly
found across the artistic sphere. To repeat this idea only goes to further
entrench such essentialist gender positions.
Questions of skill and competence
are important in the construction of value in art, but I think what Reitmaier
misses is that in partly rejecting the titillation and shock tactics she
sees in Lucas' work, she ignores the formalist conservatism central to
de Monchaux's success. If in Reitmaier's argument assimilation is equated
with failure, then I think she has to acknowledge that de Monchaux, like
Rachel Whiteread, is also capable of being securely slotted into a dominant
paradigm for the very reason that in playing off 'masculine' technical
skills against 'feminine' craft skills, she keeps faith with a division
that maintains gender polarity in the art world.
I think Reitmaier has mistaken de
Monchaux's conservatism for radical resistance because, justifiably angered
and bored by the hyperbole of 'yba', she has jumped from a backlash position,
capable of critique, to a reactionary, knee jerk one. 'yba' is a spectacle
of consumption, market driven, over saturated (the use of the catch-all
brand name 'yba' tells you as much), and inevitably it is flatulent with
inane pronouncements and incestuous bed hopping. But Reitmaier, in offering
de Monchaux as a alternative to the excesses of contemporary British Art,
seems guilty of hankering after the kind of scrupulous shiny package of
ethical moral and artistic tidiness that was thrown up in the eighties
by critical postmodernists, then thrown out in the early nineties by the
reactionary backlash of 'yba' anti-intellectualism.
"There's nothing wrong with me, I'm
The pushing of Lucas and artists
like Tracy Emin and Gillian Wearing as the acceptable face of nineties
feminism is reductive. (Though no more than the similar championing of
artists like Mary Kelly in the eighties. The closures then on what was
legitimate behaviour for women are undoubtedly responsible for the bad
girl backlash.) Reitmaier's anger at the rubber stamping of Lucas' persona--"Why
on earth should a bunch of male artists and critics find themselves in
a position to grant license concerning just what an icon for women, or
a particular woman, should be?"9--is,
within a still male dominated art world, more than a little understandable!
But beyond this rubber stamping, appropriation and assimilation there are
aspects of Lucas' work which highlight why she is more than a shouting,
tit flashing ineffectual laddette.
Lucas' work has been popular and
much vaunted by male critics. Reitmaier is correct that the impetus for
much of this praise has partly, once again stemmed from the need by those
men with art world power to generate an illusory gleam of equality in a
masculine art world (looking at this years Turner prize, my cynical side
can't help but feel they're working their way through a list--a Scot, a
woman, a black). But running parallel with this, I can't help but feel
the championing of an artist like Lucas is also predicated on a frustration
amongst many artists, critics and visitors on not seeing questions of masculine
identity and sexuality articulated within art practice (obviously many
gay artists, writers and critics have pioneered mapping this terrain, helping
to destabilise gender certainties). That Lucas has affected a masculine
front, has played with its tropes, is possibly the reason her work is of
interest to men whose own sense of identity is as contradictory, confused
and volatile as has been ascribed to femininity.
The plethora of books on 'masculinities'
is evidence enough that there is widespread academic interest in the topic.
While admittedly many of these books are nothing more than conservative
attacks on feminism ('off to the woods men, those viragos will never sap
my life-force') many reveal that today, probably more than any other time
in the last century, the certainties of male identity are crumbling. As
Lynne Segal in her book 'Slow Motion' remarks: "the evidence for the increasing
intellectual, emotional and physical impoverishment of men today is startling".10
While of course any such pronouncement of a crisis in 'masculinity' have
to be placed against what Segal calls "the great contradiction of our time
[namely that] as the twentieth century draws to a close, men appear to
be emerging as the threatened sex; even as they remain, everywhere the
threatening sex, as well"11,
it's hard to escape the feeling, that finally what Homi Bhabha has called
"the prosthetic reality"12
of 'masculinity' is being dragged into the spotlight.
Integral to this "prosthetic reality"
and to the contradiction Segal pinpoints, is the symbolic weight that 'masculinity'
has ascribed to it. As Segal remarks it is precisely "because 'manhood'
still has the symbolic weight denied to 'womanhood' that men's apparent
failings loom so large--to men themselves and to those around them."13
It's this symbolic weight which has largely been left unexamined within
artistic culture. The insecurities, contradictions and ambiguities of masculinity
rarely surface within heterosexual, western art in the twentieth century
because as in other social spheres "to speak of masculinity in general,
sui generis, must be avoided at all costs".14
Lucas' acting out of 'laddish' stereotypically
'male' behaviour can at least be recommended for attempting to look into
this "symbolic weight". In works such as 'Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab' and
'Au Naturel' the experience of a feminine voice articulating and representing
the brutish reality of misogyny, rooted in a direct social experience,
secures the work a power lacking in the more abstract, formalist work of
artists like de Monchaux and Helen Chadwick. Similarly in many of her photoworks,
Lucas' swaggering laddish front confuses the notion that such behaviour
is the property of purely men.
Oscillating between gendered roles,
her work thus goes some way towards blurring any simplistic notions of
the polar, binary nature(s) of 'masculinity' and 'femininity'. Instead
of the kind of space de Monchaux offers where the supposedly secure identities
of male and female are ping-ponged between, Lucas' works create a space
where a kind of gender vertigo is experienced.
Central to the disputes that have
raged over 'yba' is a struggle over what is the best methodology for artists
to pursue. In the polarised climate of the art world, where one scene is
replaced by another, the struggle in the nineties has dominantly been represented
as existing between those lining up behind a wholesale embrace of theory
and those preferring a practice stemming from lived experience. Lucas'
engagement is, unlike say de Monchaux or other previous overtly feminist
artists like Helen Chadwick, as equally grounded in the contingencies and
vicissitudes of the everyday as it is the world of theory. Lucas has referred
to this as working in the space between the ideal and the actual, testing
the veracity of theory in the realities of the everyday.
It's no doubt indicative of the
artworld that a woman is one of the first to look into the more disturbing
and difficult areas of masculinity. Probing the darker recesses of the
male psyche have of course been familiar turf for artists in other mediums.
Scorsese's trilogy of films, 'Mean Streets', 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging
Bull'; Donald Cammell's 'Performance'; and Beat Takeshi's 'Sonatine', all
cover similar ground, frequently in an infinitely more complex manner.
In such films there is a deeper consciousness of how labour, power and
desire overlap and interconnect in the genesis of 'masculinities'. Of course
the professional hubris endemic in the artworld, ensures the idea that
artists in other mediums have already covered the ground is left as a scotoma.
That art might actually be seriously lagging behind other mediums with
regard to such questions as gender, is something little discussed (except
as proof, for connoisseurs and conservatives, that it should stick to what
Other less well known artists like
Chad McCail, Deborah Holland and Dave Beech15,
similarly engage with questions of identity in ways which moves their practices
beyond the theoretically illustrative work of the eighties. In Deborah
Holland's work there is a similar play with the gestures and guises of
both masculinity and femininity. Whether she's acting out the classic 'lads'
act of assertion, flashing your arse--mooning, or trying on the glamour
of a high priestess of celluloid, her work simultaneously uses glossy,
seductive attractiveness to 'suck' the viewer into a space where "gender
vertigo" disrupts traditional divisions. Chad McCail's drawings and paintings
construct narratives which detail instances of infant libidinal desires
being suffocated and chastised within the regulatory spaces, such as the
home and school. In his scrupulously well drawn storyboards, children can
be found looking up their mothers skirts, while adult hands probe the trousers
of small children. In detailed worlds which capture all the paraphernalia
of childhood, the complex, contradictory elements in the construction of
identity reveal themselves.
Dave Beech has attracted a certain
amount of vilification for his most recent work. It's perhaps none too
surprising that his acting out of classic tabloid male fantasies have been
taken as revealing his own desires (the combination of the rabid thirst
for autobiography, with a dose of North London ignorance and snobbery about
a Warrington male have seen to that). Finding images of a man sitting in
bed supposedly after a three in the bed romp, or lasciviously looking up
a woman's skirt, those artworld ostriches with their head in the sand have
dumbly accused him of misogyny. This is instructive; when artists like
Beech attempt to draw attention to the very "prosthetic reality" of masculinity
Homi Bhabha pinpointed, the reaction is often one which prefers to deny
the existence of such fantasies. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Such
'vulgar', 'brutish' fantasies don't sit too well in our increasingly bureaucratic
and responsible artistic culture. Failing to fall into line, to rationalise,
control and regulate the darker matter of identity (this censorious climate
is reminiscent of the chastising of women in the feminist movement who
refused to dump their enjoyment in fashion), his playing out of wayward,
insensitive fantasies dents the notion that such incorrect behaviour can
It's been rather too common to talk
about masculinity as an homogeneous entity to simply equate masculinity
with male dominance. The violence endemic in hegemonic masculine culture,
the strenuous steering away from anything which might smack of weakness
or inferiority, is frequently spoken about as something which both sits
relatively easily with the majority of men and is empirically true. It's
alarming how often essentialist conceptions of male identity rear their
head, how some characteristics are regarded as 'naturally' belonging to
men. However, beyond all the bogus flagwaving about 'yba', 'Cool Britannia'
etc., artists like Holland, Beech, McCail and Lucas have engaged with questions
of gender and sexuality in a nexus where the pleasures and pains of the
everyday, the popular, intersect with those of theory, in practices which
go some way to destabilising such certainties. If a backlash evolves into
a reactionary u-turn, the possibilities opened up in the last five years
for a more expansive discussion of questions of identity will be jettisoned.
I'd rather not go back to the old school.
1 Robert Garnett (1998) 'Britpopism
and the Populist Gesture'. Published in Occupational Hazard, p. 24, published
by Black Dog publishing.
2 Ibid. p. 20.
3 Heidi Reitmaier (1998) What are
you Looking At? Moi?. Published in Occupational Hazard, p. 118. Black Dog
4 Ibid. p. 122
5 Ibid. p. 125
6 Ibid. p. 126
7 Bob Connell describes sex role
theory as being "linked to a structure defined by biological difference,
the dichotomy of male and female--not to a structure defined by social relations.
This leads to catergoricalism, the reduction of gender to two homogeneous
categories, betrayed by the persistent blurring of sex differences with
sex roles. Sex roles are defined as reciprocal; polarisation is a necessary
part of the concept". 'Masculinities', p. 26, published Polity 1995.
8 Chas in Donald Cammell/Nicholas
9 Heidi Reitmaier, What are you
looking at. Moi?, published in Occupational Hazard, p. 122.
10 Lynne Segal, Slow Motion Changing
Masculinties Changing Men, published 1990 Virago. Introduction p. 2.
11 Ibid. Introduction p. 1. Some
quick statistics illustrate this. In Britain 96.2 % of all major companies
are controlled by men. Globally 90 % of all political representatives are
men. Concurrently of course, as a consequence of global and national economic
restructuring, men's unemployment is rapidly growing, in Britain male unemployment
outstrips that of women. The incumbent effects on those men denied access
to the "symbolic weight" of masculinity i.e. breadwinners, find themselves
suffering higher than average ill health and depression. The suicide rate
amongst young men is particularly indicative of this.
12 Homi Bhabha, Are You a Man or
a Mouse? quoted in Lynne Segal Slow Motion published by Virago 1990. p.
13 Ibid. p. 2
14 Ibid. p. 22
15 All of these artists have or
will be exhibiting at the Collective Gallery, Edinburgh.
Hungry Ghosts, a group show presented
at The Douglas Hyde Gallery (10 June-25 July, 1998) comprising the work
of Nobuyoshi Araki, John Currin, Philip-Lorca diCorcia,Rineke Dijkstra,
Marlene Dumas, Keith Edmier, Karen Kilimnik, Sarah Lucas, Hiroshi Sugimoto.
All of the work shown has been widely exhibited internationally.
Broadly the work negotiates varying
strands of art practices read through portraiture, documentary, cinema
and popular culture, and employs various media including painting, photography,
drawing and sculpture. In this instance the works' configuration is framed
through the title of the show HUNGRY GHOSTS, a term from Buddhism referring
to insatiable desire, perpetual hunger, represented in Buddhist imagery
by a big belly and a small neck. Hungry Ghosts as a framing device situates
the distinct 'spiritual and philosophical ethos' of The Douglas Hyde Gallery
under its director John Hutchinson.
In the gallery handout, Hutchinson
"Extreme forms of desire are not
especially interesting, because those who are overwhelmed by them become
almost inhuman. Raw voracity is hellish, and it demands fulfilment. In
contrast, the people in Hungry Ghosts seem to be in a state of transition,
halfway between one world and the other. In a certain sense they are all
Hungry Ghosts is populated by John
Currin's 'realism in drag' type Miss Fenwick,1997, Dumas' Naomi Campbell
and Princess Diana, Great Britain, 1997, the 'rent boys' of Philip-Lorca
diCorcia's 'Hollywood' series, Rineke Dijkstra's scrawny adolescents from
the 'Beach' series, Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 26, 1992 and four of Dijkstra's
Matadors. There are also Araki's hotel porno people, Tokyo Cube (53-58)
and Kilimnik's Hello magazine types such as Death in America, Plaza Hotel,
1964, 1989, Sarah Lucas' Bunny--gets snookered no.9, 1997, and Keith Edmier's
sculpted from television African famine victims. A motley crew.
Sugimoto's photographic image Stadium
Drive in, Orange County, 1993, stands alone as the only image unpopulated
and yet the image is overcrowded by a populace just beyond the threshold
of visibility. The time lapse process by which the image is produced (exposed
for the length of the projected image on the screen) acts as a means of
evacuating the image (on screen) and foregrounding what is by necessity
usually absent, that is, the screen. This indeterminate presence/absence
in-betweeness disrupts the central focus making a blank non-space at the
centre exploding the punctum to the edges of the frame and the mise en
scene of both the actual space of spectatorship represented in the image
and the framing of film as 'product'. The Stadiums situation in Orange
County is spatially relevant, within driving distance of Hollywood but
closer to Disney.
The placing of Sugimoto's work at
the beginning of the exhibition and the foregrounding of 'framing' as an
activity enables a reading of the rest of the work and the show as a whole,
through the varying topographies of evacuation, the wider world of electro-visual
culture and the possible spectres this embodies. The Buddhist framing of
Hungry Ghosts as an exhibition, frames the work through a theological discourse
on "...the condition of longing, of unfulfilled desire"2
one that in a wider art context flows easily enough with Lacanian psychoanalytic
theory. This easily aligned mutual gratification has the potential to act
as a full stop though, creating an artificial closure to the plethora of
readings possible. The stillness of this if you like, the ISness of it
all, and the stasis it has the potential to offer, constructs an uncomplicated
doxa in the way the work is presented for interpretation. Does this in
some way close off discussion of how desire is constituted and mediated?
"The priest carried out the first
sacrifice, named castration, and all the men and women of the north lined
up behind him, crying in cadence, 'Lack, lack, it's the common law'."3
Thinking through the work of diCorcia's
'rent boys', Brent Booth;21 years old; Des Minew, Iowa; $30 and Edward
Earle Windsor; 20 years old; Atlanta, Georgia; $30 for example, what is
marginalised in reading these images through desire (with a capital D)
is the tenuous strands that infiltrate these spaces. It is not that desire
should be excluded from the discussion around these images (or even that
it could be excluded). Hutchinson referring to the 'people' in Hungry Ghosts
writes "...others are drained, as though they have been exhausted by a
fruitless quest for an impossible dream."4
This is not written specifically in relation to diCorcia's images, I have
chosen it as apt because it fits well with the typical 'otherside' negotiation
of Hollywood. However reading these characters through this trajectory
chooses to ignore information about the production of the images, that
they are paid performances, albeit underpaid. The images are taken in a
location were rent boys hang out, however there is an ambiguity as to whether
they are rent boys, but either/or, they are performing being rent boys,
for diCorcia's camera. It is this ambiguity in the set-up involved in their
production, that directs attention towards the viewing expectation (desire
again). The performative artificial aspect of the images maps an ambivalence
to the authority of documentary and opens up the interpretative process
to include the detritus of the image. Is this guy who is playing the part
of the 'rent boy', paid by diCorcia, drinking Pepsi, because, a) it was
part of diCorcia's compositional strategy or b) it was a happy accident?
Less fixated on the potential of this image to proffer information on the
ontological spaces occupied by the position 'rent boy'--what interests me
is how the banal functions as an interactive process between the artwork
and the viewer. Does he watch the same ads for Pepsi as me? Is he part
of the 'Pepsi generation'?
Approaching Keith Edmier's 'Ethiopian
Baby and Young Woman, 1984-5', two figurative sculptures in pigmented vinyl,
mindful of, as Dick Hebdige writes that "...we all live these days in the
airwaves as well as on the ground in three dimensional neighbourhoods"5,
Edmier's figures are obsessively 'real' based on tele-visual imagery of
Ethiopian famine victims. As 'copies' from the television they are 'copies'
from a complex network of codes circulating through global telecommunication
network's processing of, for example, Africa, the 'catastrophe', natural
disaster etc. With this in mind is the term 'copy' appropriate? Is there
an authority of resemblance in Edmier's Ethiopian Baby and Young woman?
Reference is deferred in these sculptures of images, images which can be
read as representations of particular codes. With Edmier's sculpture are
we in the space of simulacrum "...as images without resemblance" although
producing "...an effect of resemblance"?6
And, if this is so how are we to negotiate Hutchinson's desire to read
this work as accessing 'people'. This focus on the representations in the
show Hungry Ghosts as in someway directly accessing 'people' (the authority
of resemblance) allows descriptions which evacuates the mediation process.
Writing that "...some are the objects of love or longing, who have suffered
from the weight of their burden ...a few have become empty so they can
move, unresisting, with the flow of desire", allows an over simplification
in how viewers might want to engage with this work.7
Even within the terms of Hutchinson's own reference, in accepting these
representations as somehow directly relating to an accepted reality do
we want to read Ethiopian Woman and Child as Hungry Ghosts.8
To do this surely we displace the political spectres of 'globalisation'.
The figure of the ghost is situated
in recent cultural theory as offering political significance suggesting
as Allen Meek writes "...a paradigmatic shift in cultural studies where
the poststructuralist death of the subject encounters both the collapse
of Soviet communism and the 'revolution' in global telecommunications".9
In his mapping of 'spectral critique' he cites Derrida's politics "...of
memory, of inheritance and of generations",10
Meek's thesis is that a spectral critique would "...open global tele-capitalism
to the enigmas of visibility that call us back to our fundamental social
and political responsibilities: to the un-and under-employed ...to non-citizens
and to all those whose civil liberties are diminished or annihilated in
the New World Order".11
John Hutchinson writes: "When we
give up hope and perch on the edge of existence, without a steady foothold,
emptiness becomes palpable. If we're lucky, we may then begin to see life
clearly, with compassion."12
Colliding Meek (M) and Huchinson
(H) in order to read (H) "the edge of existence" as the (M) "under-employed
or the non-citizen" and (M) "annihilation of civil liberties" as (H) "without
a steady foothold", Hungry Ghost's focusing on (H)"the condition of longing,
of unfulfilled desire" rather than (M) "social and political responsibilities"
begs the question if (H) "compassion" is to be based on (H) "luck" are
we in danger of being haunted by what Jameson has referred to as "sheer
1 John Hutchinson, Hungry Ghosts
Gallery Hand out, The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, 1998.
3 Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari,
A Thousand Plateaus, Capitalism & Schizophrenia, trans Brian Massumi,
Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p154.
4 John Hutchinson, op cit.
5 Dick Hebdige in Towards A Theory
of The Image (Ed) Jon Thompson, Maastricht, Jan Van Eyck Akadmie, 1996,
6 Gilles Deleuze, Plato and the
Simulacrum, trans. by Rosalind Krauss, October No. 27, Winter 1984, pp
7 John Hutchinson, op cit.
8 Angeline Morrison also remarked
on this disparity while commenting on the visual similarity to Buddhist
images of Hungry Ghosts ie the big belly and thin neck (Angeline Morrison,
Gallery Talk, 22 July 1998.) In a specifically Irish context the aesthetic
codes of Ethiopian Woman and Child have a certain similarity to the 'Irish
famine monument' across from the AIB International Banking Centre in Dublin.
9 Allen Meek, Guides to the Electropolis:
Toward a Spectral Critique of the Media in Postmodern Culture v.7 n.1 September,
10 Derrida, Jacques, Spectres of
Marx: the State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International,
trans. Peggy Kamuf. Intro. Bernd Magnus & Stephen Cullenberg. London,
New York: Routledge, 1994. London, New York: Routledge, 1994, p. xix.
11 Allen Meek, op cit.
12 John Hutchinson, op cit.
13 Frederic Jameson, Marx's Purloined
Letter, New Left Review, No 209 Jan/Feb 1995, p. 86.
a means of mutation
notes on I/O/D 4: The Web Stalker
During 1997 and 1998 a series of
legal and media confrontations were made in the United States and elsewhere.
Amongst those involved were Microsoft, Netscape, and the U.S. government
Department of Justice. The key focus of contention was whether Microsoft,
a company which has a near monopoly on the sale of operating systems for
personal computers, had -- by bundling its own Web Browser, Internet Explorer,
with every copy of its Windows '95/98 OS -- effectively blocked Netscape,
an ostensible competitor in Browser software1
, from competing in a 'free' market. This confrontation ran concurrently
with one between Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, developers of the language
The "Browser Wars" involved more
than these three relatively tightly constructed and similar actors however.
Millions of internet users were implicated in this conflict. The nature
of the proprietary software economy meant that for any side, winning the
Browser Wars would be a chance to construct the ways in which the most
popular section of the internet -- the World Wide Web -- would be used, and
to reap the rewards. The conflict took place in an American court and was
marked by the deadeningly tedious super-formalised rituals that mark the
abstraction of important decisions away from those in whose name they are
made. Though the staging of the conflict was located within the legal and
juridical framework of the US it had ramifications wherever software is
On connecting to a URL, HTML appears
to the user's computer as a stream of data. This data could be formatted
for use in any of a wide variety of configurations. As a current, given
mediation by some interpretative device, it could even be used as a flowing
pattern to determine the behaviour of a device completely unrelated to
its purpose. (Work it with tags? Every <HREF> could switch something
on, every <P> could switch something off -- administration of greater
or lesser electric shocks for instance). Most commonly it is fed straight
into a Browser.
What are the conditions that produce
this particular sort of reception facility? Three fields that are key amongst
those currently conjoining to form what is actualised as the Browser: economics,
design, and the material. By material is meant the propensities of the
various languages, protocols, and data-types of the web.
If we ask, "What produces and reinforces
Browsing?" There is no surprise in finding the same word being used to
describe recreational shopping, ruminant digestion and the use of the World
Wide Web. The Browser Wars form one level of consistency in the assembly
of various forms of economy on the web.
Web sites are increasingly written
for specific softwares, and some elements of them are unreadable by other
packages3. You get Netscape
sites, Explorer sites, sites that avoid making that split and stay at a
level that both could use-- and therefore consign the "innovations" of these
programs to irrelevance. This situation looks like being considerably compounded
with the introduction of customisable (and hence unusable by web-use software
not correctly configured) Extensible Mark-up Language tags.
What determines the development
of this software? Demand? There is no means for it to be mobilised. Rather
more likely, an arms race between the software companies and the development
of passivity, gullibility, and curiosity as a culture of use of software.
One form of operation on the net
that does have a very tight influence-- an ability to make a classical "demand"--on
the development of proprietary software for the web is the growth of online
shopping and commercial information delivery. For companies on the web
this is not just a question of the production and presentation of "content",
but a very concrete part of their material infrastructure. For commerce
on the web to operate effectively, the spatium of potential operations
on the web-- that is everything that is described or made potential by the
software and the network-- needs to be increasingly configured towards this
That there are potentially novel
forms of economic entity to be invented on the web is indisputable. As
ever, crime is providing one of the most exploratory developers. How far
these potential economic forms, guided by notions of privacy; pay-per-use;
trans- and supra-nationality; etc. will develop in an economic context
in which other factors than technical possibility, such as the state, monopolies
and so on is open to question. However, one effect of net-commerce is indisputable.
Despite the role of web designers in translating the imperative to buy
into a post-rave cultural experience, transactions demand contracts, and
contracts demand fixed, determinable relationships. The efforts of companies
on the web are focused on tying down meaning into message delivery.4
Whilst some form of communication may occur within this mucal shroud of
use-value-put-to-good-use the focal point of the communication will always
stay intact. Just click here.
Immaterial labour produces "first
and foremost a social relation ...[that] produces not only commodities, but
also the capital relation."5
If this mercantile relationship is also imperative on the immaterial labour
being a social and communicative one, the position of web designers is
perhaps an archetype, not just for the misjudged and cannibalistic drive
for a "creative economy" currently underway in Britain, but also within
a situation where a (formal) language -- HTML -- explicitly rather than implicitly
becomes a means of production: at one point vaingloriously touted as, "How
To Make Loot".
Web design, considered in its wide
definition: by hobbyists, artists, general purpose temps, by specialists,
and also in terms of the creation of web sites using software such as Pagemill
or Dreamweaver, is precisely a social and communicative practice "whose
'raw material' is subjectivity."6
This subjectivity is an ensemble of pre-formatted, automated, contingent
and "live" actions, schemas, and decisions performed by both softwares,
languages and designers. This subjectivity is also productive of further
sequences of seeing, knowing and doing.
A key device in the production of
web sites is the page metaphor. This has its historical roots in the imaginal
descriptions of the Memex and Xanadu systems -- but it has its specific
history in that Esperanto for computer-based documents, Structured Generalised
Mark-up Language and in the need for storage, distribution and retrieval
of scientific papers at CERN laboratories. Use of metaphor within computer
interface design is intended to enable easy operation of a new system by
over-laying it or even confining it within the characteristics of a homely-futuristic
device found outside of the computer. A metaphor can take several forms.
They include emulators where say, the entire workings of a specific synthesiser
are mapped over into a computer where it can be used in its "virtual" form.
The computer captures the set of operations of the synthesiser and now
the term emulation becomes metaphorical. Allowing other modalities of use
and imaginal refrain to operate through the machine, the computer now is
that synthesiser -- whilst also doubled into always being more. Metaphors
also include items such as the familiar "desktop" or "wastebasket". This
is a notorious case of a completely misapplied metaphor. A wastebasket
is simply an instruction for the deletion of data. Data does not for instance
just sit and rot as things do in an actual wastebasket. That's your back-up
disk. Actual operations of the computer are radically obscured by this
vision of it as some cosy information appliance always seen through the
rear-view mirror of some imagined universal.7
The techniques of page layout were
ported over directly from graphic design for paper. This meant that HTML
had to be contained as a conduit for channelling direct physical representation
-- integrity to fonts, spacing, inflections and so on. The actuality of
the networks were thus subordinated to the disciplines of graphic design
and of Graphical User Interface simply because of their ability to deal
with flatness, the screen. (Though there are conflicts between them based
around their respective idealisations of functionality). Currently of course
this is a situation that is already edging towards collapse as other data
types make incursions onto, through and beyond the page -- but it is a situation
that needs to be totalled, and done so consciously and speculatively.
Another metaphor is that of geographical
references. Where do you want to go today? This echo of location is presumably
designed to suggest to the user that they are not in fact sitting in front
of a computer calling up files, but hurtling round an earth embedded into
a gigantic trademark with the power of some voracious cosmological force.
The World Wide Web is a global medium in the approximately the same way
that The World Series is a global event. With book design papering over
the monitor the real processes of networks can be left to the experts in
It is the technical opportunity
of finding other ways of developing and using this stream of data that
provides a starting point for I/O/D 4: The Web Stalker. I/O/D is a three-person
collective based in London.8
As an acronym, the name stands for everything it is possible for it to
stand for. There are a number of threads that continue through the group's
output. A concern in practice with an expanded definition of the techniques/aesthetics
of computer interface. Speculative approaches to hooking these up to other
formations that can be characterised as political, literary, musical, etc.
The production of stand-alone publications/applications that can fit on
one high-density disk and are distributed without charge over various networks.
The material context of the web
for this group is viewed mainly as an opportunity rather than as a history.
As all HTML is received by the computer as a stream of data, there is nothing
to force adherence to the design instructions written into it. These instructions
are only followed by a device obedient to them.
Once you become unfaithful to page-description,
HTML is taken as a semantic mark up rather than physical mark-up language.
Its appearance on your screen is as dependent upon the interpreting device
you use to receive it as much as its 'original' state. The actual 'commands'
in HTML become loci for the negotiation of other potential behaviours or
Several possibilities become apparent.
This data stream becomes a phase space, a realm of possibility outside
of the browser. It combines with another: there are thousands of other
software devices for using the world wide web, waiting in the phase space
of code. Since the languages are pre-existing, everything that can possibly
be said in them, every program that could possibly be constructed in them
is already inherently pre-existent within them. Programming is a question
of teasing out the permutations within the dimensions of specific languages
or their combinations. That it is never only this opens up programming
to its true power--that of synthesis.
Within this phase space, perhaps
one thing we are proposing is that one of the most pressing political,
technical and aesthetic urgencies of the moment is something that subsumes
both the modern struggle for the control of production (that is of energies),
and the putative post-modern struggle for the means of promotion (that
is of circulation) within the dynamics of something that also goes beyond
them and that encompasses the political continuum developing between the
gene and the electron that most radically marks our age: the struggle for
the means of mutation.
A brief description of the functions
of the Web Stalker is necessary as a form of punctuation in this context,
but it can of course only really be fully sensed by actual use.9
Starting from an empty plane of colour, (black is just the default mode
-- others are chosen using a pop-up menu) the user begins by marqueeing
a rectangle. Using a contextual menu, a function is applied to the box.
The box, a generic object, is specialised into one of the following functions.
For each function put into play, one or more box is created and specialised.
Crawler: The Crawler is the
part of the Web Stalker that actually links to the World Wide Web. It is
used to start up, and to show the current status of the session. It appears
as a window containing a bar split into three. A dot moving across the
bar shows what stage the Crawler is at. The first section of the bar shows
the progress of the Net connection. Once connection is made and a URL is
found, the dot jumps to the next section of the bar. The second section
displays the progress of the Web Stalker as it reads through the found
HTML document looking for links to other URLs. The third section of the
bar monitors the Web Stalker as it logs all the links that it has found
so far. Thus, instead of the user being informed that connection to the
net is vaguely 'there' by movement on the geographic TV-style icon in the
top right hand corner, the user has access to specific information about
processes and speeds.
Map: Displays references
to individual HTML documents as circles and the links from one to another
as lines. The URL of each document can be read by clicking on the circle
it is represented by. Once a Web session has been started at the first
URL opened by the Crawler, Map moves through all the links from that site,
then through the links from those sites, and so on. The mapping is dynamic
-- 'Map' is a verb rather than a noun.
Dismantle: The Dismantle
window is used to work on specific URLs within HTML documents. URLs at
this level will be specific resources such as images, email addresses,
sound files, downloadable documents, etc. Clicking and dragging a circle
into the Dismantle window will display all URLs referenced within the HTML
document you have chosen, again in the form of circles and lines.
Stash: The Stash provides
a document format that can be used to make records of web use. Saved as
an HTML file it can also be read by 'Browsers' and circulated as a separate
document. Sites or files are included by dragging and dropping URL circles
into a Stash.
HTML Stream: Shows all of
the HTML as it is read by the Web Stalker in a separate window. Because
as each link is followed by the crawler the HTML appears precisely as a
stream, the feed from separate sites is effectively mixed.
Extract: Dragging a URL circle
into an extract window strips all the text from a URL. It can be read on
screen in this way or saved as a text file.
The Web Stalker performs an inextricably
technical, aesthetic and ethical operation on the HTML stream that at once
refines it, produces new methods of use, ignores much of the data linked
to or embedded within it, and provides a mechanism through which the deeper
structure of the web can be explored and used.
This is not to say much. It is immediately
obvious that the Stalker is incapable of using images and some of the more
complex functions available on the web. These include for instance: gifs,
forms, Java, VRML, frames, etc. Some of these are deliberately ignored
as a way of trashing the dependence on the page and producing a device
that is more suited to the propensities of the network. Some are left out
simply because of the conditions of the production of the software -- we
had to decide what was most important for us to achieve with available
resources and time. This is not to say that if methods of accessing this
data were to be incorporated into the Stalker that they would have been
done so 'on their own terms'. It is likely that at the very least they
would have been dismantled, dissected, opened up for use in some way. That
it was done anyway is, we hope, an encouragement to those who have the
'wrong' skills and few resources but a hunger to get things done, and a
provocation to those who are highly skilled and equipped but never do anything.
Previous work by artists on the
web was largely channelled into providing content for web sites. These
sites are bound by the conventions enforced by browser-type software. They
therefore remain the most determining aesthetic of this work. The majority
of web-based art, if it deals with its media context at all can be understood
by four brief typologies:
Incoherence (user abuse, ironic
dysfunctionality, randomness to mask pointlessness)
Archaeology (media archaeology,
emulators of old machines and software, and structuralist materialist approach)
Retro-tooling (integrity to old
materials in 'new' media, integrity as kitsch derived from punk/jazz/hip
hop, old-style computer graphics, and 'filmic references' - the Futile
Style Of London )10
Deconstruction (conservative approach
to analysing-in-practice the development of multimedia and networks, consistently
re-articulating contradiction rather than using it as a launching pad for
new techniques of composition).
The project was situated within contemporary
art, it is also widely operative outside of it. Most obviously it is at
the very least, a piece of software. How can this multiple position be
understood by an art-world that is still effectively in thrall to the notion
of the autonomy of the object?
Anti-art is always captured by its
purposeful self-placement within a subordinate position to that which it
simply opposes. Alternately, the deliberate production of non-art is always
an option but not necessary in this context. Instead, this project produces
a relationship to art that at times works on a basis of infiltration or
alliance, and at others simply refuses to be excluded by it and thus threatens
to reconfigure entirely what it is part of. The Web Stalker is art. Another
possibility therefore emerges. Alongside the categories art, anti-art and
non-art, something else spills over: Not-just-art. It can only come into
occurrence by being not just itself. It has to be used. Assimilation into
possible circuits of distribution and effect in this case means something
approaching a media strategy.
"For modernist intellectuals, cultural
capital or distinction in Bourdieu's sense varies inversely with one's
contact with the media".11
Operating at another level to the
Web Stalker's engagement within art were two other forms of media which
were integral to the project: Stickers (bearing a slogan and the I/O/D
web-address) and Freeware. Both are good contenders for being the lowest,
most despised grade of media. That the Web Stalker is Freeware has been
essential in developing its engagement with various cultures of computing.
The Stalker is currently being downloaded
at a rate of about a thousand copies per week. Responses have ranged from
intensely detailed mathematical denunciations of the Map and a total affront
that anyone should try anything different; to evil glee, and a superb and
generous understanding of the project's techniques and ramifications.
Whilst for many, the internet simply
is what is visible with a browser, at the same time it is apparent that
there is a widespread desire for new non-formulaic software. One of the
questions that the Stalker poses is how program design is taken forward.
Within the limitations of the programming language and those of time, the
project achieved what it set out to do. As a model of software development
outside of the super-invested proprietary one this speculative and interventional
mode of production stands alongside two other notable radical models: that
of Free Software12 and
that derived from the science shops, (wherein software is developed by
designers and programmers in collaboration with clients for specifically
social uses). Unlike these others it is not so likely to find itself becoming
a model that is widely adoptable and sustainable.
In a sense then, the web stalker
works as a kind of "tactical software"13
but it is also deeply implicated within another kind of tacticity -- the
developing street knowledge of the nets. This is a sense of the flows,
consistencies and dynamics of the nets that is most closely associated
with hackers, but that is perhaps immanent in different ways in every user.
Bringing out and developing this
culture however demands attention. In some respects this induction of idiosyncratic
knowledges of minute effects ensures only that whilst the Browser Wars
will never be won, they are never over. So long as there's the software
out there working its temporal distortion effects on 'progress'... So long
as there's always some nutter out there in the jungle tooled up with some
VT100 web viewer, copies of Mosaic, Macweb, whatever.
At the same time we need to nurture
our sources of this ars metropolitani of the nets. During recent times
and most strongly because of the wider effects of specific acts of repression,
hacking itself has often become less able to get things going because it
has a) been driven more underground, b) been offered more jobs, and c)
been less imaginatively willing or able to ally itself with other social
Software forges modalities of experience
-- sensoriums through which the world is made and known. As a product of
'immaterial labour' software is a social, technical and aesthetic relation
that is embodied -- and that is at once productive of more relations. That
the production of value has moved so firmly into the terrain of immaterial
labour, machine embodied intelligence, style as factory, the production
of subjectivity, makes the evolution of what was previously sectioned as
'culture' so much more valuable to play for -- potentially always as sabotage
-- but, as a development of the means of mutation, most compellingly as
The Map makes the links between
HTML documents. Each URL is a circle, every link is a line. Sites with
more lines feeding into them have brighter circles. Filched data coruscating
with the simple fact of how many and which sites connect to boredom.com,
extreme.net or wherever. (Unless it's been listed on the ignore.txt file
customisable and tucked into the back of the Stalker). Every articulation
of the figure composing itself on screen is simply each link being followed
through. The map spreads out flat in every direction, forging connections
rather than faking locations. It is a figuration that is immutably live.
A 'processual' opening up of the web that whilst it deals at every link
with a determinate arrangement has no cut-off point other than infinity.
Whilst the Browser just gives you history under the Go menu, the Map swerves
past whichever bit of paper is being pressed up to the inside of the screen
to govern the next hours of click-through time by developing into the future
-- picking locks as it goes.
Aggregates are formed from the realm
induced by the coherence of every possibility. Syntactics tweaks, examines
and customs them according to context. This context is not pre-formatted.
It is up for grabs, for remaking. Synthesis determines a context within
which it is constitutive and comes into composition within ranges of forces.
Everything -- every bit, every on or off fact -- is understood in terms of
its radical coefficiency, against the range of mutation from which it emerged
and amongst the potential syntheses with which it remains fecund. It is
the production of sensoria that are productive not just of 'worlds' but
of the world.
1 Only an ostensible competitor
because the browsers produced by Netscape and Microsoft are so nearly identical
that they form, not an economic, but a technical and aesthetic monopoly.
It will be interesting to see whether the release of the source code for
Netscape Navigator will also produce a release from the conventions of
2 Again because of its near monopoly
over PC Operating Systems Microsoft was able to set the terms--against previously
made agreements - on which Java would be developed. It is widely agreed
that they--and to some extent, Sun (the developers of Java)--significantly
compromised the actual and potential power of the language.
3 for instance the I/O/D shout tag.
(See documents on I/O/D site)
4 see for instance the skirmishes
around name ownership produced in the net.art hijacking of corporate names
by Heath Bunting and Rachel Baker at irrational.org, (http://www.irrational.org)
or at the other extreme, the attempts at the technical introduction of
a precise indexicality when a brand name is typed into a browser by Centraal
5 Maurizio Lazzarato, Immaterial
Labor, in Michael Hardt and Paul Virno, Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential
Politics, Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis, 1996, p.142
6 Lazzarato, p.142
7 The device's advantage is in its
ease of use--compared for instance to the tiresome delete command in DOS--rather
than any 'natural' affiliation with this metaphor.
8 Simon Pope, Colin Green, Matthew
9 The I/O/D site from which all
the group's output, including PC and Macintosh versions of the Web Stalker
are available from is provided by Backspace:
10 See FSOL section on I/O/D site
11 Mark Poster, The Second Media
Age, Polity Press 1997, p.5
12 Free Software Foundation--http://www.fsf.com--The
reasons the I/O/D did not in this case follow the FSF model of free software
are relatively simple. Whilst as a structure it undoubtedly works and we
are supportive of it, it is an economy that demands a developing critical
mass to work. This is happening for programmers working with larger computers.
With the increasing use of Linux (see Linus Torvald's homepage: <http://www.earthspace.net/~esr/faqs/linus>),
it is also happening for Personal Computers which is the scale we are working
on. However, there is no comparable economy working for the exchange of
Lingo code. This is of course because Director is designed to produce hermetically
sealed routines called 'projectors'. If the code for the Stalker was to
have been distributed under Copyleft, there would have been no way of enforcing
that its use continue to remain open as this is such an easy method of
13 see 'The ABC of Tactical Media',
Geert Lovink and David Garcia. http://www.waag.org/tmn/
Sound and Vision
What follows is an edited round
table discussion that took place at Glasgow Film and Video Workshop between:
Brian Keeley, Aberdeen Video Access; I - igo Gerrido, Cafe Flicker;
Lara Celini, Edinburgh Video Access; Paul Cameron, Glasgow Film and Video
Workshop; Gillian Steel, Castlemilk Video Workshop; chaired by Martha McCulloch,
photographer and film maker; on video exhibition and distribution in Scotland.
Martha McCulloch: What may
be worth bringing up is the partisan nature of the promotion of video work
and what kind of work doesn't actually get covered. In terms of the different
kinds and the importance of distribution mechanisms, one of the papers
I've been looking at is from the 'Video Visions Forum' which was held at
the Fruit Market Gallery, Edinburgh, 25 th July, 1997. Julia Knight spoke
about the importance of distribution networks, what she said was: "One
of the first things I discovered when I started working on video distribution
is that distribution and exhibition work can play a pivotal role in shaping
a moving image culture". We could start to open up the discussion asking
why it should be that at that particular event there wasn't any representation
of people in Scotland who are involved in curating exhibitions, promoting
film and video work in all sorts of ways; who are actually encouraging
the situation we have, in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, for instance, and
also to some extent in more rural areas in Scotland.
Paul Cameron: I actually
went along to it and I thought it was quite awful. In terms of distribution
the only models they had were based around England, London specifically.
Distribution facilities in Scotland are ten years behind. A lot of the
distribution they talked about relies on MITES (Moving Image Touring Exhibitions
Service) and we don't have anything like it here. I actually walked away
from that day feeling angry, but we have so few of these discussions in
Scotland that they are always loaded with expectations that they are going
to sort out all the problems in one day.
Brian Keeley: What was the
conclusion? Are you saying that we need a kind of Scottish variant of what's
happening in England, such as MITES, or saying that should be UK wide.
Lara Celini: I attended as
well and got the impression the discussion was about the video medium and
the art gallery in general, rather than being practical solutions to distribution,
which was a bit disappointing. There was a very large England-based presence
there among the speakers and it's a shame there weren't more people from
PC: As far as any problems
of there being an English presence, I just think that in Scotland this
sort of work is not supported to the same extent. One of the big problems
here is that Scottish Screen 1
seems to not want to touch independent artists' film/video work and the
Scottish Arts Council (SAC) seems to be reluctant about picking up film/video
BK: I think a lot of the
work falls between two stools, so it's not going to get any support from
either of those sources.
PC: It doesn't seem to be
very focused just in terms of ways of doing things, where you go for support.
BK: So we are talking basically
about gallery-based work rather than 'sitting in a dark room with an audience'
work or is it a bit of both?
M McC: In terms of the talk
that was given by Julia Knight, she was not only talking about gallery-
based work, she was talking about the whole spectrum of single screen and
installation work being promoted. She talked about how MITES is an agency
that looks clearly towards the mainstream galleries and tries to shift
film and video work into the centre stage. I suppose the implications of
what she's saying is that they are actually UK wide and what I wonder is
are they really? Obviously some artists from Scotland have their work distributed
by those agents. But how wide is that? Is it really covered?
PC: I got the impression
that even if work is distributed people have a lot of problems accessing
resources to show the work. Artists based in Scotland are limited in what
they can show because the practical support is not there. They can't get
hold of a video projector or a computer, etc. or rather they can't get
them at a cost they or the gallery can afford. That in turn can limit the
type of work that artists in Scotland make. MITES have all these things
but due to the way it is funded through the Arts Council of England it
has no remit in Scotland.
BK: You'd imagine in this
day and age most large mainstream galleries would have one area specifically
set aside for audio visual work. Such facilities are usually installed
for a specific exhibition and then stripped out again, or for some of the
more museum based stuff, you get an area specifically for audio-visual
display, but generally there isn't a lot of equipment for things like that.
PC: A lot of the time a gallery
will just provide the space and it is the artist that is meeting the cost
of showing the work. One of the problems we have is if someone wants video
projectors, or whatever, for the duration of an exhibition it is beyond
the budget of a lot of artists. So we need that facility there for people
to hire things from at an affordable rate, and even to be able to provide
support in making the work.
LC: I think we have a lot
of catching up to do, but I do think--on a more positive note--that people
are actually organising themselves as well, which I think is a good thing.
The Edinburgh Film and Video Access Centre have been collaborating with
the Collective Gallery in Edinburgh to show-case new film and video work,
things that are a bit more experimental that might not find a comfortable
home elsewhere. While all the negative things do have to be addressed,
I think it is also important not to forget that there are exciting things
Gillian Steel: I think people
are being extremely resourceful with facilities, with very little support,
as has already been said. Scottish Screen virtually ditched the workshops.
SAC are finding it hard to categorise us and what is coming out of the
workshops, so there's some but little support there and then mainly through
the Lottery. It's hard in terms of getting somebody from that kind of organisation
to understand what it is you're doing and the remit you're fulfilling.
LC: I think we have a lot
of learning to do as well. In the way that we actually go about planning
for funding. I think the problem with Scottish Screen is that a lot of
things they fund have to be quite commercially driven and unless there
is something feasible in an economic rather than an artistic sense, then
they probably won't want to get involved. Where as with the SAC what you
are up against is you actually have to prove to them that this is going
to be important and valuable to people, that there is some sort of community
involvement that is going to benefit-- that's what we have to try and get
across. Involving screenings in a social setting is quite important as
well, to make it something that people go to, not just for some form of
mental stimulation or some artistic appreciation but just for pure enjoyment
I - igo Gerrido: Considering
the low resources available, the money the work is produced on, the variety
and quality of work shown at Cafe Flicker is impressive. What is lacking
is some sort of acknowledgment from the administration, like Scottish Screen.
They need to acknowledge the work done by organisations working from the
heart of the industry, from the roots. I think it's a lack of understanding
of what these kinds of organisations are doing. How can we beat that collectively,
I think that's instrumental. To gain recognition and an understanding of
the value of the organisations and what we all do, because the value is
there and the quality is there. Basically how to move the people who could
M McC: What's quite worrying
is that people are organising these things for nothing and what then happens
is these things tend to fall apart and people forget they ever existed.
There is no acknowledgment of that history. One of the questions that comes
up is: How's the history written of the development of this particular
part of visual art, or beyond the visual arts, actually chronicled? It's
actually mis-chronicled most of the time, and this is part of it. If you
look at some organisations like New Visions they are actually doing more
challenging things than some of the more established institutions, but
they shouldn't have to do it for nothing.
GS: I think there is a real
short sightedness. It's the results of root activity that are really interesting
and the culture of film and video really suffers for that short-sightedness.
I see it as really embarrassing.
IG: It's a lack of communication
or an understanding of the problem. I was speaking to the SAC and they
said: 'Yes, fill out a Lottery application, we would very much welcome
a Lottery application from Cafe Flicker'. And I said: 'Yes, but I need
a grant to write an application because I don't have the time to spend
2 or 3 months working full time on an application'. No one at Cafe flicker
has got the time to do so. It is very simply a lack of understanding how
small organisations like ours are lacking resources.
GS: I don't actually know
if they don't understand. I think they understand. I think they just expect
that people like yourself and New Visions will continue to come up with
amazing things from nothing. I don't think it's enough.
IG: 'Cafe Flicker has run
for 7 years. If you have maintained yourself for 7 years why can't you
maintain yourself a little longer,' maybe that is the attitude, but I'm
not so sure. But maybe it is a lack of really understanding what the value
of these organisations is. If you're saying: 'Who will recognise your work
if you're working for free', that's an incredible attitude for the funders
to take. I don't want to consider that to be the case. It is the value
of organisations, the value of these resources...
BK: Is the emphasis more
on funding individual artists/film makers to produce single pieces of work
which then might be built into an initial big special screening, or whatever,
and then after that it just sits on the shelf? There is then no support
for that individual to get that film, video, installation work, shown?
M McC: Is it because they
think that a distribution mechanism is already there in the gallery system
and they don't understand that maybe in this particular field the work
isn't always seen in galleries anyway?
BK: You talk about the gallery
side, there is a big discrepancy between being able to produce work on
a fairly limited budget over a long time scale, then to actually try and
present that work at a gallery that hasn't got the facilities. It will
actually cost a lot of money, and a lot of technology, and a lot of setting
up. Maybe that's what scares people off. You can't simply exhibit a screen-based
work, it doesn't really exist in a concrete form, it has to have a projector,
VCR, cabling, screen, or whatever, to be seen. I think that's just a cultural
thing that funders and galleries and wherever just can't get their head
M McC: In the current climate
of galleries having less funding for exhibitions, and the SAC having less
funding to distribute to specific exhibitions/projects, it is likely to
actually get worse than what it has been up to this point. Most medium-sized
galleries are working within a limited budget for an exhibition and have
no way of covering the costs of hiring expensive video equipment.
PC: In England MITES is specifically
designed to support such kinds of work. One of the problems we have is
that if someone is having an exhibition and they want video projectors,
or whatever, over a period of months it is beyond the budget of a lot of
artists. So we need that facility there for people to hire things from,
and even be able to provide support in making the work.
LC: So what is the solution
to that? Do we need organisations like MITES with a presence in Scotland?
PC: I think that's the type
of thing we need to push for. One of the other problems that galleries
face is that technological advances are quite rapid. It's not really practical
for small organisations to carry the costs of buying new equipment. Whereas
a National based organisation could carry those costs with both resources
and technical back-up. Even if a gallery does buy bits of equipment it
may not have the technical back up to be able to run it, hire it out and
maintain it. People like Glasgow City Council do quite often have such
equipment, but there is no central store and there's no way of finding
out what they have.
M McC: The proposal is there
to set up a sort of MITES type organisation in Scotland but again the success
of that depends on Lottery funding and on ongoing funding for the project,
because it would have to be subsidised in order that it would still be
cheap enough for the galleries or whatever kind of venues to use.
BK: It'll take a lot of money
because you talked about you'd have to have such a wide range of equipment
and formats and all sorts of things.
PC: It's costing the SAC
money anyway, because galleries are buying individual bits of equipment,
so you have lots of bits of equipment scattered around and no central resource.
Or they are forking out hire costs to commercial companies, which, because
of the length of time galleries require facilities, it can often cost more
than buying equipment.
BK: It doesn't seem the proper
way of going about things, that if you create a piece of work and get funding
from the SAC that most of that money goes into the commercial market. That
doesn't seem like a useful way of putting money into the arts. It seems
M McC: But if there was a
facility set up where you could hire it cheaply would you just hire it
rather than buy something that was going to be obsolete in a few years
GS: Especially if there was
technical back-up if things go wrong, rather than having to get somebody
else in to do it.
LC: The hours that I work
are just enough to cover the day to day existence of the centre. There
isn't enough time to do all these funding applications and that's where
I think maybe we have to pool resources, where we have some people with
expertise that can help us all. That we actually network, that we can actually
learn from each other rather than each individual sitting somewhere in
the darkroom putting pen to paper.
IG: I think that's interesting
and quite possible to do. How can we make the point so that there is an
understanding of the work that we do, how can we make our position stronger
and improve resources. We have to go forward and pooling resources maybe
GS: I think it's a combination
of what you were saying, firstly that we need to get better applications
and yes pool resources. But we need the funders to be more responsive in
the first place. The City Council don't have a broad concept of what cultural
activity is, at best they want it to be educationaly based; the SAC want
projects to be artist led; and Scottish Screen focus on commerce. There
has to be a way in for more resources and also of convincing Scottish Screen
that they need to create a separate post for somebody to deal with the
workshops and with what they're doing.
LC: The point is that Scottish
Screen won't fund the sort of thing we're talking about today. I think
we can forget it with the funding structure we've got at the moment.
IG: Unless we create some
sort of umbrella of practitioners (video and film makers) and curators.
We should have meetings like this that includes people from the City Council's
performing arts department, the SAC and Scottish Screen, and then we can
discuss what is missing. We need to make a statement of how we see it and
invite them for a meeting and see what can happen after that.
M McC: The problem is that
they don't acknowledge that these people here are doing stuff, that's the
BK: How much have the SAC
and Scottish Screen been pro-active in developing film making or video
making in Scotland. How much are they purely administering funds? And how
much are the smaller organisations--like those represented here and others
throughout the country-- promoting Scottish film and video work. There's
a lot of people and organisations that are actively promoting Scottish
film and video production, who are not Scottish Screen--and who don't have
funds to administer.
IG: The point is the faults
are virtually the same across Scotland. Glasgow benefits from Cafe Flicker,
it's somewhere to see and talk about films. So it should be supported in
M McC: The fact is that funding
has changed. It's something that's happened over the past 5 or 6 years.
Yet you don't get a bean out of them without having to do so much work
that you think: 'Well if I'm going to end up having to do all that extra
work maybe I'm just as well off doing what I'm doing'.
BK: The exciting part of
it is the spontaneity, the unexpected. You don't know what's going to happen,
taking risks. The best work, no matter what medium, comes out of taking
risks, people taking risks and putting money into something and they don't
know what they're going to get.
M McC: That's the point,
that in trying to get money out of the SAC or any institution you always
have to pay the price of that. But the fact is that wasn't always the case
and it doesn't have to be the case. It should be possible for them to give
out grants to organisations like Cafe Flicker without all these strings
attached when it's run by volunteers.
BK: You have people who are
working in different areas like funding, running workshops or whatever
and those people have demonstrated their commitment and ability. There
has to be a change of attitude where funding bodies trust the judgment
of the people who are working on the ground. You shouldn't need to have
all the red tape to go through, obviously.
IG: The only thing Scottish
Screen understand is an aggressive, commercial sort of pushing. Their whole
procedure is straight forward commercial.
M McC: It's very short sighted
as well. I think we're going to see that more and more, as more bad work
is being given a grant rather than lots of small organisations.
BK: It's a whole cultural
thing, it's not just film/video making, it goes across the arts in general.
M McC: What we talked about
earlier, how there's a lack of acknowledgment, that you have to feed things
like the film and video workshops in order that these things do exist.
That's where the real research is being done I would say. Real researchers
aren't funded but people who are 'stars' are. It's happening because they're
only backing what they see to be the 'winners', whose work is often quite
BK: It's taking the instant,
immediate payback for funding. Everyone's got to have immediately recognisable--either
financial or cultural--pay back. When funders fund small scale things, like
Cafe Flicker or some of the Film and Video workshops around Scotland, there
isn't really much immediate payback but the amount of people who go through
that system, who if they hadn't, if those organisations hadn't been there,
they might never had got round to deciding that film making or whatever
is their bag. And then a couple of years later they might go to film school,
or go to college, or make a film and get some funding, or they might get
a job in broadcasting. But those things might never have happened had the
grass roots organisations not been there to support the entry level work
and people, you can't quantify that.
M McC: You can quantify it
or you can choose not to quantify it, which is what happens. People choose
to say: 'I'm going to chop off this piece of history', and say: 'Oh I started
here. It didn't start back there it started here', because that's a bit
embarrassing--to look at that early part of your career. The fact is that
some of the 'big' names did come about because of the likes of New Visions.
Is it a coincidence that Glasgow's got all these things going on and that
a lot of people who are making video work come from here? It's the climate
that created them.
LC: I think you're absolutely
right about the vital role we all provide for people to learn and to flourish,
as it were. And I think one of the problems that we have is actually being
able to monitor what we provide and hard facts. We've actually got to work
out a way of logging our achievements because it's the only way we're going
to be able to persuade people how valuable we actually are.
M McC: I think you're right,
some work can be done by the grass roots organisations to just use examples
say, but I don't think we should have to sit in front of them and quote
BK: Sometimes when you try
to do that it just doesn't feel right. You try and put those statistical
things together and it just feels as if you're trying to control it at
a grass roots level. That's when things start to get lost then you simply
become an administrator.
LC: We need to get feed back
and we do need to lobby.
M McC: Well maybe all we
need to do is say that this kind of developmental and research type of
work is important and that it should be acknowledged as being important.
You don't actually have to look too deeply, just look at what's come out
of this environment we're sitting in now. The people who've come through
here and what they're doing now. The funders don't have to look too far,
curators don't have to look too far to see that's where the people come
from. They can't see it as just something in the air. To some extent I
think why should you be in here justifying what you're doing, if you're
doing the work it's up to the people who are supposed to be noticing that
and having their fingers on the pulse and on the purse strings, they should
LC: I think the problem we've
got is that the people who should be listening to us haven't got their
finger on the pulse.
IG: Over one hundred films
shown in Cafe Flicker in the last two and a half years, all this information,
the full screenings list, is on our web site. The material to put under
their noses is there.
GS: Again, it's small organisations
with no funding doing all the distributing and pushing.
BK: I've screened films made
through First Reels in Aberdeen but it isn't the people who administer
First Reels who phone up the workshop and say 'give me a screening'. It
is me who organises the venue and promotes the event. You'd think there'd
be something other than simply a showcase screening at the Glasgow Film
Theatre or whatever. The distribution doesn't seem to go anywhere beyond
that. You'd think that if you administered that fund with the films that
were made from the money you'd given them you'd try and distribute them
GS: But it's always been
New Visions to my knowledge, in Glasgow anyway, who picked up films and
actively put them about, taking them to cinemas or to festivals.
BK: It can be quite expensive
and time-consuming for an individual. If you've got a film that you've
made, you've probably gone into serious debt. Then creating the chance
to screen it and to show it in so many festivals. To actually get all the
copies made, filling in all the applications and getting all the deadlines
and sending it in the post, it really takes a lot of money. And sometimes
you're really cleaned out by the time you've made the film, what you need
is a bit of support to help with that.
GS: Typically the life span
of single screen and gallery based work that's supported by these funders
tends to be one or two years. After that festivals will consider the work
too old to show, so they just sit on the shelf. Clearly that's a problem.
So we need an archive not only of recent work but also of work that gives
an historical context.
LC: I think the issue of
an archive is a big one as well. Because all this work is being produced
but is there a single place where I can actually go and have a look at
what was created last year? It's all getting lost and I think that is the
most tragic thing about it all, that the good work that is out there disappears
to somewhere under the bed or in the wardrobe.
GS: This is not just a problem
that's about work being created now though. I think we need an organisation
that covers all that.
M McC: I suppose one thing
we've touched on a little bit is the art market. Clearly that's an aspect
of how work is distributed and shown and also remains in those museums
to be seen. Are certain kinds of work never bought by museums for instance?
BK: Do any of the museums
or galleries in Scotland have screening facilities where you can go and
see an archive of films? Is there an archive of single screen work. There's
nothing like that in any galleries and museums in Scotland?
1 Scottish Screen -- "A Government
backed body encouraging film development and education in Scotland. Provides
a wide range of information and support services. Runs the Scottish Film
Archive, preserving Scotland's moving image heritage." Guardian Media Guide
Aberdeen Video Access,
James Dun's House, Schoolhill, Aberdeen,
Castlemilk Video Workshop,
17A Castlemilk Arcade, Castlemilk,
Edinburgh Film and Video Access
25a South West Thistle St. Lane,
Edinburgh, EH2 1EW
Glasgow Film and Video Workshop
(GFVW),Third Floor, 34 Albion Street,
Glasgow, G1 1LH
screenings the first Wednesday of
every month at GFVW,
The New Scotland
Sponsored by the Herald, New Statesman
and The Fabian Society, the conference "The New Scotland' was organised
by the little-known Centre for Scottish Public Policy (CSPP). In the last
two days of May they hired out most of the arts venues in the Trongate
area in Glasgow and charged entrance fees of at least £10--presumably
to keep the riff raff out. There was almost no publicity for the event--most
venues knew next to nothing about the organisation they housed. Press reports
of the conference told us nothing of the CSPP--they barely mentioned their
name--even although simple investigation reveals them to be the organ grinders
and suppliers of most of the monkeys. Press reports offered no information
enabling anyone to judge the objectivity of the event. They did condescend
to report that during Donald Dewar's introductory speech there had been
a "demonstration by the National Petition Against Poverty" and that the
organisers had dutifully called the police. Thus the CSPP's first act was
to try to get people (probably violently) arrested. I heard that all that
happened was that a women had loudly and clearly pointed out the brutal
realities of poverty in the city. Donald Dewar had this to say:
"If they have a genuine complaint
to make, this is not the way to do it." 1
If offering people some stylistic
advice while behind their backs moves are made to get them arrested is
all Dewar has to offer, then it is another indication of betrayal; and
sadly, things to come. But it is not a case of "if" there is poverty. Poverty
is a self evident fact. The poor are the truth.
But in Scotland the Labour Party
are ruled by fear, not by truth. Their fear of "activism" or "direct action"
or even "the left" is simple cowardice--a fear of direct contact with the
people they have betrayed. This fear manipulates them. Their world is littered
with guilty secrets. People have been driven to suicide. These days adherence
to Orwellian double-think is practically in their constitution. There will
be no re-distribution of wealth, well certainly not downwards. Dewar, no
doubt, automatically apologised for the lower classes turning up and lowering
the tone of the proceedings. It frightens away nice rich upper-class people
who get queasy and nervous at the sight of beggars and begin to fear and
fret for the safety of their belongings. Best let the police deal with
that sort of thing, and then get back to endlessly talking about fighting
poverty with the managerial classes while de-regulating the bankers. This
conference should have been called "Criminalising the poor--how can we make
money out of it?"
Against boardrooms even the gods
contest in vain
The CSPP used to be called The John
Weatley Centre, and was named after the respected Independent Labour Party
MP who passed through legislation enabling government action on Glasgow"s
Housing Problem, arguably the chief cause of misery in the city at the
time. Old socialists (and their socialism) are not welcome round these
here parts no more2 --
so the name has been changed. There are similar organisations like this
springing up like poisonous mushrooms and the new Scottish parliament is
acting like a vicious fertiliser.3
Their web page for the event states
that: "The centre is not aligned to any political party." Their brochure
describes the CSPP as "independent of political parties." and "...managed
by a Board drawn from a wide cross-section of Scottish society." Judge
for yourself-- this is the board according to the Centre:
Dr. Alice Brown: Dept. of politics
Gordon Dalyell: Solicitor, Wheatley
Centre on Law Reform.
Mark Lazarowicz: An Advocate, and
former Labour councillor. He stood in the '92 election as a Parliamentary
Labour candidate in the Edinburgh Pentlands seat, losing to Malcolm Rifkind
by 4,290 votes. It had previously, in 87, been a Labour majority of 1,859.
He is the convener of the CSPP.
Anne McGuire: Labour MP, recently
appointed Donald Dewar's Parliamentary Private Secretary. Shortly after
the conference she was the principle "gate keeper" who drew up the list
of prospective (i.e. acceptably right-wing) Labour candidates for the new
parliament. An ardent sycophant she took the opportunity of PM"s question
time to ask: "Does the prime minister recognise that our emphasis over
the past year on the economy, health and education has kept faith with
Rosemary McKenna: Labour MP. On
the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee which is enquiring into
"welfare to work." The Herald of 24/3/97 reported that McKenna's appointment
to the seat of Cumbernauld and Kilsyth was accompanied by the purge of
the Home rule faction of the local party at the conference in Inverness.
Fears were voiced that this had been "engineered to give a clear run to
councillor Rosemary McKenna, who is a leading figure in Network, the pro-leadership
grouping which orchestrated the Inverness slate". The Network has been
described as "garrulous college leavers anxious to be seen doing the leader"s
bidding."4 Its origins
are said to be in Jim Murphy, another new MP and responsible for the acceptance
of student loans while President of the NUS. He was assigned as "special
projects officer" by those in the Scottish Labour Party hierarchy anxious
to bee seen as Blairite. The big "success" of the network was McKenna's
election. Jim Murphy also spoke at the conference.
Henry McLeish: Labour MP. Donald
Dewar's second in command. Minister for Home Affairs, Devolution and Transport,
was opposition spokesman on social security--now the country's chief exponent
David Martin: Labour MEP and has
been Vice-president of the European Parliament, (which funds the CSPP)
for ten years--an ex-stockbroker"s assistant.
David Millar: Formerly a clerk in
the house of Commons, then director of research at the European Parliament,
now with the Europa Institute, Edinburgh University.
Kenneth Munro: European Commission.
Matt Smith: Scottish Secretary of
Unison one of the biggest unions in Scotland and the UK.
The Thatcher period was marked by
scores of "non-partisan" but ideologically directed research institutes,
who financed and publicised the work of approved "experts." The CSPP's
pathetic disguise of their political connections relegates them to similar
forms of intellectual prostitution. That period also witnessed a huge increase
in what was officially called "public diplomacy" a new doublespeak term
for what used to be known as government propaganda. We can now re-name
this "public policy."
As a result of the conference, the
CSPP has an advisory board and a board of directors totalling thirty-eight
people. There are eight new directors including Paul Thomson: the editor
of "Renewal" (a magazine devoted to pushing New Labour propaganda), Ronnie
Smith: the General Secretary of the EIS, Grant Baird: the Chief executive
of Scottish Financial Enterprise, and some academics. The advisory board
has been padded out with Councillors from Glasgow and Edinburgh and more
academics. Twenty-nine of the total of thirty-eight spoke at the conference,
which had fifty-five speakers on day one and seventy-four on the other.
CSPP members were scattered throughout the three sessions each with eight
different seminars per day. More or less half of the talks were non-political
and largely arbitrary cultural themes and these ones they avoided.5
Some talks contained nothing but CSPP members. I think it is fair to say
we were somewhat shepherded into hearing the views the organisation is
pushing. No one mentioned this in the press.
The CSPP aim to set agendas for
the Scottish Parliament, attack home rule, advocate coalition politics
and promote the EU--where the Social Democrats and the Labour Party merge
into one in the European Parliament.
They are in the business of manipulation.
I think they are a part of larger manipulative attempts within the Labour
party to push the party towards the right in Scotland and silence any criticism.
There are no attempts--one begins to doubt whether there is even the capability--to
understand this within the mainstream media. Complicity (perhaps unwitting)
could easily be argued. The Herald and New Statesman (who are desperate
to re-invent themselves) were after all joint sponsors of the event. It
could mean nothing, but several journalists from the Scotsman, STV, Scotland
on Sunday, Sunday Times and the Economist all chaired seminars at the conference.
'Follow the Money'
On their web page it states that
they receive money not only from the EC but also from an organisation called
the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. This is another example of covert government
sponsorship and funding. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation focused on involving
trade union leaders in "independent" programmes for Third World unions.
Its board comprises of "high ranking members of the Social Democratic Party
and [it is] financed by government, business and unions. A parallel Christian
Democratic body exists, the Konrad Adenuer Foundation...About the Friedrich
Ebert foundation...there are quite clear parallels between the expansionist
German foreign trade policy and the work of this foundation."6
They told me that they received
this funding to stage a members meeting with the European Movement. Back
in the early 60s:
"The European Movement, the elite
international pressure group which takes much of the credit for the founding
of the Common Market, took secret US funding...about £380,000 of
US government money passed secretly from the CIA-controlled American Committee
to the European Movement." 7
The CSPP are to an unknown extent
funded by government or quasi-government organisations, some of whom have
since the 50s moved the Unions and the Left towards the right--by semi-covert
and covert means. They are (perhaps unwittingly) straying into territory
dominated by the non-parliamentary right and the psychological operations
of the secret service.
"The main organisational focus points
for the trade union right in recent decades have been Industrial Research
and Information Services (IRIS), the Jim Conway Foundation [JCF] and the
TUCETU (formerly the Labour Committee for Transatlantic Understanding).
One single funding conduit links all three organisations...the Dulverton
JCF facilitated contacts between
anti-Scargill factions of the NUM and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the
wealthy foundation for the promotion of social democracy linked to the
Historically a main thrust of this
was to establish connections with the anti-Communist efforts of the USA.
Both US and UK governments were willing to help Union leaders from both
sides of the Atlantic get together. The years after the war saw the forces
which would become NATO (the military, foreign policy and multi-national
wings of the USA, UK and German State) exacerbate moves towards concentrated
subversion of Union organisations and the left in general; all as part
of the "cold war." In Germany secret funding helped Social Democrats "solidify"
the German Federation of Labour 9.
CIA funding came into Europe to encourage the Unions to be anti-communist
--they had themselves more or less set up the International Confederation
of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the International Labour Organisation
(ILO). Besides domestic subversion this nexus also operated as an attack
on South American, African, Indian and Indonesian workers organisations
attempts to resist the effects of multinational exploitation which operated
under the sanction of the foreign policies of the large industrial nations,
and which worked closely with numerous dictatorships, as they still do
"The importance of this network
in stabilising and pacifying workers' organisations in countries where
the transnational corporate operations are flourishing has never been adequately
dealt with. The strategic value of this network, as a fifth column, waiting
with cobra fangs to strike out to poison, and where possible, to destroy
popular attempts to terminate transnational corporate domination has never
been realistically weighed. The massive nature of the training programmes
which successfully inculcate US-government political and social values
has a dramatic importance even before one considers the plots and counterplots
which make up the daily life of the US labour network in Latin America."
The Guatamalan election of 1984
was won by the Christian Democrats. The election was proceeduraly fair,
but the population lived in permanent fear. The US press, when they both
to look, selectively focused on one to the exclusion of the other and termed
the new government centrist, moderates, who were troubled with 'rogue elements'
within them--the death squads they just somehow couldn't manage to control.
The history of centerist parties--whatever their guise--has been as a front
for coruption of the worst kind. The South and Central American US puppet
states run by dictators all had moderate centrist, consensus-loving 'political'
parties. Anyone can run them--for any reason.
The German government of the sixties
and seventies that, while its security services were run by Hitler's ex-security
cheif, outlawed parties of the left was also a centrist party. These facts
elude the vast majority of British politicians used to the lies and bribery
of their own party and who generally have no socially usefull political
convictions anyway. Centre parties are especially usefull to society's
institutionalised financial exploiters since the social order remains unchallenged,
despite utter abuse of the democratic system. Centre parties are not alone
in being open to the influence of think-tanks and factionalism. Since politics
is no longer required, in Japan political parties donít really have
policies as such , politicians need something to say and do. The post-war
tradition has been a roll back of political freedom. The rhetoric which
surrounded this is of 'a tinkering with reform'--in reality an effort to
spend the taxes drawn from the people on the rich rather than the poor.
The accent is on proceedure--as it was in Guatamala.
"Truth is there's nobody fighting
because nobody knows what to say"
In "A Parliament for the Millennium,"
the first talk I attended, the panel consisted of: David Millar of the
CSPP executive committee who wrote their "definitive publication" entitled
"To Make the Parliament of Scotland a Model for Democracy." He was joined
by Robert Beattie--also a CSPP director but here wearing the mask of an
employee of the multinational IBM--who has similarly produced a CSPP "report"
called "A Parliament for the Millennium". The third speaker, Mark Lazarowicz
as mentioned before is the CSPP convener and one of the organisers of the
weekend. His "CSPP Policy Paper" is called "Proportional Representation".
These publications were shamelessly endorsed. If this talk was about contributing
to the constitution of the new parliament then it was as if they were saying
"and just to save some time here's one we made earlier". One would simply
have to be crazy to imagine that this was a genuine objective discussion
Unleashing the "bow-tied-affable-old-duffer
routine" Millar's talk was on procedure. He assured us that: "parliamentary
procedure grantees the right of minorities." He informed us that back in
the days of the Scottish Constitutional Convention11
it was decided that the "Scottish parliament should have as little to do
with Westminster as possible". On reflection it would seem that this was
where he, a retired clerk in the House of Commons, began pottering with
the perverse hobby of dreaming up guidelines for the Scottish Parliament.
He used to be an information officer-- the Director of Research at the European
Parliament and perhaps cannot come down from the high. A lifetime of shuffling
papers has on its own initiative qualified him to "not just come here and
tell you how it's going to be." No no no, "give us your views". He described
everything as a clean sheet then rhetorically asked "how have the government
started off putting some things on the clean sheet?" Eventually once all
the "consultation" is in from conferences like this the Constitutional
Steering Group will make the big decisions. It has at its head the Minister
for Devolution, Henry McLeish who is a director of the CSPP. I couldn't
stop myself from wondering why they couldn't have done all this at the
last CSPP committee meeting? Millar read to us what they the Constitutional
Convention--or was it what he--or was it what we--have all agreed to. He said
it has thought up four key principles (this quote includes his theatrical
"(1) Parliament is to embody and
reflect the sharing of power between people, legislators and the government.
That is as far as you can get from Westminster as possible.
(2) The Government to be accountable
to Parliament--that's a change from Westminster too--both it and the government
to be accountable to the people. This is red revolution in parliamentary
(3) Parliament is to be accessible,
open and responsive. Procedures enabling participation in policy making
(4) Parliament to recognise the
need for equal opportunities for all in the widest sense of the term, ahem!"
Millar insisted that the Scottish
parliament will not suffer from the folly of Westminster: "...the absurd
confrontation will be transformed into accountability...the buck stops
in Edinburgh... Proportional representation creates a climate of coalition...All
that left and right stuff, we and them, employers and workers. All that
stuff will, over a period, change - its absolutely certain." 12
So is Mr Millar terminally naive,
wilfully ignorant, a "lone assassin", a useful idiot for others or what?
On the issue of equal opportunities--he sees the task ahead as "meaning
sensible working hours" for the people in parliament. The big struggle
it would seem, is to ensure that those inside parliament do well out of
all this, the rest of us hopelessly outside this Athenian Democracy are
on our own. He went on: "start at ten, finish at five, home to have your
tea at seven, no overnight sittings, no nonsense about hours which exclude
long hours [sic]." Oblomov couldn't have put it better--so much for the
price of democracy being eternal vigilance. He thanked the CSPP for "very
kindly agreeing to publish his and Bernard Crick's work," without mentioning
the fact that he is on the board and that the guy they will send it to,
McLeish is also on the board of the CSPP-- why burden us with meaningless
The next speaker was Mark Lazarowicz,
the convener of the CSPP. He believes that if a parliament is "more responsive"
it is "therefore more democratic." Responsive to who? Probably the class
of people and their associations who set it up. He also believes that:
"The government and all the political
parties should be congratulated for responding to the public wish for there
to be this type of thinking about what kind of parliament can there be,
how can it be different. The Constitutional Steering Group...which are
the party leaders, and also key people in the eh ...academic em... constitutional
convention campaign, trades unions, business community..."
He started to tail off there...
I was going to prompt him with "the CSPP", but he picked up the threads
and outlined that "the Steering Group has not just been speaking to itself."
There has been "a mail out of 800" asking for "views." That leaves about
4,999,200 to go. He tried to appear business-like:
"One of the things that we want
to do--as the CSPP--from today's discussion is we're going to put in a proposal...em...I
mean a response to the government...after Sunday."
Even as the organiser Lazarowicz
was having trouble with all the underlying twists and turns of who is who
in this conference. The exact point where the CSPP is a consultative body
representing independent viewpoints, a Labour Party front, the Labour party,
the government or the voice of the people depends on who they are talking
to. The big message is democracy need not involve all of us. Lazarowicz
eventually got to the point: "quangos and the business community should
draw up proposals...and be at the start of the policy making process,"
adding seconds later, "matters might take a few weeks to go through parliament."
After leaving it wide open he offered to close the stable door after the
horse has bolted:
"There is also a danger of course
that coalition politics can become a bit too cosy. One of my nightmares
is a situation where the three, four, five thousand members of what is
effectively the Scottish political elite... the five thousand people or
so who have a lot of influence in different ways on the political process
--and are the ones who run Scotland; and they'll have a lovely time taking
part in all these little forms of discussion and communication...."
I don't remember anyone voting for
a coalition and consensus, but according to Lazarowicz that's what we're
getting. What will offset any danger of this "amorphous coalition" is:
"The need for this process of openness
to go not just to those within the political process in various ways, but
in... in... in... at a wide level as well." Following this line of thought
the economic need of the people will automatically displace the economic
reality of the elite--the rich. We would be as well to wait for a shooting
star and make a wish. This man stood for parliament.
After all that the person chairing
the meeting then addressed us with a taste of the bathos to come:
"In the spirit of participation
I'm not expecting the audience to ask questions of the panel. We'd have
very little time if everyone would respond."
"Did the Scottish rejection of
Thatcherism indicate a class-based devotion to real socialism or a nationalism-based
rejection of anglocentric centralism? Is this a new dawn for the left,
or a false dawn?"
The above quote-- perhaps my favourite
one--is from the conference brochure and introduced the next talk, amusingly
called "What's left of Labour." The speakers were billed as:
"Tommy Sheridan, the Scottish Socialist
Alliance Councillor; Jimmy Reid The Herald; Robin Harper, Scottish Green
There would be no problem picking
this up on the tape recorder. Sadly Jimmy (There will be no bevvying) did
not turn up. Tommy (Brothers and sisters I'll be brief) Sheridan thinks
he is a dead cert for the Parliament. Robin is not so sure about his chances.
You need a certain percentage. That was about the gist of it. For his amusing
anecdote on the difficulty of getting people to actually vote Tommy regaled
the nice middle-class audience with a tale revealing how stupid he thinks
the electorate are in general and his are in particular:
"I remember being outside giving
out leaflets encouraging people to vote for myself as the candidate, and
these two guys came out and says "Tommy where do we put the mark. Do we
just put it beside your name" Because what they'd done is went in the polling
station and brought out the voting slips [laughter] they marked it outside
and then took it back in [louder laughter]. The point about that was they're
twenty-nine years old and this is the first time they've ever voted."
Both speakers, if elected--obviously
they were only here to punt themselves --will fight poverty. Everyone in
the whole weekend seemed to have pledged themselves to this cause. That
and ignoring the distinction between what people say and actually do.
I knew the last talk of the Saturday
would be on my home ground as it were.
"A New Deal for Scotland's Unemployed
Venue: Transmission Gallery
Speakers: Alan Brown, Director,
Employment Service Scotland, Dr Fran Wasoff, Dept. Sociology, University
of Edinburgh, John Diownie, Scottish Parliamentary Officer, Federation
of Small Businesses, Alex Pollock, BT Scotland Executive Team
Chair: Agnes Samuel, Executive Director,
Alan Brown the director of the so-called
Employment Services will be the man in Scotland enforcing the "New Deal".
He had this to say:
"This government strongly believes
that the best form of welfare is to seek to get people into work, and I'm
happy enough to speak here this afternoon and take part in any debate that
takes place. But as a Civil Servant--I'm quite happy to explain and defend
government policy--but Civil servants have to be careful in one sense that--you
know there are certain areas I think where the conversation goes where
you probably won't find me able to express my personal opinion about things..."
At least Pontius Pilate actually
produced a small bowl and physically washed his hands of things. Since
questions were thus rendered pointless no one bothered to ask Alan whether
the £3.5bn the government "took off" the privatised utilities would
be spent on the unemployed, people like himself who administrate the unemployed
or the privatised utilities who will get the money back. No one asked whether
the "New Deal" will achieve just as much as all the other workfare schemes
which have been discredited everywhere they have been tried. And no one
mentioned that the unemployed are criminalised under the new system--if
you're unemployed you do community service, if you commit a crime you do
community service. Brown laughed at the notion that the programme might
reduce the number of existing jobs because it will provide a dispensable
and cheap labour pool, and as such have a detrimental effect on the unions
and conditions of work generally--despite YOPS, YTS etc. becoming by-words
for this. It's not affecting his wages.
A few people who work in the "unemployed
industry" will admit that it is all "a load of shite and counter-productive".
After this talk I met up with a guy who runs one of these extra-tenner-a-week
courses where you get to play with computers. I had been on his and we
occasionally got into conversations. He had no illusions about it at all,
in fact he bent and broke the rules every day because they were impractical,
counter-productive or futile. As everyone (apart from the people paid to
lie) knows. The last time I passed his place it looked shut down.
This talk took place in Transmission
Gallery which some years ago I had been instrumental in building and running.
All the committee members were unemployed at the time and technically we
were all disqualifying ourselves from our dole cheque. Many of the other
arty venues the conference inhabited could say the same. The point is we
wanted to do what we did--it was purposeful, some people built careers on
the back of it. The new deal is little more than a punishment scheme. If
an individual refuses to comply s/he is reduced to complete poverty and
could easily end up homeless. The new scheme targets the young. As the
director of all this it is all very well of Alan Brown to wash his hands
of any responsibility--OK so he keeps his job and has a mortgage to pay--
but this is to just sit back and watch people suffer.
We could have also been spared the
disgusting spectacle of watching him defend what he seemed to earlier indicate
were lies, while one of his employees, sitting right in front of him, endlessly
nodded like a donkey and agreed out loud with every single word he said.
This typifies the level of degradation that this class of people have sunk
to and try to infect others with. A mentality depriving itself of all human
instincts towards self-respect. Hideous twisting of the brain and soul.
The nightmare of institutional "thinking". The Orwellian Ministry of Truth
came to the fore with Brown drooling over his power to cut people's benefit:
"Compulsion goes back a long way...always
been the case."
Is that what everything will come
down to with this new parliament? Is this the height of our political aspiration
--to make the callously indifferent the janitors of other people's lives.
I'm sorry we cut your money, I'm sorry you can't pay your fine I'm sorry
your in prison, I'm sorry your child died--but I don't make the rules. Meanwhile
those on a higher public subsidy--such as MPs and civil servants can bask
in the glorious rhetoric of the glorious parliament empowering the masses.
When do we get to live Mr Brown? 13
Sunday. Passing up on one talk with
A.L. Kennedy and Julian Spalding speaking as representatives of a "cultural
renaissance"; and another with "Tartan, haggis, bagpipes, Whisky, festival,
golf. Smack, razors, hard men. Is Scotland doomed always to be romanticised
or will we ever see more realistic representations of ourselves?" I had
decided to start the morning with:
"An Arts Agenda for Scotland
How can the arts best contribute
to the life of Scotland and enrich our culture and society? How can we
judge success; reflecting Scottish experiences or 14
proving to be major players on a world stage?
Speakers: Magnus Linklater, Chair,
Scottish Arts Council; Graham McKenzie, Director, Centre for Contemporary
Arts, Ruth Mackenzie, Director, Scottish Opera; Dominic d' Angelo, freelance
arts activist; Mary Picken, consultant."
In case anyone had any doubts about
just how obscenely smug we were going to get here, Magnus Linklater had
conveniently written something ingratiating about the conference overnight,
which appeared in Scotland on Sunday:
"...we were all there...talking
about the usual things. There was Alf and Ruth and Joyce and Peter and
Lindsay and Rosemary and Isobel and the others, collected together to discuss
the future. It was good to see them all again, though I must admit it doesn't
seem all that long since we last met."
He then describes the weekend's
conference as "the widest spectrum of Scottish society." For Linklater
a Saturday afternoon with all his chums is the "widest spectrum of Scottish
society". He should get out more. He ends the article by saying: "There
is nothing to be gained from being small-minded." Well, he ended up chairman
of the Scottish Arts Council.
Both McKenzie and Mackenzie (they
seem to be twins) gave talks which followed an identical pattern. First
they drooled over the preposterous amount of public money their organisations
receive, then they tried to impress on us how elite their organisation's
qualities were, then they engaged in a liberal, condescending patronisation
of the poor as a justification of their funding. The implausibility of
this led them to get caught up in lunatic flights of fancy and extravagance
with, for instance, Mackenzie stating that Scottish Opera is engaged in
"combating poverty". We were told that some of the millions her organisation
is in receipt of is occasionally used to fund stalwart missionary work
in the nasty bits of the city. The "poverty of aspiration" that she witnesses
motivates and touches her heart--she "caught them before they're out in
the streets joy riding...how many 16 year olds are burning cars?"
McKenzie's talk was similarly peppered
with allusions as to how culture will be brought into the city--as if it
was famine relief or oxygen in a cultural vacuum. This mind set seemed
a continuation of the moral squalor of the last talk on unemployment. The
working class are deemed criminal, they have no culture. I had thought
that this "missionary position" was a thing of the past in "community arts"--
but here it was loud and proud. Do they really have to pretend that they
find virtue in this--would they not be better off adopting a smarter way
to patronise us? Could they please rehearse the faking of sincerity a bit
more thoroughly next time?
Magnus Linklater of course is only
in it for the money, as he made clear in his petulant salary negotiations
before he got the job. I have nothing to say about the other two contributors.
I was getting a bit fed up by now.
There is only so much of this kind of stuff you can take. I felt like I
was sinking into a vat of stale porridge. Out of a sense of duty I dragged
myself up to the Women's Library to hear the next talk. They kindly gave
me some coffee and for a brief moment I felt quite comfortable-- the place
has quite a warm atmosphere. It was raining outside.
This talk was on the Scottish Media,
with Arnold Kemp, formerly the editor of the Herald 15
Jane Sillars from a media studies department and Maurice Smith the business
editor of BBC Scotland. In this as with all of the seminars everyone seemed
to know each other, speakers, chairperson and audience would all call each
other by their first names. To let some latecomers sit down I moved away
and ended up behind a library bookshelf. I couldn't actually see anything
and tiring of taking notes I started to look at all the books leaving my
tape recorder to pick up all the drone. Kemp thinks that there will be
no serious attempt to cover the new parliament and that the news is now
completely commodified. He is probably right. He also said that "the Scottish
press adopted a defiant stance against Thatcherism", there he is definitely
This event--timed as it was--just
before the party conventions, was in one way an attempt to merge various
factions together, to bury the hatchet and of course stab people in the
back: opportunists who extolled the virtues of Thatcherism are now welcome
to extol the virtues of Blairism. On the other hand it was an opportunity
to vet Labour people. I got to wondering what the press response would
be if in London a conference was organised by a group which contained Gordon
Brown, Robin Cook, Peter Mandelson and Jack Straw and was introduced by
a speech by Tony Blair and then tried to pass itself off as having "independent
of any political party," or a body which can represent the views of the
I dragged myself to the last talk.
"Where is Radical Scotland?
Is Scotland really a left-wing nation?
Why does the legacy of Red Clydeside remain potent to many on the left
and what was the lasting impact of Thatcherism?
Speakers: Isobel Lyndsay, department
of Government, University of Strathclyde; Pat Kane, writer and broadcaster.
Chair Mark Lazarowicz"
All I can bring myself to say is
that this one was a sick joke.
The Scottish Parliament will merely
take over the work of the Scottish Office, and I don't remember anyone
ever getting that worked up about them. The Scottish Parliament will have
no power over:
"...pensions; abortion; broadcasting;
road transport; shipping; telecommunications; weights and measures; employment;
railways; airlines; the Crown Estate Commission; "all fiscal, economic
and monetary policy"; natural resources (Westminster reserves the right
to control the exploitation of, the ownership of, and the "exploitation
of ownership, and the exploration for North Sea gas and oil"); the issue
of banknotes (including Scottish ones); banking regulations; most aspects
of Scotland's minerals; electricity generated by nuclear power; trade &
industry; the transport of radioactive materials; drugs; immigration; what
is "an official secret"; firearms; film censorship; betting; gaming and
lotteries; trout & salmon farming; the civil service; the defence of
the realm; national security; social security; foreign affairs; and relations
with the European Union"16
Add to that the fact that a great
deal of former public sector activity was privatised by the previous government
(and will under the present one still be privatised under the Private Finance
Initiative). Thankfully for most of the people involved in this conference
that still leaves room for bullying and making money out of the poor.
1. Herald May 30.
2. When I phoned the CSPP to get
more information I asked them why they had changed their name and they
said that "nobody had heard of John Weatley."
3. The Scottish Policy Institute
is being funded by the Barclay Brothers who own the Scotsman newspaper.
It will advocate market-based policies for Scotland and probably make much
the same noises as Andrew Neil, the editor of the Scotsman.
4. Private Eye 920.
5. Some of the speakers although
not directly connected with the CSPP demonstrated the influence of their
material. John McAllion MP, for example, spoke at the seminar on (naturally
enough) coalition politics. On the Saturday in the Herald's reporting of
the conference, he is quoted as advocating a form of "politics by petition"
which came straight out of David Millar's talk at the first seminar I attended
and is itself expounded in Millar's CSPP publication.
6. Where were you Brother? Don Thomson
and Rodney Larson, War on Want,1978.
7. Dirty Work (The CIA in Western
Europe), Editors Philip Agee & Louis Wolf, Zed, 1978.
8. New Labour, New Atlanticism:
US and Tory intervention in the unions since the 1970s, David Osler, Lobster
9. "...the Americans sponsored and
funded the European social democrats not because they were social democrats,
but because social democracy was the best vehicle for the major aim of
the programme: to ensure that the governments of Europe continued to allow
American capital into their economies with the minimum of restrictions.
This aim the revisionists in the Labour party chose not to look at." Robin
Ramsay, Prawn Cocktail Party (The Hidden Power behind New Labour), Vision,
10. CIA and the Labour Movement,
Fred Hirsh & Richard Fletcher, Spokesman Books, 1977.
11. David Millar and Bernard Crick
(an academic, at London and Edinburgh University) wrote a work which purported
to revise the Standing Orders of the 1991 Scottish Constitutional Convention
and they are trying to 'revise' them again having written the pamphlet
'To make the Parliament of Scotland a Model for Democracy' in '95, which
of course was funded by the CSPP.
12. Millar & Crick have proposed
that the role of the speaker should be replaced by a presiding officer/president,
who should "enter the political fray." A "bureau" would work out the agenda
and a "Business Committee" would offer costed policy options. One can just
feel the layers of bureaucracy fall away. He ended with the exhortation
"go back to your political parties, to your kirk session, golf club, tennis
club start getting people talking."
13. The academic at this marvel
of doublethink, Dr Fran Wasoff, sat in front of the fire exit the whole
time - which will serve as a metaphor for her contribution (well meaning
- in the way). The guy from BT when "explaining" BT's involvement in the
scheme actually passed round a phone card which they are giving to the
18 - 24 year-olds who are forced to work for them. I now know what a phone
card looks like. That too will serve as another quick metaphor.
14. Notice that it is an either
15. When it ran all manner of disinformation
from Paul Wilkinson and Patrick Laurence.
16 Private Eye No. 948, 17th April
Dr. Ismail Besiki
To the Judges
The following is a shortened version
of the preliminary statement made by Dr. Besiki on April 1990 to the Turkish
Court. He was arrested in February 1990 following the publication and subsequent
confiscation of his book Interstate Colony -- Kurdistan. He was charged
with "disseminating propaganda and undermining national pride." He has
been imprisoned by the Turkish authorities since 1971. He has recently
been sentenced to 100 years in prison.
To the Judges: A science that
is incapable of criticising official ideology cannot progress
This is not the first time that
I have been tried for my studies on the Kurdish question and scientific
concepts. I have appeared in various courts on various dates since 1967.
The contents of the indictments arraigned on these occasions has never
changed. Since the late sixties the same allegations have been repeated
in the same terminology using the same concepts:
"Citizens of the Turkish Republic
are referred to as Turkish. There is no nation in Turkey except the Turkish
nation and no language except Turkish. The existence of another nation
or another language cannot be accepted. Every person who is a subject of
the Turkish state and everyone who is bound to the state through citizenship
is Turkish. Not differentiated in language, religion, sex or race everyone
is Turkish. Whatever their ethnic origin.
The basic principle accepted by
the constitution is that everyone is Turkish. All Turks are equal in political
rights. It is an offense to say there is a nation other than the Turkish
nation or a language other than the Turkish language or a culture other
than Turkish culture or to defend this language and culture."
The Turkish state and its official
ideology denies the existence of the Kurdish nation and the Kurdish language.
The Kurds are considered to be a Turkish tribe, the Kurdish language a
dialect of Turkish. In this way sociological realities are denied by means
of official ideology. Official ideology is not just any ideology. Official
ideology implies legal sanction. Those who stray outside the boundaries
of official ideology are shown the way to prison. The constraints of official
ideology obstruct the development of science. This pressure paralyses thought
and cripples and blunts minds. These qualities of science and official
ideology have become more obvious in recent years.
As I pointed out above, the contents
of the charge sheets have not changed since 1967. However, the subjects
and contents of my writings and the social and political understanding
therein have changed considerably. For instance the writings published
in 1990 bear little or no resemblance to the articles published in 1967.
The new work is more correct and coherent. It is plain that the chains
that crippled and enslaved thought and language have now been broken and
are no longer held in such regard. This is one of the most important facts
of the process beginning in the late 60s and continuing to the present
It is at this point that I feel
it is necessary to touch on the concepts of legality and legitimacy. I
do not share the views expressed in the indictment, since these views are
an expression of official ideology and based on a lie and denial of the
truth. These things may exist in law but they are not legitimate. Whether
it is 5 generals or 450 deputies that pass it makes no difference. Legislation
denying the existence of the Kurdish nation, language and culture can have
no legitimacy at all. In law legitimacy is more important than legality.
The Kurdish population in the Middle
East is in excess of 30 million. The Kurds have lived in Kurdistan for
4,000 years, whereas the Turks started to move from Central Asia through
Khorasan into Iran, Kurdistan, Iraq, Syria and Anatolia in the second half
of the 11th century. To wipe out the Kurdish nation, its language and its
culture is barbaric. There is no way such a process can be approved by
public consciousness. The Turkish nation does not deserve to be known as
the perpetrator of such barbarism. In this respect there is a great difference
between legality and legitimacy on the subject of the Kurdish question.
In present day this difference, this contradiction has become more striking
and has caught the imagination of public opinion.
All over the world political and
social currents like liberation struggles, struggles for self-determination
and human rights are gaining strength. These struggles have also, undoubtedly,
influenced Kurdish society. In recent years the Kurdish people have entered
a process of awakening. The Kurds have realised that Kurdish society is
a slave society, the like of which is not to be found anywhere in the world.
The system which the imperialist states and the Turks, Arabs and Persians
in league with them, have seen fit for the Kurds is a system of slavery.
A nation whose name has been banned. A nation whose honour has been usurped,
a nation whose self betrayal has been facilitated, a humiliated nation.
The Kurds have not only realised
the state they are in and the status seen fit for them. They have also
begun to feel shame at their slavery. In which case, they should remedy
the situation. They need to find a way to live in dignity. The present
struggle is a struggle for equality with all nations and peoples. And through
this struggle world opinion is understanding more about the Kurdish question.
The world is following the Kurdish struggle for democracy, freedom and
equality as is progressive opinion in Turkey.
Let us consider the fact that the
Turks came to the Middle East in the 11th century.
They have lived on these lands for
less than a thousand years. They have humiliated and degraded the original
owners of these lands, who have been here for 4,000 years. While there
are independent states with populations of only 10,000 how have the Kurds,
with a population of more than 30 million been made to submit to such a
dishonourable life? These questions need to be examined.
Today there is a Turkish Kurdistan,
an Iranian Kurdistan, an Iraqi Kurdistan and a Syrian Kurdistan. But the
Kurds have no Kurdistan. Why not? Kurds also live in various republics
of the Soviet Union. They live in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan
and in villages in the foothills of the Pamir mountains. Why? How did they
get there? What was the reason for their exile? Why was a divide and rule
policy used against the Kurds? Undoubtedly a nation which is the victim
of a divide and rule policy has great weaknesses. What are the Kurds weaknesses?
All these questions need to be investigated and scrutinised.
Turkish universities, Turkish professors,
writers, Turkish political parties and the Turkish press have a widespread,
accepted understanding. This is emphasised in the public prosecutor's indictment.
According to this understanding everyone in Turkey is equal and no-one
is subjected to different treatment due to their language or culture. Everyone
can rise to high office in public service. No-one is prevented from doing
so. For instance anyone can become a deput, minister, governor, judge,
officer, professor etc. It is possible to give examples of this view:
"In the administration of Turkey
there has never been in the past or present, a policy of exclusion based
on a person's ethnic origin. Nobody has ever been prevented from entering
parliament or reaching the highest posts in the state due to being of Kurdish
origin." (Prof. Dr. Mumtaz Soysal. 'Separatism', Milliyet newspaper, 14/3/90)
"The Kurds are not deprived of any
rights. No-one in Turkey has been deprived of the right to achieve high
office by claims of being a minority." (Prof. Dr. Mumtaz Soysal. Milliyet
1990, from a speech made at South-East Europe Minority Rights Conference
in Copenhagen on 30 March and 1 April 1990)
"The Kurds have not been considered
a minority in Ottoman or in Republican Turkey. Citizens of Kurdish origin
have been able to take their place equally in the public and private sector."
(Prof.Dr Dogu Ergil, 'Eastern Question'. Milliyet, 23/3/90).
"The Turks and the Kurds have lived
together for hundreds of years. Citizens of Kurdish origin can gain promotion
in their chosen careers, in the military or civilian bureaucracy without
encountering any obstacle. In today's Motherland Party government there
are several ministers of Kurdish origin." (Ugur Mumcu. 'Where is the problem?'
Cumhuriyet newspaper, 28/3/90)
"There is absolutely no difference
between citizens living in the East and citizens in other regions...as
democracy is based on the vote it results in a sharing of resources...Turks
and Kurds share the same fate. We endure the problems of living in a poor
country together. No one treats Easterners as second class citizens...There
is no discrimination between Kurd and Turk." (Nazli Ilicak. Press summit
in Presidential Palace, Tercuman newspaper, 8/4/90)
"Turkish society is not racist.
Anyone who says 'I'm Turkish' is accepted as a member of society. It is
written so in the constitution. Ataturk said, 'How happy is one who says
I am a Turk' not 'How happy is one who is a Turk'. It is not a matter of
race. In everyone's past there is some element of Turk, Laz, Georgian,
Circassian, Kurd or other. They have become mixed up. There are those among
us who have a different mother tongue. It is possible to meet migrants
from Crete who speak no Turkish. This does not prevent them being one of
us. Turks of Kurdish origin in our midst have become commanders, judges,
MPs, ministers, prime minister, even president. They have achieved more
high posts than their percentage of the population. There is no discrimination.
While this is the state of affairs we are faced with a clandestine struggle
in the south-east. There are no Muslim minorities in Turkey. The language
spoken is Turkish. Everyone is obliged to learn this language. Primary
education is compulsory. If there are people who don't know Turkish the
fault lies with the teachers who didn't teach them or the students who
didn't learn." (Ihsan Sabri Caglayangil. 'Turkey's security and an appraisal'.
Gunes newspaper, 10/4/90)
It is necessary to point out that
the professors, writers, journalists and bureaucrats' ideas are wrong.
They emphasise that those 'of Kurdish origin', have equal rights with Turks
and that they are able to achieve high office in the state apparatus. But
they ignore the basic condition for this "equality". In Turkey a person
"of Kurdish origin" who denies his identity becomes like a Turk and makes
propaganda for Turkish nationalism can achieve anything. There is no doubt
about that, but it is not equality. This means enslaving this society,
destroying it, facilitating its self-betrayal and humiliating the nation
and the people. According to Turkish university professors, the Turkish
press, Turkish diplomats and Turkish writers this is "equality". One cannot
claim that a person who is enslaved, who denies his identity, has equal
rights with the person and the nation he tries to resemble. Democracy and
its basic condition, equality is of course a universal concept, whereas
the concept being propagated above can only be "equality according to the
Turks" or "democracy according to the Turks".
It is emphasised that people from
the East, or those of "Kurdish origin", can become MPs. But it should be
realised that these people do not contest the elections as Kurds, they
do not get elected as Kurds! In Turkey the Kurds are a nation which has
had its identity usurped. When a chiId is born to Kurdish parents the child
is registered as a Turk. From the Turkish constitution downwards all Turkish
laws usurp the Kurdish identity. A Kurdish child is given a Turkish identity
card. His or her Kurdish identity is objectively denied. After such a denial
and a Turkicisation operation to say that all Turks are equal regardless
of race, language or religion does not mean everyone is equal. This is
undoubtedly not an objective equality but an ideological equality. In that
case it is a constitutional and legal requirement that Kurds, those "of
Kurdish origin", are Turkish. It is quite natural then, that after everyone
is Turkicised at birth they should contest elections, become civil servants
and achieve high office.
For a person to work in the state
bureaucracy it is of course not enough for that person's Kurdish identity
to be usurped. That person has to reject the characteristics of Kurdish
society, has to say he is a Turk and with his ideas and actions put this
over convincingly. Those who defend their Kurdish identity can get nowhere
in Turkey. They cannot even become a caretaker or jailor, let alone a MP.
There is only one thing these people can become: an accused person or a
It is true that there are several
ministers "of Kurdish origin" in today's government. But they achieved
these positions because they denied their national identity and became
slaves. For this reason, whenever there is the slightest national oppression
of Turks in Bulgaria,Western Thrace (Greece), Cyprus, Azerbaijan etc. these
"Turks" speak out. They defend the rights of these Turkish communities.
However, when in Kurdistan the Kurds are faced with intense persecution
and repression they remain silent.
In the 1980s over forty young people
were tortured to death in the dungeons of Diyarbakir because they insisted
on defending their identity and didn't sing the Turkish national anthem
and take part in Ataturkist education. Ministers "of Kurdish origin" felt
not the slightest need to intervene. In Southern Kurdistan the Kurds were
massacred in their thousands with chemical weapons, tens of thousands were
wounded and crippled and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee to Turkey
in a wretched state. They were put behind barbed wire and treated like
prisoners. They have not been recognised as political refugees. Of course,
the ministers whose "Kurdish origin" is emphasised made no fuss about this.
For professors, writers and the press to assert that everyone is equal
and can become a MP or even a minister means nothing less than that they
approve of the slave status seen fit for Kurdish people. This shows just
how official ideology has blunted intellects. The fact that professors
make such assertions shows just how official ideology has distorted science.
A science that does not challenge and criticise official ideology has no
chance of developing. It is easy to see that Turkish professors, journalists
and writers have double standards. They opposed vehemently the Bulgarian
state's claim that: "In Bulgaria there is no such ethnic group as the Turks.
They are Bulgarians who were Turkicised by the Ottomans. Everyone in Bulgaria
is of Bulgarian ethnic origin. Every Bulgarian is equal in regard to race,
language or sex". They asserted that this was an example of racism and
imperialism to be found nowhere else in the world. There, too, those who
denied being Turkish could achieve high office. But this did not mean the
Turks had equal rights. The professors, writers and journalists condemned
the Bulgarian government's violations of human rights. They stressed the
inequality of Bulgarians and Turks. They see as equality the much worse
situation of Kurds vis-a-vis Turks which is much more obvious and has existed
not just in recent years but for nearly seventy years. They boast that:
"The Turks have never treated anyone differently on account of their ethnic
origin". This is racism. Not to see other peoples as deserving rights they
see fit for their own nation. And this racism is thoroughly systematized.
For example, Bulgaria has been able to change its policy concerning the
Turks whereas Turkey cannot even dare to think about the subject of the
One shouldn't perceive racism as
always being a matter of separate housing estates, separate restaurants,
separate beaches etc. Turkish style racism means humiliating and looking
down on the Kurdish language and culture i.e. everything Kurdish, and imposing
the Turkish language and culture in its place, using state terror as the
most effective tool in this process. In Turkey professors, writers and
diplomats both perpetrate intensive racism and also start their articles
by saying "Turks aren't racist". The Turks apparently count as one of their
own anyone who says "I'm Turkish". This is not the point. Problems start
when someone says "I'm Kurdish". This is when state terror is used to "transform
Kurds to Turks".
This racist and double-standard
approach is not reserved only for professors and writers. It has been defended
by Turkish universities as a whole and a very large proportion of the Turkish
press. Turkish political parties, Turkish workers' organisations, legal
associations, the theology ministry and Turkish sports federations have
also adopted this idea and approach.
Many judges criticized Bulgaria
for its policies towards the Turks but when we say "the Kurds suffer severe
persecution, state terror is being used against the Kurds. The Kurds are
being assimilated", we are put on trial in front of these very same judges.
The double standard evident in the thoughts and actions of these judges
attracts attention of course. It is just such a system of justice which
damages justice itself. This double standard approach doesn't stop there.
Look at this example:
"Recently you must surely have heard
frequently people saying 'How can Turkey, which is under threat on account
of the Kurdish question of self-determination, dare to base its own case
in Cyprus on the same right?' Or words to that effect. Turkey's stand finds
heart in the fact that in the administration, neither in the past, nor
today, has there been a policy of discrimination based on ethnic origin.
No one has been prevented from entering parliament or taking high office
in the state because they were 'of Kurdish origin'. In other words, the
exact opposite of the situation in Cyprus.
Yes, there are problems and especially
in regard to the freedom to use the mother tongue there are definitely
steps that must be taken. But these are not problems that cannot be solved
within a framework of common sense that is not based on ethnic discrimination.
On account of this to draw parallels
between the situation of citizens of Kurdish origin in Turkey and the situation
of the excluded Turks in Cyprus is an ill-intentioned position that can
be used as an excuse either to incite unnecessary division in Turkey or
deliver the Turkish Cypriots into a Greek Cypriot Sultanate. Or it's just
another way of weakening our just case by our own hand." (Prof.Dr.Mumtaz
Soysal. 'Separatism' Milliyet. 14/3/90)
Here we have a mentality which needs
to be examined and scrutinised closely. A comparison is being made between
Turkish Cypriots and Kurds. It is being emphasized that the Kurds live
in very good conditions while the Turks in Cyprus live in very bad conditions.
In other words, that Turkish-Kurdish relations are run in a very democratic
legislative framework whereas Greek Cypriot-Turkish Cypriot relations are
administered in a very anti-democratic legislative framework. This is not
only the mentality of Prof. Soysal. It is the shared mentality of Turkish
writers and the Turkish press. It is becoming increasingly the mentality
of the state's official ideology. In this respect it needs to be examined.
For over 20 years intensive, widespread
oppression has been practiced in Kurdistan. State terror has been adopted
as a basic policy. The security forces, commandoes, gendarmes, police and
counter-insurgency squads frequently raid villages. All the inhabitants
are rounded up in the village square. Children and women are lined up on
one side and the men on the other. The men are then stripped naked. The
men are tortured in front of their womenfolk and children. String is tied
to the sexual organs of the men and the string is then given to the women.
They are then made to parade around the village under rifle butts. This
is undoubtedly humiliating and degrading treatment.
Did the Turkish Cypriots suffer
such treatment I wonder? Whether before 1974, 1964 or 1958. So how can
it be said that the legislation governing Turkish-Kurdish relations is
democratic whereas that governing Greek Cypriot-Turkish Cypriot relations
was so anti-democratic?
In Kurdistan today human beings
can easily be killed by the security forces without anyone asking questions.
Sometimes people are killed to exact vengeance, sometimes to intimidate
and threaten the people. Sometimes, too, commanding officers say "Bring
some heads, then you can go on leave". Junior officer Riza Parlak said
Gendarme private Nuri Kocak had been rewarded with 15 days leave by his
commanding officer, Zahit Engin for killing two villagers. (Gunes14/3/1990)
When the relatives of those killed
complain to the appropriate departments they get nowhere. No investigation
or inquiry is started into either the commander who gave the order or into
When the situation is so clear,
so strikingly manifest, how can the Turkish Cypriot community be compared
with the Kurds in Kurdistan? Did the Greek Cypriots kill the Turkish Cypriots
in such an arbitrary way, with no questions asked?
The state's counter-insurgency squads
frequently disguise themselves as guerrillas and commit atrocities. The
incident which took place on 21 January 1990 when 28 Kurds were massacred
in Sete (Ikiyaka) village near Yuksekova was one such example (see "Towards2000",
issue No 13, 25/3/90, page 26: "I didn't do it, I was beaten and made to
appear on TV").
Sometimes, too, village guards in
guerriIla garb are encouraged to kill patriotic Kurdish families. The slaughter
of 3 people, two of them babies, in Hakkari in March was one such incident.
The incident was reflected in the Turkish press as "Baby murderers PKK".
(Milliyet, 31/3/90). Subsequently it came to light that the crime had been
committed by village guards. ("Towards 2000", issue No4.1/4/90)
Despite all the above Prof. Dr.
Mumtaz Soysal is still able to compare Turkish-Kurdish relations favourably
to Greek Cypriot-Turkish Cypriot relations, since, we are told. those "of
Kurdish origin" whose identity has been usurped can be elected to parliament.
Presumably he thinks that once they can sing Kurdish folk songs everything
will be peace and light.
In Cyprus prior to 1974 Turkish
Cypriots could enter parliament as Turks. They could become ministers as
Turks and the vice-president of Cyprus was a Turk. There was no question
of the Turkish Cypriots being excluded.
It is necessary to ask the professors:
In Turkey Kurds do not enter parliament as Kurds, they do not contest elections
as Kurds because as soon as they are born they are registered as Turks.
"Equality" begins after this usurpation. This is not, of course, equality,
because equality is a fundamental principle of democracy, is a universal
concept to which conditions cannot be attached.
Every year on 23 April Turkish Cypriot
children come to Turkey and participate in the 23 April celebrations (International
Children's Festival). The same people who say "we love children very much,
we are the first state to give chiIdren a festival", show rifle butts to
In Kurdistan the sole administrator
is the military. They rule by decrees and orders. Governors have no say.
People are forced to eat excrement to make them obedient and loyal to the
state. After people are killed at random the army claims they were "PKK
militants". Bodies are then burnt to eradicate evidence. Has any thing
like this ever happened in Cyprus? How can such comparisons be made?
Israel cannot think of using chemical
weapons against the Palestinians and the Americans were unable to use them
in Vietnam but these weapons have been used on several occasions in Kurdistan.
Kurdistan is an international colony
divided between four states. In fact Kurdistan is a country that is not
even a colony. lt is a nation without an identity, a nation that has had
its identity usurped. There are great differences between Kurdistan and
classical colonies. For instance between the way Britain administered India
and the way the Turks administer Kurdistan. When Britain appointed a senior
official preference was given to those who knew local languages and were
familiar with local cultures. But when officials are appointed in Kurdistan
knowledge of Kurdish and familiarity with Kurdish culture is not required
since the Kurds are a nation under threat of being eradicated along with
their language, culture, name and history.
Turkey guarantees legally and in
practice the political, social and national rights of the Turkish Cypriots.
Their rights are also guaranteed by international treaties. Whenever there
is a violation of the rights of the Turkish Cypriots Turkey intervenes
immediately to seek redress through diplomatic channels or, if necessary,
by military means. The situation is the same for Turkish communities in
other countries. Whenever any pressure is put on the Turks in Bulgaria
or Western Thrace (Greece) Turkey immediately protests. The problem is
taken to international assemblies and human rights organisations are alerted.
For the Kurds the situation is somewhat
different. Since the Kurds have had the right to set up their own independent
state usurped, whenever there is persecution there is no authority which
can make a protest to the state concerned. As protests and condemnations
from human rights bodies are unofficial the states persecuting the Kurds
will ignore them.
The use of chemical weapons in Southern
Kurdistan in 1988 was the greatest instance of genocide since Hiroshima
and Nagasaki in 1945. However the world's reaction was muted. Saddam Hussein's
regime suffered no great condemnation. The Halabja massacre took place
on 16 March 1988. On 20 March the Islamic Conference held a summit meeting
in Kuwait. At the summit the Bulgarian government was condemned for changing
the Turks' names and giving them Bulgarian ones. The Israeli government
was condemned for persecuting the Palestinians and the Greek Cypriot government
was condemned for not recognising the Turkish state of Northern Cyprus.
The Soviet Union was condemned for its presence in Afganistan but not a
word was spoken about the genocide perpetrated against the Kurds by the
Iraqi regime. Not one leader of the 42 Islamic countries felt the need
to put the subject on the agenda. For this reason Saddam Hussein's government
was able to commit such crimes against the Kurds. If there were a member
of an international body that could put the matter on the agenda they would
not be able to behave in such an unrestrained manner. All this is a consequence
of the division and parcelling up of Kurdistan.
Let's imagine for a moment that
Israel used chemical weapons against the Palestinians. What would the world's
reaction be? The world would be in uproar. There would be protests for
weeks all over the world. Huge demonstrations would be held. There would
also undoubtedly be protest meetings in Israel too, because one shouldn't
forget that Israel is a democratic society and that it is possible for
public reaction to show its opposition to government policies. Israel would
be condemned and isolated from the international community, which it knows
very well, so it would not even consider using chemical weapons.
However these weapons have been
used in Kurdistan without resulting in great international protests whereas
when an English (sic) journalist named Bazoft was executed in Bagdad the
Western countries protested long and loud.
If even a small part of the persecution
and genocide practiced in Kurdistan was applied in Cyprus against the Turkish
Cypriots the Turkish government, political parties, universities and press
would lead the protests. It would be wrong to criticize a professor or
a writer for not supporting oppressed peoples and those suffering persecution
because to support or not to support an oppressed people is a moral question.
However if such a mentality tries to give lessons in democracy every day
then it should be exposed for what it is. The racist and colonialist attitude
and behaviour should be exposed. Official ideologists make their propaganda
regularly whereas those who criticize are sent to prison. The Turkish press
should remember Voltaire.
The opposition parties in Turkey
have given the government a blank cheque saying "do as you wish, just stop
these troubles, we won't ask any questions, don't worry".
There is something ironic about
these words. The political parties in Turkey don' t have the power to ask
questions! Even though they have millions of votes they have no power.
A few generals take power, detain the party leaders for a time and then
send them home. There is no such thing in Turkish politics as resisting
military coups. Surrendering to military coups is an important tradition
in Turkish politics. Turkish politics is cowardly and sycophantic. The
only freedom political parties have is to approve policies of persecution
and tyranny. In Turkey Kurdistan policies are not government policies,
they are army and MIT (National Intelligence Organisation) policies. In
other words, state policies. Policies on Kurdistan are formulated by the
National Security Council. These policies cannot be debated in parliament
and as state policies have to be supported by opposition parties. In Turkey
the government, opposition, political parties and parliament are a lot
weaker than is thought. In Turkey the state has an illegal aspect, an illegal
function and this is its powerful aspect. It is this illegal function of
the state which dominates parliament. Turkish politics has yet to expose
this illegal character of the state.
We have tried to give some examples
of state terror in Kurdistan. One shouldn't perceive state terror as only
physical oppression. One shouldn't neglect the mentality behind state terror,
torture and oppression. This also needs to be examined. In my opinion "Understanding
of science peculiar to Turks", "Understanding of democracy peculiar to
Turks" and "Understanding of equality peculiar to Turks" etc. are important
dimensions forming this mentality. The "national interest" can make it
necessary to tamper with the facts, to distort the truth. The Turks need
democracy but this democracy will include torture. Otherwise how will those
who are "patriotic" be able to bring round those who are "unpatriotic"
Nationalism is a characteristic
the Turks certainly won't relinquish but they also seem to feel it necessary
to eradicate other people's national characteristics and to try to make
them resemble themselves.
If the reporting of an incident
conflicts with the national interest then that incident shouldn't be reported.
This is the mentality behind state terror, oppression and torture. In this
respect state terror in Kurdistan is formulated and reproduced with the
assistance of Turkish universities, the Turkish press, Turkish political
parties and Turkish legal associations.
One of the concepts stressed in
the indictment is that of "shared national joy and sorrow". According to
this there is an indivisible, organic link between all citizens in pain,
sorrow, joy and pride. It is emphasised that everyone is Turkish and that
everyone shares common feelings in cases of the above feelings. In reality
of course, this was not the case. For example during the war in Cyprus
everyone was expected to assist Turkey and to publicise the justness of
Turkey's action. When there was persecution of the Turks in Bulgaria everyone
was expected to criticize Bulgaria and participate in the campaign against
it. But if a Kurdish resident of Siirt or Hakkari tried to assist the Kurds
fighting the Iraqi government by, for instance, sending medicine, he would
be arrested and thrown into prison.
The situation of the Kurds who had
to flee from Southern Kurdistan and take refuge in Turkey and that of the
Turks who were sent from Bulgaria is informative. At first Turkey didn't
want to accept the Kurds as refugees, and even returned some to Iraq. Later,
for various reasons, Turkey allowed the Kurds to stay but rather than recognising
them as refugees stuck them in camps behind barbed wire and treated them
like prisoners of war.
Of course the Turks from Bulgaria
were not treated in this way. Our "cousins" were assisted in all ways possible.
Those with relatives in Turkey were allowed to stay with them, whereas
the Kurds from Iraq were not allowed to stay with their relatives, or in
other words, the Kurds in Northern Kurdistan were obstructed when they
tried to help those who had fled from chemical bombardment. The Turkish
government even announced that "Our doctors have carried out tests and
have found no sign of the use of chemical weapons". They protected Iraq
the perpetrators of genocide. A delegation of experts from the UN were
denied permission to carry out tests on the Kurds, who were suffering the
after effects of chemical weapons. As the Kurds have not been granted refugee
status, aid from abroad is also not being accepted. The Turkish government
says, "Send us the aid, we will distribute it to those in need". Foreign
states, finding Turkey unreliable, are unable to send aid. They are not
sure that such aid will reach the Kurds. The Turkish state prevents aid
reaching the Kurds, stops Kurdish people in Turkey rendering assistance
and then complains about the "financial burden" the Kurds have brought.
I want to dwell a little upon the
concept of "national pride". Wanting the Kurdish people to be free, wanting
them to live in equal conditions with the Turkish people is taken to be
propaganda undermining the national pride of the Turks. In fact, demanding
equality for the Kurdish people, or the removal of bans on Kurdish language
and culture definitely cannot undermine the national pride of the Turks.
On the contrary it would strengthen it since defence of human rights and
freedoms strengthens national feelings.
The campaign in Germany against
the Turks may well wound Turkish pride but why should the demand for Kurdish
freedom wound Turkish feelings?
The fact that the United Nations
and some member states are unable to send aid to the Kurdish refugees because
they consider the Turkish state's promises lack credibility may well wound
Turkey, with its colony Kurdistan,
certainly has no chance of taking a place amongst the democratic states
of the West. It is becoming increasingly clear that Turkey is ruling a
colony with a policy the like of which is not to be found anywhere in the
world. Turkey will move further away from the West, from Europe, because
at every international gathering it attends Turkey will face questions
about its colony Kurdistan. Turkey's record on this subject is not without
blemishes. It has much to answer for. The only way it wiIl be able to avoid
these questions is by taking care to stay away from these meetings. This
is all I have to say at this stage of the proceedings.
18 April 1990, Sagmalcilar Prison,
Tower of Babel
the following three articles are
variously edited versions of talks given at a
symposium organised by Street Level
Photoworks and hosted by the CCA both in Glasgow in November of 1997.
The purpose of Street Level's symposia is to stimulate discussion within
a public forum on topics and issues which we identify as pivotal to the
current climate and development of art practice in Scotland. It is not
considered to be an isolated event, but part of a continuum of critical
debate which recognises the necessity of recording histories and ideas.
It coincided with the exhibition tower of babble: invention and convention
in art magazines 1960 to the present held at Street Level and other venues
in Glasgow in late '97. The exhibition toured to Stirling and accumulated
more material on its exhibition at the Norwich Art Gallery in May of '98.
the work preceding this and the one
7 pages on are part of a series of 10 artists magazine covers commissioned
for the tower of babble exhibition. The first is by Pavel Büchler
whose article of the same name features here, and the latter by Glasgow
the second instalment of pieces from
the symposium will be available this October.
It will include pieces by Rhonda
Wilson on Ten-8, an article on AND magazine, Linda Morris in discussion
with Peter Townsend, and Peter Kravitz on fanzine and magazine culture.
For a copy please send an A4 SAE
street level photoworks [present/past
26 King Street Glasgow G1 5QP
for an e-mailed copy, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I want to pick up this theme where
I signed off the last time I had the opportunity to elaborate publicly
on the subject. In 1993, I wrote an article on artists' uses of the magazine
page as an 'alternative space' for the 25th anniversary issue of Creative
Camera. I concluded the short piece with the example of one of the most
insightful 'magazine interventions' by an artist, Ad Reinhardt's series
of 'timeless political' cartoons, which appeared fortnightly in 1946-47
in the liberal New York magazine P.M., and continued sporadically in various
publications until the early 1960s. Throughout the series, Reinhardt's
polemic concerns the critical reception of art governed by a tension between
the supposedly 'timeless' and the ostensibly 'political', and indicates
the political currency of the 'timeless' questions that art should ceaselessly
ask by putting its own history on trial.
The political is of course never
timeless, but historical and temporal.
Ad Reinhardt, who held that "art
is art and everything else is everything else," understood the challenge
that the time-bound space of the magazine page poses to art. Magazines
are not only storehouses for ideas or containers of ammunition for critical
battles they are also, and much more importantly, the means by which
our culture reflects our feeble attempts to keep apace with its rapidly
disintegrating time and to postpone an immediate collapse of our times
into history. And this is perhaps the most important "alternative" that
the magazine page can offer to the work of art: a realignment of the timeless
with the temporal, a synchronicity with the world and with everything
In my mother tongue, Czech, 'magazine'
is 'cõ asopis', literally 'the script of time' or 'time-script'
(as in the German 'Zietschrift'). The expression resonates with chronology
(writing about time), and chronography (writing by time); with the sense
of the passage of time (as in the word 'journal') and with the sense of
'the times' as the momentary state of culture. Time and the times, as recorded
and reflected by the magazine, 'the script of time', are then the denominators
of the discussions that shape our sense of where we are.
This does not mean, of course, that
magazines and other periodical media in their plurality reflect, register
and record something like an ideal time, a common standard in a given culture.
Quite on the contrary, with their diverse allegiances, constituencies,
agendas and interests, magazines play a major part in our perceptions of
our time as fragmented, uncertain and volatile, and somehow always running
ahead of itself. Each magazine turns events and cultural phenomena into
'issues' and 'topics', releases them into or places them in time, according
to its own editorial, political and commercial priorities. Even within
a single field and a narrow geography, such as contemporary Western art,
for example, the sense of time that magazines reflect collectively is held
together by nothing more substantial than the continuity of advertising
or the chronology of exhibition listings, but collapses into diverse strata
the moment we consider the relationship between an individual magazine's
content and coverage and its respective claims to temporary relevance,
expressed not only in its overt point of view but also in its editorial
style, design and production values, or its distribution. In other words,
every magazine has a stake in time, but what is at stake through magazines
is the identity of the time we, the readers call 'ours'.
Time has a geography. I studied at
an art school in the first half of the 1970s in Prague, a place which was
then haunted by a very different sense of 'local time' than the metropoles
and regions of western Europe or the US. Our time was exemplified for us,
for my generation of students and artists, by a sense of temporality as
something quite absent from our collective experience. While time was perhaps
flowing elsewhere, our actuality appeared to us dismally moribund and disconnected
from both the past and any feasible image of the future. What we saw around
us was the absence of anything that would facilitate any sense of contemporaneity,
nothing that would be tangibly of 'now' everything that ever happened
seemed somehow as much out of place as out of time. There seemed to be
no co-ordinates in the present by which to measure or even guess where
we were going and how far we had got from those who came before us.
The previous two decades of the post-war
centralist-bureaucratic rule were marked by an almost constant crisis and
perpetual turmoil, and conflict, and struggle. Although little was changing,
a lot was happening. But in the aftermath of 1968, the prevalent sense
of cultural time for our generation was a sense of living in a kind of
temporal void or being too late, as if everything that could happen had
already happened. True, we had historical role models, both from among
the leftist avant-garde of the inter-war years and from among the small
number of artists and intellectuals who had refused to compromise with
the ideological demands of Stalinist and post-Stalinist propaganda, but
we had no contemporary perspective and could hardly see any contemporary
role for what we were trying to do. We felt, instinctively, that it was
important to keep art alive in the present, but we also felt that by doing
so we were at best contributing to a future history.
There was nowhere to show and nowhere
to publish, at least not in such a way as to make any meaningful public
impact. There was no public forum, particularly for those of us who rejected
the option of 'moderate progress' through a selective involvement with
the institutions of the centralist-bureaucratic state. But if many of us
withdrew from the compromising power-struggles that were the price to be
paid for an 'official' existence as artists and choose instead, for want
of a better term, to work 'underground', it was, quite ironically, because
what we really wanted was to claim our place in a mainstream. And, as we
saw it, there was no dynamism in anything that was taking place on the
surface, no stream at all.
For several years, there was not
even a single contemporary art magazine being published in Czechoslovakia.
The many publications brought into existence during the reformist political
experiment of 1967 and '68 were almost all banned within the next couple
of years, and the two or three established older titles from the beginning
of the decade ceased publication one-by-one following the post-1968 purges
in publishing houses, artists and writers unions and educational institutions.
Under the banner of 'normalisation' (or 'consolidation' a policy
of a systematic denial of the system's disruptions), the regime succeeded
in creating a complete publishing vacuum.
The academia, which in the late 1960s
accounted for much of the publishing excitement, was hit particularly hard
as progressive professors and lecturers were replaced by those whose only
ambition was their political survival or who had been frightened into passive
compliance with the new bureaucracy and played brain-dead to save their
academic skins. Despite this, libraries in art colleges and certain other
organisations seemed to escape the deadliest excesses of the 'normalising'
mentality. The purge in their collections concentrated on exorcising the
ghost of the previous era and, after an array of 'counter-revolutionary'
or 'ideologically harmful' late-1960s titles was discreetly removed, a
trickle of foreign magazines kept slowly filling the gaps on the shelves.
In the Institute of Applied Arts, where I studied, it was Studio International,
Art and Artists, Art in America, the Swiss design magazine Graphis and
one or two others.
In the absence of anything else,
these together with miscellaneous publications brought sporadically
into the country by visitors from abroad became for us the messengers
of contemporaneity. The picture of the times that they presented was inevitably
a limited one. It was also hugely distorted by our uncertainty as to what
was 'wrong', as it were, with those publications that were allowed to circulate
in the otherwise vehemently censored environment. From the sceptical perspective
of my generation, any sign of official benevolence was viewed with suspicion
when all that we could trust was the consistency of the thoroughly paranoiac
mental disposition of anti-intellectual intolerance which permeated the
officially sanctioned domains of cultural life. Yet, we could see no pattern
in the apparently random operations of censorship. There was no obvious
reason why some magazines made it through the net while others were banned
(except, perhaps, that bureaucracy's appetite for paper equips it with
powers of discrimination quite lost on the crude mental palates of students
hungry for information). So Flash Art, for example, was relatively freely
if not frequently available, while Creative Camera the editor of
the magazine present here will be pleased to know was on the black
list. It seemed as if the censors' primary task was to disseminate confusion.
Another difficulty for the formation
of a coherent image of a contemporaneity with what was going on elsewhere
was posed by the language and cultural barrier which made our deciphering
of the 'script of time' look like an exercise in cryptology. Even though
our misreadings and misunderstandings were often creative and always inspirational,
they did little for our sense of engagement with what we thought of as
a living culture. The awareness of our semi-comprehension (which, in fact,
is no comprehension at all) left us feeling lagging behind, disconnected
from both the active participation in, and the passive reception of, those
exchanges through which the sense of contemporary artistic identity is
collectively and individually negotiated and confirmed. We developed a
dependency on that elusive standard of contemporaneity set by our pondering
over the pages of black-and-white reproductions free of any context but
their own apparent self-certainty, and we aspired to it, but the more we
tried to make our self-perceptions conform to our impressions of contemporary
(Western) art as we knew it from magazines, the more excluded and discouraged
we felt. As we were struggling with texts and images whose relevance seemed
as deeply puzzling as the mysteries of the Talmud, we saw (or imagined
to see) our experience following an already formed itinerary.
Finally (and with hindsight), we
literally couldn't see ourselves as part of the picture. The very materiality
and the seductive magic of the printed page, the unattainable mechanical
perfection of print, down to the smooth texture of the paper and the smell
of the printing ink, became emblems of our exclusion. 'In the last analysis',
the presence of the imported magazines belonged to the same dysfunctional
culture as the mind-numbing party propaganda, the perverse disciplinarian
'benevolence' of the bureaucracy, and even the 'happy ghetto of the underground'
where independent publishing took a refuge.
Clandestine publishing had always
been an aspect of the centralist-bureaucratic condition and after 1968
it proliferated. In a dissertation on Czechoslovak underground publications
from 1991, the Viennese Bohemist Joanna Posset listed some 150 unofficial
periodicals published between 1968 and 1983. Another, more recent, study
estimates the number of titles at almost twice as many. In almost all instances,
though, these publications were extremely short-lived and produced in minuscule
editions. Most of them appeared erratically and drew upon small circles
of contributors/readers. They were published through a method known as
'samizdat' strictly, a system of distribution rather than production
which relied on the subsequent copying by the readers of manuscripts released
into circulation in numbers which were too small to bring the authors into
conflict with censorship and the law.
The participation of the readers
in the circulation of samizdat literature helped to maintain a spirit of
resistance against intellectual stagnation and generated a sense of commonalty
and purpose. But if these publications were the means of 'getting on with
it', they were also a part of a widely adopted strategy among the intelligentsia
of 'letting it pass by'. The hope they sheltered was a hope in one's strength
to resist hopelessness as much as one's ability to live without expectations.
In the main, samizdat publishing was less an alternative to 'press' than
a distinct mode of interpersonal communication, close perhaps to rumour;
and while it had borrowed some of the press terminology there were
'magazines', 'bulletins', 'newsletters' and so on it had little of
the temporary urgency that makes the free-circulation magazines and papers
what they are.
Because of the modest means of production
a typewriter and, occasionally, a mimeograph very few of these
publications featured visual art (or indeed any images), and those that
did were difficult to copy and distribute beyond their original editions.
Although some artists did manage to exploit the self-replicating nature
of samizdat, and the inevitable process of mutation engendered in its Chinese-whispers-like
passage among the readers/participants, for most this method proved inadequate
and many tried to find, via the black market and various legal loopholes,
their way into print. Where they succeeded, the results were often compromised
by self-censorship, the unspoken bargain between the individual and the
bureaucracy for gaining private access to any kind of printing or distribution
service, or by the need to disguise the purpose of the publications (as,
for instance, when the work would be published in a promotional calendar
by an approved organisation in order to provide the artist with a 'catalogue').
But the (somewhat desperate) need to negotiate the often high-risk compromises
did help to maintain a visibility 'above the ground', as it were, for some
of the private publications featuring art and gave them a certain authority.
In this climate (so rich in ironies
which owed more to the Good Soldier Schweik than to Kafka), someone seemed
to have thought of disguising an art magazine as ... precisely, a magazine.
And so, in the second half of the 1970s, the arguably most significant
of the Czech semi-official cultural publications emerged: the journal Jazz
Bulletin, published under the auspices of an amateur jazz musicians' association
from 1976 to 1983. It was a well edited and well designed publication,
overtly published for the enthusiasts of improvised jazz and experimental
music, bringing together music with visual art, poetry, theatre and literature.
With its strong visual bias it soon became above all an 'art magazine'.
(Indeed, after the censors finally caught up with the magazine in 1983
and the publication was banned, the editors continued to bring out for
several years the magazine's art supplement, Situace, as a series of self-contained
monographs with no texts.) With print runs of around 5,000 copies, which
compare per capita very favourably with pretty much any art magazine published
anywhere in Europe today, the magazine had a considerable influence. It
also had a considerable responsibility.
It had to try and help to restore
the damaged faith in the contemporary relevance of what we read and talked
about. And the way it went about it was to claim a contemporary relevance
for work which had been already partly consigned to the history of the
1968 political experiment. Rather than trying to keep up with the debates
and practices of our late 70s and early 80s peers in the West, it insisted
that those 'issues' and 'topics' that contemporary artists elsewhere had
drawn upon or reacted against should not be made into a history in our
absence, as it were. This was not merely to compensate for a loss of continuity
with the immediate past. Much more importantly, this was to demonstrate
that the debates that magazines facilitate by maintaining that continuity
also contain the potential for keeping the notions of the past open to
questioning. This is something quite different from fabricating history
as a tactic for disarming contemporary ideas, as was characteristic of
the centralist bureaucratic publishing and propaganda, or from the constant
stream of 'revivals' which is an aspect of the built-in obsolescence as
the editorial norm in many Western contemporary art magazines.
By proposing that the most relevant
Czech art magazine of the 1970s and 80s was in fact a 'historical' one,
I do not wish to confirm the largely technocentric prejudices of those
who see everything Eastern European as, almost by definition, lacking in
advancement, enterprise and 'progress'. Rather, I would like to suggest
that to call our attention back to where we have just been could be a way
in which art magazines help us to work out where we are and where we think
we are going.
I have seen recently couple of issues
of the Czech 'independent' magazine Revolver Revue, one of several progenies
of the Jazz Bulletin, published 1987 and devoted to 'contemporary culture'.
The 'international scene' is represented in this publication by the work
of Witold Gombrowicz, J R R Tolkien, Charles Bukowski, Andy Warhol, John
Updike, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Susan Sontag and George Orwell,
among a very few others. If many of these names fail to strike us as particularly
'contemporary' (in the late 1980s terms), it may well be because the kind
of contemporaneity that we far too often adopt as ours is a contemporaneity
defined by the names in the next issue of an influential magazine.
In 1982, Stephen Cripps fired rockets
along wire guides to crash into and explode against wall mounted cymbals.
In 1987 George Barbers' videotape showed a line-up of young hopefuls auditioning
for Taxi Driver, intoning Bobby de Niro's lines "Are you looking at me"
ten years after the original film had been released.
In 1984 Linda Montano and Tehching
Hsieh tied themselves together for a year by an eight foot rope. In 1982
the Hampshire media proclaimed that Mona Hatoum was "Naked in Red Slime"
at the Aspects Gallery in Portsmouth. Throughout the decade Alastair Maclennan
wandered around various city streets very slowly, with a stocking on his
head. Performance magazine was truly a child albeit a wailing and
sleepless one of the eighties; it was launched in June 1979, on the
cusp of decadial change, and folded at the beginning of the nineties. My
own experience of it is that it was the key organ for delineating the wonderful
and the terrible. In their bastardised form, the words "wonderful" and
"terrible" have lost the primal value that they originally were imbued
with. "Wonderful" means to be replete with a sense of amazement of life.
"Terrible" means a power and beauty that is truly awesome to behold. These
were the potential tectonic forces sealed within each bi-monthly issue;
attracting all those other angry young aspirant performance artists looking
for a fight and the option of gratuitous nudity.
The role and the politics of the
magazine like the artform itself meant and still mean radically
different things to different people. No one person's perspective (and
certainly not mine, either as perennial punter or occasional contributor)
could be said to be authorative or definitive except, maybe, for
Rob la Frenais', who, as founder, editor and chief proponent more than
any other person embodied the energy and vitality of Performance. His editorial,
in issue one, set the tone for the future: "There are still some events
worth stifling a yawn for... They are difficult to pin down... to separate
from the sludge of spectacle... they consist of people doing odd things
in front of others. They are performances. Anyone can do one but once money
changes hands their value is again under scrutiny. Sometimes they become
theatre, and people sit down and get up and have drinks and sit down and
clap and get up again. The performances we cover have been called fringe
theatre, performance art and community art. We are responding to, and adding
to, a vastly increased interest in these things, but we will be critical
in our approach."
A magazine that would respond then,
to the work of our time. At a time when live art was still enjoying the
momentum generated by its mainstream adoption by the American visual art
brigade in the seventies, at a time when public bodies such as the Arts
Council was agonising over how to respond to funding demands from a bunch
of respected artists who looked like extras from a Ken Russell movie, at
a time when community art was at its height in terms of hippy pageantry;
never was so much wicker and cheesecloth sacrificed in the search for meaningful
communal congress. As the magazine evolved it had to navigate the icebergs
of changing funding patterns, new feminist practice, the rise of multi-culturalism
in a country which was not at the time so responsive to visible examples
of hybridity and a thousand other submerged flash points.
Whilst there is no doubt that Performance
craved new icebergs to crash its hull into, to monitor the compaction of
snow and wailing bodies thrown from the decks and count the cost later,
the idea that a series of unrelated activities, often emanating from social
theories of cultural practice that were, to all intents and purposes, often
oppositional to one another, implied a certain combustibility.
The resources of Performance magazine
were few, and relied on the enthusiasm of contributors who were willing
to submit articles without substantial "journalistic" recompense, comprised
of acolytes, devotees and believers. It was not uncommon for the power
relationships to shift from one issue to the next; within a small gene
pool a writer would lay forth on issues of cultural decrepitude with all
the authority of the chosen, only to be reviewed by another voice in the
next issue, and write a letter of complaint in the following issue about
how said reviewer did not understand their work in an intelligent and informed
manner. Lack of travel funds
meant that the magazine was often
reliant on identifying contributors on the basis of their perceptive excellence
and geographical proximity to a particular event in equal measures.
In many ways this status reflected
the journal's mission statement of a rejection of the perceived "centre"
or at least, an avowed intent to examine the distances between generic
concepts of the radical and the mainstream. The editors of Performance
were privy to both the visceral experience of sitting on concrete floors
witnessing confrontational actions in warehouses at two in the morning,
and the cultural debate which swirled around the public funding system
in board rooms.
The mainstream, as such, was not
the enemy. Many of the articles printed analysed work which was made within
the realms of high art and theatre. Major cross-media projects by Robert
Wilson, La Furas del Baus, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Tzadeus Kantor
were reported in editorial proximity to community art initiatives in mental
institutions, or the individual performances of practitioners operating
on the funding margins. For all its iconoclasm and irreverence, Performance
was a deeply earnest magazine. Its constant retort was that the art forms
it represented suffered from a lack of mainstream recognition and, more
importantly, funding. This in itself was a double-edged sword that none
of the editors pricked their fingers on; the capacity to cackle at the
prospect of anarchy in one breath whilst simultaneously bemoan a lack of
popular support. Performance seemed to be a bouncer standing guard at a
party that one was either disdainfully excluded from or welcomed into with
a chuckle of recognition. Artists probably believed that funding officers
were surreptitiously reading copies of the magazine disguised between the
covers of Art In America, brows furrowing as they attempted to second guess
which proposals would be ejected from this miasma to land for bloody consideration
on their desks.
When the Franchise Promoters Scheme
was introduced at the Arts Council in 1985 (a scheme to enable a variety
of regionally-based promoters to commission performance works under a national,
monitored initiative), coupled with a parallel "Glory of the Garden" scheme
(in which funds were made available for municipal funding institutions)
many city galleries unused to presenting the work of any living artist
outside of the annual rote of watercolour opens would find themselves enlisting
the aid of health and safety officials to pour cold water on the aspirations
of nudey confrontational performance artists brandishing buckets of ammonia
under the unexpectant noses of the casual gallery visitor.
Faced with such developments Performance
continued to po-facedly monitor the allocations of funding to performance
art forms whilst continuing to mock the ambitions of its constituency with
a series of provocative articles. Both a gadfly to the establishment and
an agent provocateur to its own indigenous camp, a cursory examination
of any individual issue afforded a picture of mixed issues, cultures and
disciplines. There was much grandstanding and slumming, dense columns of
text replete with hit signifiers such as Bataille, Psychik TV, Crowley
and Rosenthal, vying with blurred and grainy photographs of bohemians,
naked women with breasts painted in corn circle swirls, bald men with foreign
objects up their asses, immaculately fuckable ice maidens with skirts lifted
above their muscular thighs, middle-aged men screaming nonsense poetry
with pints spilling from thrust glasses, inscrutable asians stood in fields
of translucent flour, anally-retentive men with horn rims striding purposefully
in front of their own magnified shadows, grinning women shimmying a lantern
rictus as bemused parents and children looked on, protected by the envelope
of audience and a particularly bright autumnal light.
Certain personalities became visible
through repetition: the Stuart Brisleys and Chris Burdens, primal figures
in performance art mythology, slippery and lucid both in photographic reproduction
and textual response: Silvia Ziranek and Laurie Anderson, cover girls from
an alternative "Hello" magazine, issuing homespun observations and willfully
obscure aphorisms: Andre Stitt, charted from his mid-twenties to his mid-thirties
in a series of pictures that always seemed to see him encrusted with either
vomit, or ketchup, or both.
The evolution of any particular magazine
can be partially discerned through changes in production values which
Performance magazine did incorporate; as a ten year old organ it advanced
from its semi-Gestetner origins to become a full blown glossy black and
white. In Issue 25 Rob la Frenais wrote that --
"When it comes to the crunch, even
the most radical live artists have been known to dive for the safe cover
of established art theory to justify their acts; likewise those on the
theatre fringe have diluted experiment for the new pragmatism that requires
big audiences at all costs; full houses every night with the possibility
of TV appearances. We have chosen to remain outside those worlds, in a
sense attempting to maintain a holding zone: a safe house in which everyone
is welcome, providing they want to take the same risks as we do, sharing
our crisis of identity."
This statement seems in retrospect
less a shift than a reaffirmation of intent. Earlier issues were already
cross-fertilising sources and mix n' matching disparate cultural phenomena.
Issue 15, in February 1982 constructed a number of interesting parallels
and links between Magical practice and the work of performance artists
and theatrical experiment; drawing an elliptical line through Emmy Hennings
and Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire, Aleister Crowley six years later
at Caxton Hall, through to the circle jerks and occult posturing of Genesis
P.Orridge and Cosi Fanni Tutti.
Notting Hill Carnival was also put
under the performance microscope. In a precursor to later times, when artists
such as Keith Khan would use the essence of Carnival as the basis of hybrid
artistic research, Isobel Appio wrote that:
"Matrons and madonnas, who, the day
before worried over specks of dust on their virginal white, now shriek
in hysteria and abandon. Wet me. Wet me. Pelvises tilt to catch precious
colour, and soak it up... When River has passed, the debris was colourful
and colossal. The River people have soaked it up and spewed it forth."
In the following twenty-five issues
Performance magazine continued the task of acting as an informative expanded
newsletter for performers and funders alike whilst willfully and voraciously
upping the ante in challenging notions of what constituted radical cultural
action and meaningful social ritual. Maybe this was the outcome of a certain
burn-out that effects many guerrilla operations that have miraculously
extended a shelf life beyond their initial enthusiasm and Titanic expectations,
resulting in a jaded sensibility dulled by four years of reportage of events
from Bracknell to Glasgow, Newcastle and Deptford. The evolution of the
magazine reflected the general cycle of inspiration and malaise that effects
every artistic community, desperate to retain the former and banish the
The envelope was pushed in a number
of different ways, principally by the contention that social conventions
and gatherings normally considered as "non-art" could be dragged kicking
and screaming into the pages of the magazine. Part affirmation of Joseph
Beuys' oft misquoted truism that everyone could be an artist, part two
fingers up to the earnest, Performance magazine was proposing models for
the interaction of "Art" and "Life" a decade before the yBa's were trumpeting
a similar tune. In issue 28 the Crufts Dog Show was examined, by Steve
Rogers and Mark Stevens as a suitable case for treatment:
"The English obsession with dogs
is well known, an integral part of stereotypical English eccentricity...
one of the talismanic fetishes of baronial life that still lingers nostalgically
in more favoured parts of rural Britain. The rigorous and technically incomprehensible
rules of entry, the extraordinary and baffling range of doggy paraphernalia
on sale, and the sheer blind passion on the faces of competing breeders
confirm that Crufts has a significance far beyond the the paltry £100
Best in Show prize money."
Substitute a performance artist for
a dog, often paid less than £100 a gig, and the parallel become clear.
Iwona Blazwick and Chris Rodley similarly wrote about the Ideal Home Show
"Looking out of the double glazed
windows... we can just see past the romantic woodland clearing where exotic
birds bob alongside the glistening polystyrene of discarded hamburger cartons,
to our neighbours." Jeff Koons anybody?
The possibilities for mixing lampoon
and serious commentary were endless, and many of these topics have since
moved into the mainstream as a source of phenomenonological obsession.
David Briers, writing in issue 28 in 1984, anticipated the current X-Files
and millennial frenzy with an article neatly titled "The Reality Game",
which delved into the murky world of the UFO spotter. Witnesses' drawings
of their memories of contact with supposed alien visitors was accompanied
by the sub-heading "Performance Artists from Outer Space?" This "floating
margin" meant that Performance magazine never let its constituency forget
its position in the greater scheme of things, and further implied that
to operate from the margins was essentially an ethical and political stance.
This manifested itself in two ways.
Firstly articles on non-art protest and activism relating to the ecological
and anti-nuclear movements threaded their way through the history of the
magazine. Greenham Common was a flash point returned to on several occasions.
Artists such as Richard Layzell who had become heavily involved with eco-activism
within their own live work presented articles on the peace movement. In
the introductory banner to his "Peace Moves" article, he wrote that: "Images
from recent peace protests make performance art look redundant." And this
indeed was the question raised constantly. The magic margin is shifted,
and suddenly all the monologists with fish on their head look stupid and
narcissistic when faced with a camp of women undertaking a long term protest
with no end in sight.
Secondly, in order to instigate dialogue
with its audience Performance regularly ran a series of overviews that
prompted extended debate in the letters pages of the issues that followed.
Roland Miller's question "Is Performance Art dead?" was revived on numerous
occasions to appear Banquo-like at the hedonist feast. Questionnaires intermittently
appeared in which artists talked of their influences and desires in response
to a series of bullet questions sent out into the ether by the magazine.
The mission of Performance was in
part aimed at the funding system, as way of endorsing increased resources
for performers. As the magazine evolved over its ten plus years shifts
became apparent that reflected the move towards mainstream artworld validation.
The English eccentrics such as Forkbeard Fantasy faded into the seventies
land of Avalon, sitting on straw bales and disporting themselves in the
aspic of documentation. Artists who had started out at the fringe were
recorded moving incrementally to the centre. Richard Wilson was still doing
his thing, but he was now representing his country in the Apperto section
of the 1986 Venice Biennale. Stephen Taylor-Woodrow's living paintings
were breaking attendance records in Southampton City Art Gallery in 1987,
before touring to packed houses in New York. Mona Hatoum, no longer Naked
In Red Slime, was diversifying her artistic activities on a road that would
one day lead to a Turner prize nomination. In issue 46, in 1987, when long
time contributor Steve Rogers took over from Rob la Frenais as editor,
the cover personality was no less than Anthony D'Offay; a central London
commercial gallery dealer, the type of person who would once have decorated
dart boards in radical artist's studios throughout the land. It was perhaps
uncomfortable for some to realise that the links between the commercial
world and the cutting edge were more comprehensive and fundamental then
some romantics would have liked.
This pattern in many ways prefigured
a prophesy made flesh and formaldehyde in the current phenomena of the
yBa. Performance art on a plinth, Hermann Nitsch in a glass case, genitalia
as a kebab, acid house music played by brass bands, intimate confessions
made on videotape, the mid-nineties has seen the shocking and the cutting
edge appropriated by the private sector as a virtual monopoly. The public
sector meanwhile faces the advent of central funding disappearing as lottery
money becomes the new funding talisman; ironically, the community art and
fringe theatre practice that disappeared from the pages of Performance
in the late eighties is probably best placed to take advantage of lottery
criteria that favours a generic soup of accessibility and happy smiley
It is curious to ponder what Performance
would have made of all this were it still in existence. It would, I suspect,
have been torn between interrogating the yBa phenomenon and scorning it;
between building up the possibilities of lottery funds for practitioners
whilst simultaneously decrying the narrowness of its cultural parameters.
The death of Steve Rogers in 1988,
only eleven issues after he took over the editorial reins from founder
and long term mentor Rob la Frenais, sent the magazine into a tailspin.
His death was sudden and unexpected, highlighted by the fact that he was
simultaneously credited as Editor of Issues 56/7 whilst on the facing page
one could read his obituary. A sweet and gifted man, Steve would doubtless
have appreciated the irony.
New editor Gray Watson's editorship
began with an overhaul in design, format and content: with regard to the
latter the focus shifted to a seemingly more academic stance. A recent
examination of these later issues reveals that the content was not as academic
as might have appeared at the time maybe just hobbled by a more orthodox
design but a perception that the "feel" was altogether different
remains. By the time the magazine was winding down the scattergun review
pages had been replaced with a more orderly section, which curiously began
with the coda that events would be "reviewed geographically, starting with
London, followed by the other regions." The party, for me at least, was
Do we need a Performance magazine
in the late nineties? There is ample evidence that performance art as it
was known is going through a low point in terms of activity and support.
The desire for partially-controlled authenticity of staring back
at a bloodied maniac on a winter's night as the breath steams from both
your mouths has abated over the last ten years as younger practitioners
encode seductive replays on digital tape and pixel dots virtual reality
headsets run confrontations again and again between the viewer and electronic
leviathans. Do either audiences or artists want or need to be active in
the peculiar way that performance art encompassed?
The only surety is that, as the guerrilla
mechanics pronounce the virility of, say, the web, another group will decry
its sterility. Form and content will remain central to any and all humanistic
if elitist and clinically insane art practice. The job of prediction
and disruption will still need to be done. In this respect issue 12 of
Performance magazine, in July 1981, retains a cogent message for all art
soothsayers Jung and Old. Lynne McRitchie, analysing the "state performance"
of the Royal Family, wrote that --
"Prince Charles and Lady Diana will
have every opportunity to be happy security, money, homes, time,
space and endless love, given by subjects who need to believe in what the
royal couple represent. For the rest of us such security is surely impossible.
The daily grind wears us out and makes us tired. We are not nineteen and
don't wear diamonds."
Look upon my works all ye mighty,
Aspects of Art
From February 1996 to the end of
June 1997 I held the post of "Critic in Residence" in the visual arts department
at the University of Northumbria, a temporary appointment related to the
"1996 Year of the Visual Arts". The brief for the job, insofar as there
was one, was to publish articles and reviews in relation to the Year: this
much was clear. What wasn't in evidence, however, was any form of discussion
within the department of what exactly it was that the role of a critic
based in an art school might be.
Such an absence of discussion did
not mean that no-one had any thoughts on the matter. On the contrary, presumptions
as to what the critic should do or be were legion. Such commonsensical
expectations were revealed in the manner in which artists, tutors and students
(both within and outside the university) would casually but confidently
ask if I would review their work or write a catalogue essay for them. There
appeared to be two main ideas about the critic that were held by artists.
The first of these was that it was
the critic's job to promote the artist, the former being considered as
in some way subservient to the latter, existing only to support and validate
their work. What never came up, unless I raised it myself, was that I might
not share the artist's view that writing about their work should be one
of my priorities. Nor did the realisation that if I did express an interest
in writing something then the artist would have to accept that they had
no control over what was actually written. To insist on being reviewed
involved them taking of a risk, since I might, in writing, disagree with
their account of what it was they felt they were doing or making. Furthermore,
if I was critical of an artist's practice this might imply not that I didn't
understand the work but that there were problems within the practice, as
opposed to with my reading of it.
As for the matter of getting a review
into print, artists frequently don't realise that it is magazine editors,
and not critics, who decide what gets published.
Generally speaking, artists appear
to consider critics as servants or attendants, an attitude alluded to in
the title of Stuart Morgan's anthology 'What the Butler Saw'. Oscar Wilde's
remark about the vanity of artists who "seem to imagine that the primary
function of the critic is to chatter about their second-rate work" is
also apposite . 1
The second stereotypical projection
made by artists with respect to critics was exemplified for me when an
artist involved in a group exhibition for which I had contributed a catalogue
essay, uttered, upon being introduced to me, words to the effect of "oh,
it's the enemy". Her remark was, I believe, intended as a joke. Nonetheless,
this 'joke', uncluttered as it was by the kind of complexity I wish it
had actually contained, indicated a certain way of thinking about critics,
as people who are parasitic upon artists, and totally dependent upon them
and (since critics supposedly know nothing about what they are writing
or talking about), as generators of jargon or nonsense. A third implication
of the "critic is the enemy" attitude is that visual artworks don't require
any kind of textual appendage, because art is itself a "visual language".
The artist is thereby someone who "speaks" through his or her visual work.
The cliche that language (in the
conventional sense of that term) pollutes the allegedly rarefied air in
which the fine artist dwells is a complicated, and I think insidious fantasy
held by many producers and consumers of art. A number of things are usually
implied when the expression "visual language" is used, including that art
is a universally-legible means of communicating emotions, themselves supposedly
readable across all cultural and social boundaries. Coupled to this is
the belief that to think critically about works of art destroys their "magic".
"Feeling", in such superficial conceptualisations, is thought to hold much
more democratic franchise than "theory", as though intellectual activity
was not an as explicitly human attribute as the experiencing of emotional
states. The opening words of Terry Atkinson's "Phantoms of the Studio"
are to the point with respect to this somewhat entrenched belief --
"No matter how much theory is disguised
or repressed, there is no practice without theory. The theory that practice
has nothing to do with theory is a theory, a disingenuous and naive one,
but none the less a theory". 2
For my own part, the position I begin
from is that there is no such thing as an art practice which doesn't in
some way or other involve language, in the ordinary sense of that term.
Language is present at every level of the work's making and reception,
whether that of personal taste ("I really like that painting"), of the
assigning of titles and other "supplementary" linguistic features, or of
the acts of description and analysis carried out in magazines, catalogues,
newspapers, television and radio programmes, as well as within scholarly
journals and books. When artists talk with a dealer about the percentage
of the sale price they think they should receive they use words, whether
or not the artwork "speaks", in their view, "for itself".
There is always language somewhere
in, around, or close to the visual work. One might even propose that it
is a function of all "interesting" work that it generates language, such
documentation and exchange becoming in effect part of the work's meaning,
"mentality" and field of influence. If a piece of work is sufficiently
cohesive it will be able to survive any amount of criticism, remaining
at the centre of even contradictory readings of its modus operandi. If
the work is shallow and insubstantial it will easily be pulled to pieces
I have considered the attitudes frequently
held by artists towards critics. I want now to present some examples of
critical positions taken by those who write about artists and their work.
There are four kinds of criticism to which I will give my attention here.
The first of these might be described as prescriptive or dogmatic criticism.
Two examples of well-known critics who might be placed within this category
are Clement Greenberg and Peter Fuller.
Greenberg's approach involved the
promotion of specific values at the expense of other concerns, something
which is of course inevitable but which was, in this critic's case, rather
extreme. Emphasising "truth to the medium" as a prime requisite for artistic
practice, painters were encouraged to make work in which the flatness of
the canvas or other support was made clearly apparent, any illusion or
representation of three-dimensionality being strictly not the order of
the day. A further form of evaluation in Greenberg's critical project involved
the question of "quality", an attribute the supposed workings of which
owed much to the aesthetic theories of the philosopher Immanuel Kant. In
Greenberg's transcription of Kant the existential, retinal-related experience
of the sensuous surface of painting took precedence over the cognitive
to an astonishingly severe degree. 3
In the case of Peter Fuller, the
focus fell upon a peculiarly reductive notion of "British" art, and upon
practices said to embody universally legitimate subject matter. Fuller
promoted "the haptic" and the expressive, calling up birth, death, pain,
anxiety and love as the only proper referential content of art. His compressed
"Marxist" cravings left no room for alternative accounts of practice or
of the social function of art. Anything not complying with his paradigm
was ignored or forced, by deliberate distortion, to fit this too-restrictive
frame (the sensuous but simultaneously "cool" surfaces of Jasper Johns'
paintings, for example).
The word "prescriptive" is appropriate
because these two critics "lay down the law" for future practice, as though
to say art is "this" and "this", and cannot be anything else. Not content
with describing work already in existence, a stipulation of aesthetic propriety
was made, cancelling diversity and "deviation" in advance of its possible
The writers associated with the American
critical theory journal October Benjamin Buchloh, Hal Foster and
Rosalind Krauss, amongst others represent a more overtly theorised
form of critical practice than either Greenberg or Fuller. Their writings
utilise a combination of Marxist, psychoanalytical and Post-Structuralist
theories to assemble a kind of criticism which reflects, as part of its
project, on its own nature as criticism, as well as working to debunk or
rewrite mainstream art historical accounts. 4
In his 1963 essay "What is Criticism?",
Roland Barthes noted that it was the job of criticism to not only examine
a given aesthetic object but, simultaneously, to consider its own ideological
position and limitations. This is the approach of the writers associated
with October. Foster, has suggested that theory should be considered as
a toolbox of possible methods of analysis, with individual "tools" being
tested against the object under examination. Any pretence at objectivity
is thus abandoned, the methodology deployed being openly presented. 5
A third model of critical practice
involves the critic taking a work of art as a point of departure for a
virtually autonomous act of writing. Oscar Wilde proposed this position
in "The Critic as Artist", and a contemporary example of this manner of
writing can be found, according to Thomas McEvilley, in the work of Stuart
Morgan. 6 Morgan does
though keep in mind the artists he's writing in relation to, not simply
abandoning his initial "trigger" point, even if he manages to gather together
a wide number of tangential threads.
Writing in 1980 in her obituary of
Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag describes how Barthes had appeared to be able
to take anything, object, book or image, and make of it an intelligently
sensuous text --
"One felt that he could generate
ideas about anything. Put him in front of a cigar box and he would have
one, two, many ideas -- a little essay. It was not a question of knowledge
(he couldn't have known much about some of the subjects he wrote about)
but of alertness, a fastidious transcription of what could be thought about
something, once it swam into the stream of attention." 7
Although normally described as a
critic or commentator, Barthes, and others like him, shift the practice
of the critic into another domain. As McEvilley suggests --
"Art criticism is really its own
genre of literature, not exactly following the rules of any other. By its
privileged position in between art, philosophy, philology, poetry, essay-writing,
society, and other things, criticism is a specially versatile area in which
an individual writer can mark out his or her turf in any number of ways."
The final kind of criticism I will
refer to here is the case of artists as critics. Art practice is itself,
it might be argued, a form of criticism, since each practice, each work
could be said to carry within itself an implicit critique of previous works
of art.9 Then there are
those artists who have explicitly worked as critics -- Laurie Anderson,
Patrick Heron, Donald Judd and Adrian Searle are just a few examples. 10
It is of course also the case that
many artists, whilst not claiming to be "critics" as such, have produced
substantial bodies of written work. Some well-known twentieth century examples
are Duchamp, Malevich, Mondrian, Schwitters, Smithson and Stella, but there
are many others.
If one considers the conceptual practices
of the 1960s and 1970s, one sees yet again another variation on this theme,
with groups of artists issuing their own small-scale (but often highly
influential) publications. The Art & Language group published the first
issue of Art-Language in 1969. There had been [many] precedents earlier
in the century (e.g. De Stijl, Dada, and the Surrealists). Today, two of
the best known artist-initiated publications are probably Everything magazine,
based in London, and Variant, formed in Glasgow in the 1980s and still
published there today. 11
I will close with a few brief remarks
about the function -- or functions -- of the art critic. An important aspect
of the critic's job is explicatory (whether or not the audience is a lay
or specialist one). It is also incumbent upon the critic to offer an analysis,
or at least an informed discussion, of the work under consideration. Finding
a means of doing these things may well necessitate the invention or adaptation
of a vocabulary that is suited to the task at hand.
The critic may be either supportive
of, or, literally, critical of a particular piece or body of work, but
hopefully his or her comments will be in someway helpful to the artist.
Roberta Smith, The New York Times' senior visual arts critic proposes that
the critic's function might be viewed from another angle -- "If you're going
to be a critic", she says, "it's very important to have that sense that
you're writing for viewers. You're on the front line of the viewing audience.
You're a professional; your main job is to record your reactions as honestly
as possible, not to be an advocate for artists." 12
Such a stance is far removed from
that of the artist who only looks to critics for that he or she might gain
from their unswerving, blindly sympathetic attention.
1 Stuart Morgan What the Butler Saw,
Durian Publications, undated, but published in 1996. Oscar Wilde, "The
Critic as Artist" (1890), included in The Works of Oscar Wilde, G. F. Maine
(Ed.), Collins, 194, p. 967
2 Terry Atkinson "Phantoms of the
Studio", The Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1990, p. 49. The notion
of visual language is also discussed in: Peter Suchin, "Visual Literacy:
Notes on a Quaint Cliche", Muses, Winter 1996 -- 1997, and in Peter Suchin,
"Literacy, criticism and fine art", 'Round Midnight 2' (supplement distributed
with Artists Newsletter, December 1996)
3 I am aware that Greenberg's work
has been the subject of a radical reassessment in recent years. See Theiry
de Duve, Clement Greenberg Between the Lines, Dis Voir, 1996
4 For an example of a work by Buchloch
which offers an unconventional reading of the ideology of expression, see
his "Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression", October, N. 16, Spring
5 Roland Barthes "What is Criticism?",
in Barthes, Critical Essays, Northwestern University Press,
1972. Barthes also writes perspicaciously
about criticism in his "Blind and Dumb Criticism", included in Barthes,
Mythologies, Paladin, 1979, and in many other places throughout his voluminous
writings. For Foster's toolbox analogy see the opening pages of his Recodings,
Bay Press, 1985, and also Billy Clark/Leigh French/Peter Suchin/Hall Foster,
Interview", Variant, Vol. 2, No.
3, Summer 1997
6 Thomas McElvilley "Stuart Morgan:
Earnest Wit", in Morgan, What the Butler Saw
7 Susan Sontag "Remembering Barthes",
in Sontag, Under the Sign of Saturn, Writers and Readers, 1983, p. 169
8 Rhomas McElvilley op. cit., p.
14. For Further observations on art criticism by this writer see Jay Murphy/Thomas
McElvilley, "Interview with Thomas McElvilley", ArtPapers, Vol. 20, No.
5, September/October 1996
9 T S Eliot has discussed this form
of implicit criticism n his essay "Tradition and the
Individual Talent", included in
Eliot, Selected Prose, Penguin, 1965
10 The present writer is both a critic
and a painter
11 The catalogue for the exhibition
Life/Live, Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1996 (2 vols) contains
a section documenting current British art journals, a number of which are
edited and produced by artists
12 Roberta Smith in Anne Barclay/Roberta
Smith, "Interview with Roberta Smith", Art Papers, Vol. 20, No. 4, July/August
1996, p. 18
What follows is an edited discussion,
conducted via e-mail, between Chris Byrne and Malcolm Dickson that starts
to plot a history of the profusion of film and video activity in Scotland.
This discussion is an attempt to redress, in a very small way, the recent
miasma surrounding the documentation and discussion of such activity in
Chris Byrne: There is currently
an absence of real discussion in Scotland about what we might call Moving
Image art. Video art, experimental film, screen-based art displayed on
computers or via the internet, it is all out there, happening. It's just
that no-one seems to talk about it much. There is a sense of operating
in a relative vacuum: ideas and influences appear from elsewhere, outwith
Scotland. Yet there are traditions of work in these fields by artists within
Scotland. It seems that very few know much about them. It is essential
to begin the process of mapping a history of these areas of practice, with
a specifically Scottish context.
If there are Scottish histories,
when did they start? Certainly with Avant-Garde film there was a good deal
of activity in the 1930s around Norman McLaren, Glasgow School of Art and
the GPO film unit. Unfortunately the sources of this experimental energy
left for Canada and elsewhere, leaving post-war Scottish film practice
to the documentarists and dramatists.
Malcolm Dickson: That period
in question is an interesting starting point to an origin of forms for
'experimental' practice in film. The hand-crafted nature of these films,
most of which involved animation, suggests a correlation with painting
which shouldn't have been too much out of step with the dominant taste
of the art schools and the 'academy'. I don't know very much about that
time or extent of the practice and how it made itself visible in public
terms. Film-makers have been grouped around the 'Kinecraft' movement, and
I believe the Scottish Film Archive is the first point of call regarding
that history. The1996 New Visions festival, co-ordinated by Ann Vance and
Paula Larkin, included a package of works on the Kinecraft movement put
together by Pauline Law.
CB: Out of this milieu did
emerge a distinctive voice in film, that of Margaret Tait. Her films were
grounded in realist documentary, but transcended the standard conventions
to become much more lyrical, poetic works. Simply made, but with great
elegance and flair, focusing on moments, fleeting glimpses, everyday settings.
Telling stories through moving images and location sound.
MD: Margaret Tait is interesting
because she has a creative proximity to a literary tradition. I think the
links through literature and philosophy to the visual arts are quite strong
and robust--it offers a more holistic overview than one constrained to a
stifling tradition of fine art. Writers and artists in moving image have
and do work together--it's important to mention Tom McGrath, Writer in Residence
at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art (DJCA) who worked in the video
department in 1985/86.
CB: Tait's was a lone voice
during the 1960s, when most Scottish film makers were pre-occupied with
documentary realism, or 'the movies'. This situation was in contrast to
what was happening in London, New York and elsewhere, where underground
and experimental film making was flourishing. Video art had also started
to make an appearance in Canada, America and Germany.
One exception to this trend took
a London-based artist to the Edinburgh Festival in 1971. David Hall made
a series of short television works, which were broadcast on Scottish Television
in place of advertising during the Festival period. Shot in and around
Edinburgh, they are a landmark both for UK television and moving image
art in Scotland. Mick Hartney in his essay 'Int/ventions' in 'Diverse Practices:
A Critical Reader on British Video Art' states that Hall's television works
were part of 'Locations Edinburgh', curated by Alistair Mackintosh at the
Scottish Arts Council for the Edinburgh Festival. According to Hartney:
"The central idea of the project was that the artists should deploy the
various communication networks of the city to make their work or to make
it visible." Other artists in the show included Stuart Brisley, David Parsons
and Jeffrey Shaw, all with Hall part of the 'Artists Placement Group' (APG),
a conceptual art grouping which interested itself with tactical interventions
into popular culture and public space. Brisley apparently staged a slow-motion
car crash in a disused car showroom, Ed Herring played back ambient sounds
into the environment, Parsons made street banners, Shaw and others made
MD: John Latham's statement
underpinning the APG, that 'context is half the work' of course went on
to inspire and provide the philosophical foundation on which David Harding
began the Environmental Art Course at Glasgow School of Art.
CB: Later in the 1970s, the
first 'video art' started to appear in galleries in Scotland. In 1973 the
Scottish Arts Council gallery in Edinburgh hosted 'Open Circuit', featuring
video, photography and film, including an ongoing performance installation
by David Hall, using video equipment.
MD: Scotland at this time
wasn't so far out on a limb in terms of artists intervening in exhibition
structures, as limited as they were. The 'Open Cinema' exhibition in the
Scottish Arts Council's gallery in Charlotte Square in 1976 is another
case in point. It included film makers centred around the London Film Makers
Co-operative, such as Malcolm Le Grice, Tony Sinden, Tony Hill, Nicky Hamlyn,
Annabel Nicholson and Jane Rigby. The introduction to the catalogue by
Deke Dunsiberre stated that: "This programme of 'expanded cinema' offers
Edinburgh the opportunity to see recent examples of an area of international
avant-garde film-making... By inviting film artists to present new work...,
the SAC is opening new perspectives on the cinema; perspectives yielding
film installations which should be viewed not in the narrow context of
conventional film history, but in the general context of art history."
Also in 1976, the exhibition 'Video:
towards defining an aesthetic' was held at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow.
It argued for specific codes of consideration in the medium of video with
David Hall's article beginning with the challenge: "... A brief attempt
at some of the distinctions between video and film may be useful." The
issues raised are interesting in relation to time-based art and they are
not marked in my mind as being time-specific. In fact, there are resemblances
to debates around digital arts, interactivity and new media happening today
in forums such as Digital Dreams, LoveBytes, Shock Waves and Ground Control,
numerous events organised at the ICA and throughout the Video Positive
Festivals to ISEA 98. There is a suggestive critical rigour there that
clicks with earlier ideas which in retrospect have had quite far reaching
consequences. It's not as if we don't have the Stuart Marshall's of today
it's just that our terms of reference have altered and are more fragmented.
Two books to mention here are Sean Cubitt's 'Timeshift: On Video Culture'
and also Owen Kelly's 'Digital Dialogues'. Every page of these books explode
with ideas that are linked to practice--they aren't hypothetical. Another
point of reference which I have to mention here are the articles by Sara
Diamond and Kate Elwes which featured in a series of works on 'Women and
New Technology' in the first volume of Variant.
Another change that has taken place
I think is the notion of 'opposition' and positions of contestation. Video
was seen as challenging conventional broadcast television and indeed institutionalised
But to get back to an earlier point
we've been alluding to regarding a lineage for practice today, is that
the lobbying for mainstream legitimacy is not something new--even if it
was articulated as contesting that which it actually depended upon--and
the aforementioned bears a frustrating similarity to the contemporary situation
in the 90s. However, now the ownership of an experimental tradition is
not such a critical issue between a film history or an art history--both
are too constrictive.
CB: On the distinctions between
film and video as tools for making art, the two are often grouped together
under a broad moving image category. There are significant differences
in the ways that the image is reproduced, however.
Experimental work did not really
take off in Scotland during the 1970s. Certainly it was a turbulent time
politically, and there were indeed groups making what might be termed 'agit-prop'
films in Edinburgh, notably Red Star Cinema, who made low-budget Super-8
films on topical local political issues of the day. I think Robin Crighton
(now with Edinburgh Film Workshop) and Dave Rushton (now running the Institute
of Local Television in Edinburgh) were involved with this group.
Maybe it was seen as more important
to be politically 'avant-garde', i.e. socialist, in Scotland at the time.
The big movements in theatre at the time seem to mirror this trend. It
also seems that anyone not involved in political, community-based groups
was aspiring to make popular entertainment, either for cinema or television.
Also during the late 1970s and early 1980s the film-making avant-garde
based around the London Film Makers Co-op was in the grip of a rather austerely
Marxist concept of 'structural film', whose main theorist was Peter Gidal.
This aesthetic may have seemed out of touch and unappealing to many artists,
perhaps unfairly. Video art of the time was possibly more adventurous,
but addressing itself to the galleries of London, New York and Cologne.
There may have been a reaction against such a metropolitan outlook in Scotland,
or possibly no-one here was much interested!
When Channel Four was set up in
the early 1980s, the Workshop Declaration gave funding to film and video
workshops to support their activities. Apart from London Video Arts, who
distributed and helped to produce video artists' works, I think all the
workshops were community based organisations making work mainly around
social issues. This includes Edinburgh Film Workshop, the only Scottish
organisation to be funded.
So perhaps it is more a question
of the support infrastructure not being in place for artists' production
in the 1970s and 1980s. After all, it is difficult to make films or videos
if you can't get access to equipment and maybe an artist would not think
of working in such a medium, if no-one was advocating it. Central to this
was the role of the Scottish Art Schools, who did not embrace these 'alternative'
media unlike similar institutions in England and Wales. There were a handful
of individuals who helped support work. Colin McLeod, now with the Photography,
Film & TV Department at Napier University, was I believe working at
Edinburgh College of Art in the late 1970s as a film technician in the
Architecture School. If 'fine artists' wanted to make films, they went
Acess to resourceschanged somewhat
with the arrival of video artist Stephen Partridge as a tutor at Duncan
of Jordanstone College of Art (DJCA), Dundee in the mid-1980s. He persuaded
the College to invest significant resources in the video department, and
it has become one of the UK's leading centres for video and media art teaching
MD: That takes us back to
David Hall and what is lightly referred to as the 'Maidstone mafia' from
Dundee. Joking aside, the influence has been profound.
CB: Yes, Partridge was a student
of Hall's at Maidstone College. The course was the first in the UK to teach
video specifically as a medium for artists. It has been very influential,
and during the 1980s some saw the artists trained there as an overbearing
legacy of 1970s conceptualism.
Later in the 1980s Edinburgh College
of Art set up Animation and Film & TV departments, followed by Napier
University. Though these courses were not specifically designed to teach
video art or experimental film, the result of this activity in education
was that many more artists were versed in the technologies. The establishment
of new access-oriented, membership-based film and video workshops in Glasgow
and Edinburgh meant that artists could source camera equipment and post-production
facilities after leaving College.
MD: There were possibilities
brewing in the late 80s regarding film and video from an 'experimental'
perspective. What it lacked was a desire on the part of funders to strategically
support this growing and visible area of practice. It was different with
photography in Scotland where it took a SAC commissioned consultancy chaired
by the director of the Scottish Film Council to go through the motions
of validation--then for a proposal for a festival to be drawn up, encouraged
by the SAC, and for Fotofeis to be established. Now of course the funding
has been withdrawn. Where do people interested in that direct their enquiries
now? The same is true for New Visions--the Glasgow based bi-annual festival
of film, video and new media--although that is on a different scale and
economy of financial and human resources.
There have been notable advances
in the past that I think we can still pick up on: the SAC established the
Visual Artists Video Bursary in 1987. Pictorial Heroes, who were among
several recipients of the award, made some very large and arresting video
installations for the Scottish Society of Artists and the Royal Scottish
Academy. Prior to that there was EventSpace 1, which involved Stephen Partridge
from Dundee, Doug Aubrey and Alan Robertson of Pictorial Heroes. That event,
held at Transmission in its early years, was the first exhibition in Scotland
of video since the 1970s. Artists included in that were Kevin Atherton,
Steve Littman, Zoe Redman, Partridge, Rigby and more. Whilst at Transmission
we organised a series of events under that title. When our tenure on the
committee was up we formed EventSpace separately--Ken Gill, Doug Aubrey
and Alan Robertson were the others. The model there as far as I was concerned
was Projects UK in Newcastle--that of a non-venue based agency promoting
innovative work in site-specific and non-gallery locations. The most significant
event organised there I think was 'Sites/Positions' in 1990 which commissioned
several artists to make new work, including Douglas Gordon, Christine Borland,
Alison Marchant, and Gillian Steel who created an animated film with girls
from Springburn. 'Sites/Positions' was the first event of Glasgow's Year
of Culture, and all the more significant for that. EventSpace continued
with similar projects before focusing more strongly on the moving image
with a series of screenings before organising the New Visions festival
The SAC set up a New Projects Scheme
(NPS) in 1988. This was at a time when discussions were taking place between
advocates of the sector and with both SFC (Scottish Film Council, now Scottish
Screen) and SAC. Many agonising moments were spent trying to justify what
this work was and was not. The 'get out clause' was always the inability
for the definition of experimental to fit within any established funding
criteria or for that matter just being able to recognise that. So, the
video bursaries and the NPS I think were ways of attempting to address
that and it must be said the arts officers, Lyndsay Gordon (who in fact
had been involved in organising the '76 video show at the Third Eye Centre)
and Robert Livingston were supportive.
It is worth noting some of the many
events that have marked this period: I remember a huge Dan Reeves installation
at the Pearce Institute in Govan 1990, then later his 'Jizo Garden' at
the CCA in '92. He appeared again as part of the National Review of Live
Art, which (with the help of the video department at DJCA) for many years
hosted many installations and screenings and gave video a strong platform
and presence. The homage to David Hall's 'TV Pieces' was replayed again
with Fields & Frames' 'TV Interventions' event in 1990. Even earlier
in 1989 Jane Rigby and Steve Partridge working under the company title
of 'Art Tapes Ecosse', put together 'Made In Scotland' which was shown
at several festivals and events. The same year I was involved in making
Variant Video, which was an electronic compliment to the printed magazine.
One edition featured works from Dundee and interviews with video artists.
CB: An important show was
'Interference', at the Seagate Gallery, Dundee in 1987, this being the
first video show outwith the central belt. A clutch of artists associated
with the course at Dundee made installations over the course of the event.
Stephen Partridge, Pictorial Heroes, Chris Rowland, Alistair McDonald,
Tony Judge, and Kevin Atherton. Single-screen tapes by other artists were
also shown. The year after, Partridge and Steven Littman from Maidstone
organised the video section of the National Review of Live Art at the Third
Eye Centre. Installations were staged by Mineo Aayamaguchi, Lei Cox, Paul
Green, Daniel Reeves, Chris Rowland, and Jeremy Welsh.
MD: So there has been a lot
of frenetic activity.
CB: The Fringe Film Festival
was started by Harald Tobermann in 1984 as an alternative experience to
the mainstream Edinburgh Film Festival. Community projects and low budget
Super-8 films were shown alongside old classics and 'Indie' movies. The
festival consisted of cinema screenings mainly, with some occasional interesting
live events. Particularly memorable was a night of classic silent films
with newly composed musical scores, performed live. Tobermann went on to
found an unfortunately short-lived Scottish based video distribution company,
which promoted productions from the many workshops then active in the UK.
It was not until 1990, when film-maker
Louise Crawford ran the festival, that Edinburgh saw expanded cinema again:
several installations were shown at the Collective Gallery in addition
to the core event of cinema screenings. In 1991 the first video art appeared
at what was by then the Fringe Film and Video Festival (FFVF), Video being
added to the title, co-ordinated by video artist Nicola Percy. Between
1992 and 1993 I organised the festival and showed several site-specific
moving image and performance installations during the period. Artists included
Riccardo Iacono, Kenny Davidson, Ally Wallace: also in 1993 I brought over
a show to the Collective Gallery from the World Wide Video Centre, The
Hague which included work by Jaap de Jonge and Justin Bennett. During the
1995 and 1996 events organised by Dave Cummings and Becky Lloyd, the FFVF
showed a video sculpture by Bob Last at the Collective, an early Cary Peppermint
internet performance, plus various works on CD-ROM.
The significance of a festival such
as the FFVF was, I feel, not appreciated widely at the time. It gave artists
and film-makers the opportunity to make their work visible to the public.
It also provided an annual focus around new work, raising the profile of
this area with funders and exhibitors. The forums for debate on the film
and video sector in Scotland were an important chance to meet other artists
and discuss concerns and issues of common interest. The fact that the scene
now seems so fragmented can perhaps be attributed to the lack of any such
regular forum for showing and discussing new work.
MD: Both festivals engaged
a wide cross-section of makers, public and supporters. Their great strength
was the diversity of international media art production that both embraced
and their motivation in linking local makers and concerns with a wider
international perspective. A main feature of New Visions has been the 'International
Zeitgeist' programmes culled from open invitations--as you will know there
are hundreds of responses to these calls for submission. That's encouraging
in terms of the volume of new work being made. There has been an attempt
to blur art and community approaches through the 'Communities of Resistance'
programme theme devoted to documentary, group and issue-based work. Another
feature has been the forums for debate: in 1994 there was the 'Digital
Deviance' event featuring Despite TV, Graham Harwood and Mathew Fuller,
and the 'Tactical Television' theme; representatives from Van Gogh TV came
and from the Amsterdam Translocal Network. There was a lot of discussion
created and some anticipation concerning how the prospects for image making
could be linked to the social purpose of working with those marginalised
from the mainstream through the creative use of new technologies.
Many Glasgow based artists put on
installations at New Visions in different venues: Smith/Stewart, Stevie
Hurrell, Ewan Morrison. But it's really just the tip of the iceberg, and
whilst we might bemoan the lack of structural support for activity emanating
from the 'grass-roots', there has been a process of legitimacy aided by
the international attention given to the emergence of video projection
by artists such as Bill Viola and Gary Hill. This has assured the absorption
of video into the mainstream institutional context of art history. Douglas
Gordon's '24 Hour Psycho' at Tramway in Glasgow was quite influential I
think in affecting younger artists here in their perception of what video
was or is and how it can be used. I hope that the 'V-Topia' show also at
Tramway is a case in point here. The aesthetic of video has eluded the
critics and journalists because they have been unaware of its presence
and history in Scotland--there hasn't been anything that has penetrated
that fog to bring all the connection points together. Now we can't talk
of medium-specific aesthetics given the convergence between digital arts,
fine art practice, graphic design, film, video and multimedia, except to
provide an historical cohesion for present practice--that, however is vital.
CB: I think that is true,
there is more promotion now of the individual artist as opposed to the
medium. That said, in the past few years video in particular has had a
higher profile in the major art institutions. In Edinburgh, Marina Abramovic
showed a video sculpture installation at the Fruitmarket in 1995; there
was a lot of work in the British Art Show in 1996; the Fruitmarket showed
Bill Viola last year, Yoko Ono and of course Smith/Stewart this year. This
rash of activity is interesting given that during the 1980s there was I
think only one video show at the Fruitmarket: Marie-Jo LaFontaine in 1989.
Unfortunately these recent shows have been confined mainly to successful
artists already made famous by the international art market. Exceptions
to this rule include recent installations by Dalziel and Scullion at the
National Gallery of Modern Art, and David Williams at the National Portrait
It has been mainly in what used
to be the alternative spaces that video by Scottish based artists has been
most prominent in the last few years. The Collective Gallery has a particularly
good record of supporting work. This was often in collaboration with the
FFVF in the past, but over the last few years some interesting artists
have made video or computer works in the space: John Beagles and Graham
Ramsay's incisively witty show being easily the most memorable.
MD: I like to think of art
activity as being made up of all these little points of nascent energy
and the role that a festival or an organisation has is to temporarily harness
that without dulling it. Many venues have focused a lot of attention into
the Lottery in terms of building based projects, rightly so I suppose in
that the infrastructure has to be there to be materially facilitated. There
are a couple of non-venue based organisations in Glasgow though who are
doing their thing, but in the area of the moving image and new technology
there is not an established organisation that understands the nuances of
the inter-connecting sectors of small budget film, independent video, fine
art and the possibilities with the new media to bring all those things
together in exhibition and distribution across Scotland.
CB: Certainly the need still
exists...one only has to look at the example South of the Border. England
would not have anything like the presence it now has in this field without
organisations such as the London Film-Makers Co-op, London Electronic Arts,
Film & Video Umbrella, Hull Time-Based Arts, Videopositive...the list
goes on. With the withdrawal of funding from FFVF, New Visions and Fotofeis,
in Scotland we now have no organisation at all advocating, promoting or
touring in this area of work. Whilst some galleries do a good job, I still
think they need support, and the artists in this field certainly do.
MD: Lobbying tends to come
in cycles--ten years is probably the maximum amount of time anyone can sustain
energy on one issue without a corresponding change occurring from the lobbying
before they have to move on, if they are not burnt out. There have to be
tangible legacies to build upon in practice.
CB: Hopefully what has gone
before can inform future developments. If not, the field will be left to
others to start from scratch all over again.
From Porn to
Manet's Olympia was painted in 1863
and images of sexual exploitation have been popular among artists ever
since. Although art has long provided the bashful with illicit kicks under
the guise of self-improvement, it is only more recently that porn stars
began making the transition from the video underground to the cultural
mainstream. Nevertheless, sustaining a straight movie career can be difficult.
Teenage porn sensation Traci Lords was elevated to matinee status thanks
to a role in Cry Baby, but currently makes techno records after several
Pornography is an integral part
of the entertainment business, and the vehicles created for its stars are
every bit as formulaic as Hollywood blockbusters. While there may be less
money in more experimental areas like performance, such genres offer a
freedom that is attractive to individuals who are sick of being type-cast.
Porn veteran Annie Sprinkle is typical of those who want to escape the
limitations imposed on them by mass culture: "The reason I got out of porn
and moved into art is because there's more room for experimentation in
art. I can be myself."
Gay porn stars are making this transition
too. Aiden Shaw whose autobiography Brutal was published last year, has
been pulling in punters at prestigious venues such as the ICA. Shaw's act,
which lies somewhere between performance art and Chippendale-style pop,
has been packaged as part of a musical review that also features cult rockers
Minty. While cynics see these gallery escapades as a neat way of marketing
over-exposed sex stars to a fresh audience, a trooper like Annie Sprinkle
radiates sincerity as she hard sells 'post-porn modernism' as a 'new age
sexuality'; "sex is a path to enlightenment. Women producing porn will
push things in a positive direction."
One woman who relishes breaking
down sexual boundaries is Cosey Fanni Tutti, born Christine Carol Newby
in 1951. Between 1974 and 76, Tutti worked as a glamour model for Fiesta,
Curious and Ladybirds, then exhibited her centre-spreads in art galleries.
Tutti also toured London pubs as a stripper, as well as appearing in films
such as Confessions Of A Superstud and I'm Not Feeling Myself Tonight,
all in the name of art. These activities are currently being researched
by Simon Ford, a post-graduate student at the Courtauld Institute of Art.
"The strength of Tutti's work lies
in its play on artistic authenticity," Ford explains. "For this to register
there had to be a certain loss of agency in the studio stages of its production.
It was the ability to draw on real experiences as a real model in the fantasy
world of pornography that made it so hard for critics to deal with in the
seventies. It is the explicit play on notions of authenticity and identity
through a foregrounding of pornography as a signifying system, that marks
out Tutti's work as a significant contribution to the feminist critique
of an essentialised femininity."
Tutti favours plainer words when
defending her activities: "You get feminists saying you're being exploited
and all the rest of it. But it's not like that. It's a total power trip.
When you're being exploited, it's when you're doing something you're not
comfortable with. When it's not you. When someone is saying do this." Porn
queen La Cicciolina, whose stormy relationship with Jeff Koons was recorded
in a series of hardcore poses that her partner marketed as art, seems to
have been more ruthlessly exploited on the gallery circuit than during
her glory years in glamour. Since the breakdown of her marriage, Cicciolina
Cicciolina has disappeared into a post-porn wilderness.
Art and porn are mirror images of
each other. Sex sells and the main thing distinguishing these two genres
is the more open and honest approach of the sleaze merchants. Nevertheless,
even someone as pretentious as film-maker Michael Winner was able to begin
his career with the nudie abomination Some Like It Cool, while numerous
struggling actresses have made ends meet by appearing in blue movies. Elaine
Page of Evita fame cameos in Adventures Of A Plumbers Mate, while Joanna
Lumley features in Games That Lovers Play. Both the art and pornographic
worlds are fashion based. In each there is a constant turn over of faces.
While former porn stars make adequate artists, let's hope there isn't a
widespread attempt at reversing the process.
A quality cinema
The Highlands of Scotland has survived
many invasions in the past which have broadened its culture and changed
the complexion of its population. The most influential of these has occurred
in the latter half of the 20th century bringing about changes on an unprecedented
scale and affecting every aspect of culture and social organisation. It
began with an Act of Parliament in 1965 and the setting up of an agency
whose remit was to re-populate and develop not only the highlands but the
islands as well. The Highlands and Islands Development Board worked for
twenty-five years only to be succeeded by another Act of Parliament and
another bureaucracy: Highlands and Islands Enterprise. HIE is the flagship
organisation for a network of ten local Enterprise Companies stretching
from Shetland to the Mull of Kintyre. Its task, according to a statement
within its 1996/97 Annual Report, is to "create a strong, diverse and sustainable
economy where quality of life is matched by quality of opportunity." Within
HIE's 'Strategy For Enterprise Development' the organisation's 'Vision'
is outlined placing emphasis again on "a high quality of life", a phrase
that is reiterated throughout HIE's glossy brochures. These try constantly
to smash the romantic 19th century Highland myth replacing it with a 21st
century equivalent based on "high-value services, knowledge-based activities
and a diversified portfolio of manufacturing industries."
Despite HIE's somewhat propagandist
'Vision' the Highland region is still referred to as Europe's last wilderness
by tourist organisations and the media. This exaggerated claim instills
in the minds of an urban majority a landscape that is devoid of habitation,
amenities and culture. A place, therefore, that might suit resettlement
by dissatisfied city dwellers threatened by rising crime, traffic congestion,
over-crowded conurbations and other urban ills. This resettlement and associated
development is actively encouraged by HIE and until recently was financially
supported by European Objective One funding along with substantial injections
of cash from UK government agencies. This re-population and development
programme has brought with it an increase in middle-class administrators
and economically active incomers with money to invest in their own businesses.
Statistics show that the number of self-employed people in the HIE area
has increased by 33% from 1981 to '91 but this increase shows an expansion
in the service sector rather than in traditional industries, many of which
are in relentless decline. Incomers have brought their own perceptions
of what the highlands were, what they are, and more importantly, what they
should become. Psychologically the empty highland wilderness is a place
where this middle-class immigration can establish its own nirvana. An idealised
highlands that will become the envy of other less fortunate urbanites.
Aspirations are high and the general feeling is that anything can happen.
The romantic highland myth which remains a strong selling device for the
area is under threat from entrepreneurial 'new' highlanders who require
a new myth to stimulate development and economic growth. Into this landscape
comes a project which satisfies both camps for not only does it help to
perpetuate the old romantic wilderness myth but it also assists in the
construction of the new, idealised myth of an area of new technologies
where everyone has a quality lifestyle.
When told about HIE's decision to
launch a £640,000 articulated lorry sized mobile cinema that will
one day tour the Highlands and Islands, Doug Aubrey, independent film and
video maker, said it typified a middle-class heroic vision of the Highlands.
"A place", he went on to say, "that is still perceived as one to conquer.
And what better way to conquer it than by transporting an accessible medium
like film about in an impracticably cumbersome, non-efficient and extravagant
vehicle. If they really wanted to distribute cinema to isolated communities",
Doug concluded, "they could have set up their own local broadcasting channel
for a lot less money. It seems to me they haven't taken advanced technology
into consideration." Aubrey's somewhat common sense criticism may indeed
say much about the middle-class perception of the Highlands. And HIE's
foremost reason for launching the vehicle, "To provide a quality cinema
experience for isolated rural communities" says much about the Board's
aspirations and 'Vision'.
By taking cinema out of its historical,
Highland screening venue, the village hall, where a mobile unit consisting
of projector and screen once entertained isolated communities, the more
high-tech contemporary version may contribute towards the redundancy of
village halls as community nuclei and consequently precipitate a dependency
upon State run entertainments superseding community organised events. The
Screen Machine, so unimaginatively named by Hi Arts (HIE's art development
agency), is cribbed from the French, Cinemobile, the first of which was
launched in La Region Centre in April 1983.
Cinemobile was made possible by
la Maison de la Culture d'Orleans with the financial assistance of du Conseil
Regional and other sponsors. The specially designed articulated lorry,
fabricated by Toutenkamion, was named after the legendary French film director,
Jean Renoir. Surprisingly, the nationalistic French, paranoid about Hollywood
imports undermining the economy of their own film industry and their language,
did not concentrate specifically upon promoting their home product. Their
priority was to deliver mainstream cinema to rural communities. Apparently
any protective cultural policy was nudged aside in favour of commercial
considerations. This more populist philosophy made Le Jean Renoir a huge
success leading in turn to the inauguration of le Jacques Tati by Catherine
Deneuve in 1992 and le Jean Carmet by Pierre Tchernia in March 1995. This
third addition to the fleet cost 3.8mf and reaches an audience of 66,000
citizens, 11,000 of which are schoolchildren. It delivers its "superbes
salles de cinema" into the heart of fifty communities visiting each venue
once a month. Different programmes are provided. During school hours specific
films (in one instance Lethal Weapon II dubbed in French) are screened
and pupils pay 17f per head. Early evening and late evening screenings
cost 35f and 25f for concessions. Les Cinemobiles are administered by ADATEC
in association with l'ARCC (Association Rurale de Culture Cinematographique)
based in Orleans.
During 1993 le Jacques Tati was
invited by the British Film Institute, the Welsh Film Council and the Scottish
Film Council to visit Somerset, Aberystweth, and Moffat where it gave local
dignitaries a full screening of the Hollywood version of Martin Guerre.
This mini-tour prompted a British Film Institute feasibility study into
the probability of a similar vehicle operating within a rural setting in
the UK. The feasibility study was undertaken by Dick Penny a freelance
consultant with experience in cinema and theatre management who had been
the chief executive of Watershed Media Centre in Bristol during the early
90s. Penny's non-specific first study was followed by one examining the
possibility of a mobile cinema based on the French model (which he had
seen in France) operating in the Highlands and/or Dumfries & Galloway.
Robert Livingstone of Hi Arts writes, "The cost of Penny's report in the
Highlands had been met by Scottish Film Council, HIE, and a consortium
of Highland local authorities. Following the positive report, this grouping
asked Hi Arts to develop the project on their behalf." It was appropriate
for Hi Arts to undertake this for not only was local government reorganisation
pending but as the arts development arm of HIE it had an Act of Parliament
and a powerful common development and social remit to back up its claim.
A second Cinemobile tour by le Jean
Carmet took place in 1995. This time it visited Sanquhar, Castle Douglas
and Newton Stewart in Dumfries & Galloway as well as Fort William for
the occasion of the International Celtic Festival of Film and Television.
This, writes Robert Livingstone, "offered an opportunity to show the French
system off to those who would eventually support our applications for funding."
The initial SAC Lottery application was made in 1995 based on the costs
within Dick Penny's report of purchasing a French model and in November
of that year it was announced that £330,000 of Lottery money would
be forthcoming. HIE also committed £110,000 to the project. Hi Arts
then entered into a lengthy process of commissioning a design before going
out to tender. It had been shown that the French model was unsuitable for
Highland roads and did not meet British Health and Safety standards. The
tenders were placed Europe-wide but no specialist bids came from Scotland
and those that were returned in May 1997 indicated costs far in excess
of the original estimates. It was, therefore, necessary to make a second
Lottery application to meet the costs of ordering a purpose-built vehicle
from Lynton Commercial Units Ltd of Manchester. The second Lottery tranche
amounted to £150,000 and was added to by a further £20,000
from HIE. The total cost of Screen Machine being £640,000 on the
road meant that a short fall of £30,000 had to be met by Scottish
According to Dick Penny's report
the estimated running costs would be in the region of £129,000 per
annum and the estimated income would be £66,812 showing a deficit
of £62,477--figures that no politically sensitive public agency could
admit to. Revised figures for the expected ten year life-span of the vehicle
released by Hi Arts, as hypothetical as Penny's, are based on a local survey
carried out by Graham Campbell, at that time a student in Leisure Studies
at Moray House College of Education. These reveal running costs amounting
to £147,847 in the period 1998/99; £146,780 in the period 1999/00
with the figure rising to £173,813 in the period 2002/03. This perceived
expenditure is balanced by an equally fictional income of £146,945
(1998/99); £147,151 (1999/00) and rising to £173,600 (2002/03).
This indicates an imagined deficit of £902 in the first year of operation
followed by a surplus of £370 in the second year and so on. These
figures are based on an estimated audience of 20,000 per year with ticket
prices set at £4 for adults and £2.50 for children with concessions
set at £3. At the time of writing no price for block bookings has
been set. Each ticket sold will be subsidised by £1.50 but Robert
Livingstone writes,"a third of that subsidy is likely to be sponsorship,
so public sector subsidy will be nearer to £1.00 per ticket." Contributions
towards the running costs have come from the Post Office (£30,000),
Scottish Arts Council (£50,000), and Scottish Screen (£60,000).
Each of these substantial leg-ups cover three year periods only and finally
dry up altogether after 1999/00. Thereafter Hi Arts hopes to attract £10,000
per year from the private sector to add to the £20,000 per year which
must come from the public purse to keep this reels on wheels on the road.
A new company, Hi Screen, has been
formed to lease Screen Machine from Hi Arts, to operate it and employ the
necessary staff. To minimise costs all programming, marketing and financial
services will be contracted from Eden Court Theatre in Inverness which
runs its own in-house cinema appropriately named 'Riverside Screen'. This
too is subsidised by local authority money plus a grant of £16,400
per annum from Scottish Screen. Riverside Screen offers a fairly typical
'alternative' programme appealing to many movie-going tastes. Robert Livingstone
insists that Screen Machine's programming will be specific to it although
he qualifies this statement by saying that, in some cases the same film
will be shown in both venues. But of course Screen Machine does not include
Inverness in its touring circuit.
From the project's inception the
steering group anticipated Screen Machine's benefit to the Scottish film
industry as being its showing of work by contemporary Scottish film makers
commissioned through Tartan Shorts and Prime Cuts. These mini-movies, as
well as dusty, nostalgic reels from the Scottish Film Archive and the Post
Office's own collection of commissioned classics, adding support to main-stream
features. Alan Knowles of Scottish Screen was at pains to point out that
the vehicle's prime function is to plug the gap in disadvantaged areas
and to replicate, as near as possible, a cinema quality experience. It
is this quality experience that will sell the Screen Machine to the public
for if they feel that they are not getting their money's worth they may
well stay at home and watch videos or travel the extra distance to Inverness
where Warner Brothers has opened a multi-plex to serve that area which
has mushroomed to a population of 70,000. There are other cinemas within
the Highlands and Islands' larger towns that might also capture a dissatisfied
Screen Machine audience. And here too it must be noted that the vast majority
of people living in isolated communities are compelled by necessity to
visit these larger towns in order to purchase their weekly shopping - so
why not take in a movie at the same time and make a day of it? For the
truly isolated and disadvantaged members of rural communities, eg. OAPs,
unemployed single parents, who cannot drive or cannot afford to run a car,
a much improved bus service to larger towns would have been of more benefit
than a mobile cinema which still requires a car to attend.
For Alan Knowles the promotion of
Scottish film is a secondary consideration. In this he appears to be adopting
a similar attitude to the French who deliver a popular programme of American
and home product to rural communities. The French model has been so successful
that it has established a framework upon which to build an operating practice
that can alter according to cultural necessities. It is necessary in Scotland
to nurture our film industry and to instill a confidence in it at both
ends of the spectrum - amateur and professional. The French may not feel
this necessity as its film industry has a strong history and a vital contemporary
practice. In Eire one may witness a similar confidence so it is not surprising,
therefore, that the Film Institute of Ireland too "is interested in pursuing
and researching the possibility of introducing a cinemobile into Ireland."
In a written statement Martha O'Neil, Chairperson of the Board, continues
thus: "the cinemobile is not directly about promoting our own industry
here in Ireland, though Irish material would be central to its programming,
it is more about offering the opportunity of excellent exhibition across
the land, along with a diversity of films that would ultimately, in our
view, enhance the appreciation of filmmaking among audiences which would
of course have a knock on effect in the production sector down the line."
Both Alan Knowles and Robert Livingstone echo these aims taking the knock
on effect one stage further.
As far as can be ascertained the
French Cinemobile did not have at its heart a commitment to encourage film
production. Robert Livingstone says that stimulating an interest in and
developing the production of community film and video was always a key
element in the thinking of the Screen Machine's steering group. He believes
that there is sufficient grass-roots interest to partly justify the project's
expense. Although Graham Campbell's market research into a need for mobile
cinema did not concern itself with trying to find out just how many people
in Highland communities are interested in film and video production it
is assumed that by stimulating an interest through regular film attendance
this might lead to amateur productions. Cromarty-based and Highland-born
filmmaker, Don Coutts, thinks the Screen Machine is "Brilliant!" and can't
wait to work with local schoolchildren on community-based documentary video
projects that may be screened in the mobile unit. He envisions the Screen
Machine bringing communities together in a shared cinema experience in
much the same way as the mobile film projector of his childhood once did
in village halls. His enthusiasm is infectious. Robert Livingstone's enthusiasm
on the other hand is more sober. He says that art development in the Highlands
and Islands has to be taken one step at a time. In this he appears to be
bureaucratically cunning as he advocates setting up levels of administration
to support each stage of development. The Highlands and Islands Film Commission,
which began in 1991 as a liaison only body financed by Highland Council,
was launched in the Autumn of 1997. Its remit is to offer location support,
to publish a directory of all services available to the professional and
bottom end of the industry, and to encourage the development of indigenous
filmmaking. But this HIE funded service has no money allocated for community
productions. There is no Highland film fund so any would-be director must
join the queue at the door of Scottish Screen and pray for a share of the
film production fund or try the Lottery.
Don Coutts' notion of documentary
video at a community level is shared by Robert Livingstone but one wonders
what his own expectations as a bureaucrat might be. Will he hope that,
like HIE's glossy brochures, such hypothetical community documentaries
will reflect the quality of life, the area's unique environment and cultural
heritage? Will he be shocked and embarrassed if communities reveal a few
truths about the realities of living in the Highlands? Will documentaries
that comment upon the increasing crime rate, drug abuse, and homelessness
be given support? (moral rather than financial) Recently released statistics
reveal that suicides and undetermined deaths in the Highlands have, between
1985 and 1996, fluctuated between 32 and 53 per year indicating that HIE's
'Vision' of an area offering a quality lifestyle is seriously flawed. Would
such a necessary documentary examining this aspect of culture be shown
in the prestigious Screen Machine or even qualify for grant aid? (if such
aid was made available by HIE) Is it now too late to show how stone-built
vernacular Highland architecture is being replaced by ill-designed kit
houses that sit incongrously upon the land instead of occupying a rightful
place within it, or how indigenous culture is being pushed aside by an
incoming one that embraces its own 21st century vision, or how tourism
inflates the prices of all essential commodities from cups of tea to rented
accommodation and house prices?
In order to make the case for Screen
Machine abundantly clear to all, including those sceptics who feel it is
a gross extravagance, a high profile launch was planned for 5th May. The
island of Islay was chosen because, as Robert Livingstone explained, it
typified a location that is as far away from a regular cinema as it is
possible to be within the Highlands and Islands. His reasoning did not
take into account the islands of Tiree, Coll, Eigg, or Jura which the cumbersome
Screen Machine cannot reach. At the eleventh hour, amidst a clanjamfry
of public and media, the launch was cancelled. The white elephant had been
lamed as it journeyed from Manchester to Islay. Press speculation as to
how much money had been wasted on the launch and what had gone wrong technically
was, according to Livingstone, wildly exaggerated. Gregor Fisher, Scotland's
equivalent of Catherine Deneuve, it was claimed would not have moved for
less than £10,000. Livingstone said that in reality Fisher would
have appeared for nothing, his fee being paid instead to a charity of his
choice. Of course this does not answer the question of what that fee was
to be. In the event, however, Fisher's plane from Glasgow was halted and
the amount of money lost was restricted to £5,000.
Robert Livingstone preferred not
to think of the £5,000 as being lost because, although the launch
had not gone according to plan, it had still worked as a publicity opportunity
for the project and the Lynton Group who received a number of enquiries
about similar vehicles. Of course we only have Livingstone's word for this.
It is obvious that such a breakdown at the first objective caused a great
deal of embarrassment not only within the Lynton Group but also within
HIE whose notions of 'quality' were badly tainted.
At the time of writing it is known
that the Screen Machine left Lynton's factory without the suspension being
set properly. As a consequence the trailer was grounding on the corners.
This caused the floor of part of the cinema to buckle resulting in a failure
of the folding out procedure which transforms the articulated trailer into
a 110-seat auditorium. As the vehicle had not formally been handed over
to HIE the Lynton Group is being held responsible for making good the repair
and the fault that caused the damage. Robert Livingstone was not at liberty
to discuss any financial implications and was equally reluctant to expand
on other details such as how long the delay will be before another launch
(if any) is attempted.
This unfortunate incident does focus
attention on Lynton's capabilities and raises the question of why they
were awarded the contract. Livingstone is unequivocal in his support saying
that the Lynton Group was the best to tender for the contract. But then
to be fair Robert Livingstone is not an engineer nor for that matter was
anyone else on Hi Arts' project team that supervised the mobile cinema
development. Sandy Maxwell, the project leader, was the venue manager of
the Cottier Theatre. Hardly a qualification to supervise a complicated
engineering project worth £640,000. The rest of the project team
comprised the board members of Hi Screen chaired by Jan Nicholson who runs
a company in Portree delivering domestic gas and retailing camping equipment.
His expertise as someone who has a couple of lorries on the road was all
the project team had to rely on when it came to scrutinising the Screen
Machine's detailed plans and suitability for highland roads. If Lynton's
design did have any shortcomings none of these people would have been qualified
to spot them. Sound Associates of London were contracted to select and
install Screen Machine's state-of-the-art equipment providing 35mm film,
video and slide projection with widescreen and digital surround sound.
This aspect of the quality package is, one imagines, assured. It's just
a pity that the money required to locate it in twenty or more community
organised venues throughout the Highlands and Islands had not been found.
It is one thing to use the Q word
as a rhetorical device within glossy publications and speech but it is
quite another to deliver it. Although the Screen Machine will deliver a
quality cinema experience to many highland communities as well as the outer
isles of Lewis, Harris, the Uists and Barra, it must be noted that there
are more communities that it will not reach. And there are many more people
living in the region for whom the middle-class concept of 'quality lifestyle'
in the Highlands and Islands is a dream as distant as it might be for similarly
disadvantaged citizens wherever they live.
In the Eye of
The uproar and hyperbole that accompanied
the pre-release of Adrian Lyne's recent filmic adaptation of Lolita came,
in the light of recent similar media-propelled moral panics, as no real
surprise. Determined to maintain its tradition of sanctimonious over-reaction,
last April the Daily Mail ran the front page headline 'Lolita actor sparks
child sex storm', with 'Jeremy Irons in child abuse storm' writ large across
page seven inside.1 The
intended ambiguity of both headlines is representative of the chronically
confused and often hypocritical attitudes of commentators on both public
and private depictions of children. In the light of this the following
is intended not only as a brief study of Lolita, both Nabokov's and Adrian
Lyne's, but as an attempt to sort through and make sense of some of the
tangled threads of fact, fiction and biased opinion that gather around
many representations of children today.2
Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita concerns
the unusual relationship between thirty-something Humbert Humbert and twelve
year old Dolores Haze. Driven by memories of a passionate but unconsummated
adolescent relationship with a girl named Annabel, Humbert pursues the
ghost of his first love until twenty five years later he finds Lolita,
who to Humbert's inflamed senses is the embodiment of the 'certain initial
girl-child' with whom he was smitten as a boy. His infatuation gradually
turns to obsession, but at the age of fourteen Lolita deserts him for a
pathological deviant and pornographer named Quilty, who in due course she
also leaves. The two are briefly re-united after three years when Humbert
finds Lolita married, heavily pregnant and adamantly un-interested in him
and his protestations of love. Humbert tracks down and kills Quilty then
dies of heart failure in prison, and Lolita, having produced a still-born
daughter, dies in childbirth.
Though it is the sexual relationship
between Humbert and Lolita that seems to receive the most attention across
the media spectrum, Nabokov's novel is not primarily concerned with the
notion of old men and little girls, though many would like to think it
is, as simplistic interpretations are often easier to digest than those
that are more complex. Instead there is within the book an implicit subtext
that can only be grasped from an engagement with the novel in its entirety.
Ultimately the underlying theme of Lolita is not that of the relationship,
sexual or otherwise, between a grown man and a child, but is concerned
with that of the reader and the level of his or her sympathy with what
occurs between the book's two main protagonists. Lolita is about how to
swathe a story of child abuse in dazzling and brilliant packaging to make
it acceptable, even agreeable. It is about the often difficult balance
between art and morality; a challenge to the reader to form an allegiance
with a problematic point of view and to adopt a moral position based not
on whether child abuse is acceptable, (for we all know that it can never
be so), but upon whether art is a sufficient excuse for writing a story
about a man who is imprisoned ultimately for murder and not for his immoral
activities with a young girl. We as readers must weigh the pleasure we
get from Lolita, and our belief that it is a 'great novel', against the
knowledge that, despite the 'fancy prose style', it tells the story of
a grown man's physical and emotional obsession with a child.
Where Adrian Lyne's Lolita fails
is, despite what the press have had to say, in his use of a young actress
who does not appear taboo enough to duplicate the dynamic of the book:
because Dominique Swain, fifteen when making the film, appears not as a
pubescent girl but as an averagely sexy teenager Nabokov's point is lost.
In some respects Lyne's Lolita is successful in its evocation of the tragedy
of a relationship that is doomed from the start, and one leaves the film
almost wishing that the two could live happily ever after, but this effectively
destabilises the fragile balance achieved in the book between the sympathy
elicited by the tragic figure of Humbert and the moral unease of the reader
at the notion of an adult male physically possessing a twelve year old
In effectively censoring Lolita
in this way Lyne has in fact been unfaithful to the novel, and has relied
heavily on the notorious character of the book, and the predictable wrinkling
of the public's nose at any whiff of problematic sexual scandal, in order
to inject the troublesome element of sensationalism that the film lacks.
One should not be surprised, though, at Lyne's reluctance to use a child
in his film, as he as well as anyone else must be aware just how difficult
it would be for an audience to witness some of the scenes in Lolita played
by an authentically young actress.
Depictions of the body, and particularly
the bodies of children, present a dilemma for both artists and commentators,
and often photographers who work with children, like Jock Sturges, Sally
Mann, Graham Ovenden or Ron Oliver, are discussed almost entirely in terms
of the works' uncertain legal status and the fact that the images may be
open to classification by some as pornographic, not due to their intrinsic
visual content, but to a woefully, (and perhaps inevitably), inadequate
set of categorical laws that may vary from country to country or from state
However, what defines the status
of images, or what enables them to produce meanings, is not necessarily
their formal denotative qualities, but the connotative meanings and messages
that are constructed by the nature of the field through which they are
realised or consumed. An image such as Robert Mapplethorpe's Rosie may
not be dissimilar to images that may be found within a small number of
the Internet's pornographic newsgroups but is not in itself pornographic.
Rosie the image was described by moralists in 1996, shortly before it was
withdrawn on the advice of the police from the Hayward Gallery's Robert
Mapplethorpe retrospective, 3
not only as 'child pornography' but as 'utterly horrific'. This however
does a disservice not only to Rosie the child, in describing her image
in this way, but to Mapplethorpe the photographer, as although he would
have been aware that the image was certainly striking, not least in the
intensity of the child's gaze, Rosie is, in the context of the rest of
his oeuvre, a moderate and compassionate depiction of humanity.
What seemed to be overlooked or
ignored by the majority of commentators at the time was that in order for
an image such as Rosie, (or the family photographs of the newscaster Julia
Sommerville's seven year old child at bath time, held by a member of Boots
processing staff to be obscene), to be seen as pornographic the viewer
must project a pornographic sensibility onto it. So despite the fact that
Rosie clearly has her childish genitals on view, they can only be seen
as pornographic, (and by extension erotic), by an individual who has a
predisposition to seeing them in that way, whether they be paedophiles
or moral crusaders. To anyone of a rational sensibility Rosie is just a
striking photograph of a little girl who happens not to be wearing any
Censoring images of children like
this is, for a number of reasons, likely to do more damage in the long
run than good. Firstly, in condemning all images of naked or semi-naked
children to the status of child pornography one is not preserving the innocence
of childhood but removing it, and casting all children in the role of potential
tempters and temptresses; destined forever to be seen within the public's
imagination not as young people on the path to maturity but as individuals
forced to belong to the world of grown-up fantasies and neuroses before
their time. Even a recent television advertisement for the Yellow Pages
showed two new-born babies with their infant genitalia judiciously cast
in digital shadows in order that they should not offend.
There is a danger, with the increasing
attempts of some pressure groups to promote the belief that any depiction
of youthful nudity is inherently unhealthy or bad, that one may no longer
be able to see a naked child for what he or she is but instead become accustomed
to seeing a body sexualised in adult terms; consequently, the childish
body, both clothed and unclothed, is in danger of being fetishised and
turned into a routine container of adult sexual values. In addition to
and as an effect of this, in their desire to depict children as existing
in some pre-Fall Edenic state the activities of some child care groups
are, by insisting that they are non-sexual beings, actively denying children
the right to their own, non-adult, sexuality; to the sexuality that is
part and parcel of being human at any age.
Social constructions of puberty
and adolescence will inevitably dictate the extent of the problems that
are perceived to exist within the welfare and protection of children. When
something arrives to disrupt the 'normal', 'healthy', received social stereotypes
of how children should fit into the spaces set aside for them by society,
as with the work of Jock Sturges, Ron Oliver or Sally Mann,4
it has tended to come under fierce attack from individuals or organisations
who perceive it as a threat; not just to children but to the social order
itself. But, as the welfare of children is, rightly, high on our moral
agenda, it should not be surprising that there should be those who are
prepared to question the role that children have within the culture, sexual
or otherwise, of our society. Those who maintain that children have no
role within sexual narratives are, I would suggest, not helping to solve
the problem but in fact adding to it. In seeking to censor debate around
aspects of the lives of children our attitudes and understandings of 'sensitive'
subjects will remain stifled, and discourses that may prove to be of value
will, because many find them unpalatable, remain unarticulated.
The objects and methods of censorship
are dictated by the standards of the day, but as these standards are in
a permanent process of evolution we can never be exactly sure what it is
we are censoring and why. For instance, Ron Oliver makes photographs of,
by and large but not exclusively, young girls, often pictured with their
mothers or fathers. The photographs are commissioned by the parents and
a number have been published as a collection in As Far as the Eye Can See.
However, in 1992 Oliver was arrested by the Obscene Publications Squad
on charges of producing child pornography, and had much work confiscated
which has yet to be returned. If we look at Oliver's Threesome it is hard
to distinguish what it is that is either obscene or pornographic or should
need censoring. There is a pregnant mother and a young daughter, both of
whom are naked, and the tumescent bump of an unborn baby. The mother kisses
the child and the child embraces the mother. The obvious relationships
set up between the experienced mother, the young girl and the baby speak
simply and eloquently of the human cycle of reproduction, nurturing and
development. There seems nothing degrading or horrific about this image:
on the contrary, it is a touching portrayal.
One possible explanation as to why
we find images of the pubescent body so problematic could be located in
our reluctance to be reminded of the loss of our own innocence, and the
inevitable consequence that is our often difficult, 'grown-up', sexuality.
If as a society we are suffering from a fin de millénaire weariness
with the difficulties of being members of what appears to be an increasingly
unstable community it is natural that we should develop, as an antidote
to the more unpleasant aspects of everyday life, a desire to preserve what
we perceive as, in the absence of religious certitudes, expressions of
humanity untainted by the cynical and superficial aspects of the late Twentieth
Century. Hence the value of the child in society as a signifier of our
hopes for the future. A more faithful, and more honest, filmic adaptation
of Lolita would have used a younger actress, a child who could actually
convey the impression of youth intended by Nabokov, but in the current
moral climate we should not be surprised that Adrian Lyne has acted as
his own censor in order to avoid the hue and cry that would surely have
greeted the appearance of a genuinely juvenile Lolita.
1 The Daily Mail, Friday April 24
1988, p. 1 and 7
2 There are so many themes that
arise in connection with the main subject of this essay that inevitably
in a relatively small space I can hope only to articulate a small proportion
of them, so the reader must bear in mind that I am in no way presenting
my feelings here as an open and shut case.
3 Of interest on this subject is
Mark Sladens' 'School for Scandal', Art Monthly, no. 201 November 1996,
4 Sally Mann is the exception as,
while producing photographs that are both provocative in their depiction
of unashamed nakedness and haunting in their beauty, she has so far not
suffered at the hands of either moral zealots or the authorities, perhaps
because the children she has photographed are her own and, as interviews
and documentaries have shown, entirely undamaged by the process of photography.
New Media, Old
I am attending a smart cheese and
wine party hosted by the Arts Council and one of their corporate sponsors
when it is announced that the director of a well known North American art
centre is present and is looking for new proposals for their artists fellowship
programme. I have an idea that could do with some 'institutional support'
so I decide to forego the race for the vol-au-vent and cross the room to
introduce myself. I begin to explain my exciting new method of image synthesis
but do not get very far before she makes her position clear.
"Is your project internet based?"
"Is it multimedia?"
"Well those are the only projects
we do now".
In the corner of my eye I can see
someone skewering the last savoury parcel.
In 1995 the grand daddy of electronic
arts prizes, the Prix Ars Electronica, decided to drop its 'computergraphik'
still image category after suggestions in previous jury statements of a
'tiredness of creativity' and speculations on whether this form had 'outlived
itself'. That year it was duly replaced by the new World Wide Web category.
In addition, the computer animation section became increasingly dominated
by special effects feature films selected by a jury made up largely of
members of commercial production companies. Amidst timid jury statements
questioning the wisdom of having to compare half a dozen Hollywood films
made by Industrial Light and Magic with a short sequence made by a lone
artist working out of their bedroom, Prix Ars reinforced the feeling that
artists had gradually abandoned 'older' forms of 'new' media for the safety
of emerging 'cutting edge' technologies before they too are 'professionalised'.
This year, the ISEA'98 revolution
symposium distinctly positioned itself at the forefront of radical arts
practice, brazenly featuring this quote on its call for proposals -- "the
opposition of writer and artist is one of the forces which can usefully
contribute to the discrediting and overthrow of regimes which are destroying,
along with the right of the proletariat to aspire to a better world, every
sentiment of nobility and even of human dignity". Against this heady rhetoric,
the invitation for exhibition proposals to ISEA '98 contained no mention
of either still image work nor film and video art in its list of entry
formats, presumably relegating such outdated forms to an earlier era of
So we are left to infer, perhaps,
that a new medium can only sustain a period of true artistic innovation
and challenge for a limited time before it is exhausted of radical ideas
and has to leave centre stage. The new incarnation of progressive arts
practice then rises into the sky on the wings of blue sky research labs
while its decaying predecessors have their bones picked clean of creative
meat by the vultures of venture capitalism. Film art begat video art begat
computer art begat interactivity begat the WWW. This cycle of birth and
death has now assumed a familiar logic -- artists need not worry as the
routes of access to media production are closed off by the mainstream commissioning
policies of the commercial industry. They need only wait for the next wave
of media to appear and then to seize that window of critical intervention
to undermine capitalist social relations before the corporations know what's
hit them. The only article of faith that this requires is that technological
progress march inexorably onwards, generating the raw material that can
be used to subvert its own previously recuperated incarnations. Political
innovation requires technical innovation.
The theoretical justification for
this attitude is given in terms of art as a 'transformative practice' or
aiming at a 'functional transformation'. It is a direct reference to Walter
Benjamin's famous materialist theory of revolutionary art practice. This
is expressed most concisely in his The Author as Producer lecture of 1934
where he formulates it in terms of a distinction between an art work that
supplies a social production apparatus and an art work that tries to change
a social production apparatus. What this means in effect is that it is
not enough for, let's say, a writer to criticise the capitalist system
in words if he or she continues to use a capitalist form of cultural production
to publish those words. Benjamin warns that bourgeois culture is very capable
of absorbing all kinds of revolutionary ideas without at any time allowing
those ideas to threaten its power. Instead of publishing political arguments
in the usual academic form of books and scholarly articles, the socialist
writer should use new forms that change the writer's production relations,
especially their relation with their audience, the proletariat. The newspaper,
pamphlet, poster or radio broadcast were the most appropriate media in
Benjamin's time because they could be used to reach a mass audience and
avoid patterns of traditional cultural consumption that were rooted in
class structure. What matters most in the political effectiveness of an
art work is not the 'tendency' of its content but the effect on production
relations of its 'technique'.
In contemporary times this translates
into an oppositional arts practice which uses the most advanced materials
of its time to demonstrate in a concrete way the direction in which society
should be progressing. It challenges currently accepted notions of production,
authorship and creativity by using new media to show how electronic distribution
changes exhibition, interactivity changes authorship, sampling changes
creativity. Technology is shown to possess the power to restructure these
production relations and alter what people had previously taken for granted.
And whenever production relations threaten to ossify into restrictive ideologies
as newspapers are merged by press barons and radio airwaves are regulated
then they can be blasted apart again by the socialising potential of each
further technical development that can be applied to the mass media. All
of which is fine except for the fact that this is not entirely what Benjamin
Later on in his lecture Benjamin
goes on to discuss some explicit examples of the effects of 'technical
innovation' on the political function of culture. He use quotes from the
musician and Brecht collaborator Hanns Eisler to show that concert hall
music has entered a crisis caused by the advent of recording technologies
which change the relation between performer and audience. "The gramophone
record, the sound film, the nickelodeon can...market the world's best musical
productions in canned form...The crisis of concert hall music is the crisis
of a form of production made obsolete and overtaken by new technical innovations."
But we are told that this is not sufficient by itself to transform music
into a politically potent form--strategies such as the addition of literary
elements like words are also necessary to help overcome social effects
such as the breaking down of culture into isolated specialisations that
occurs under capitalism. It is the transformation of this bourgeois musical
form through words, 'interruptions,' 'making strange,' quotation and other
modernist methods that eventually leads it to the form that Benjamin finds
most exemplary--Brecht's Epic Theatre.
What is technically innovative about
Brecht's theatre? It is not cinema, is is not radio, it is not mass media.
But it does change the relationship with its audience, not by using film
or broadcasting technology directly, but by adopting their 'techniques'.
The principle technique is montage, the ability of modern media to fragment
perception and then recombine it. In Brecht's theatre this is absorbed
in the form of 'interruptions' to the dramatic action in order to create
'conditions' presented to the spectator that require a 'dialectical' response.
In this way montage is employed as an 'organising function' as opposed
to a 'modish technique' used merely to stimulate the viewer's fascination.
So we see that the actual works that Benjamin is interested in use new
techniques at a variety of levels which can include different media, perceptual
modes, 'organising functions' and aesthetic considerations. Contrary to
using the latest technological means, Brecht is described instead of returning
to the ancient origins of theatre, turning the stage into a simple podium
for exposing present behaviour and conditions. New technique does not mean
Today we see digital artists driven
onwards to become multimedia artists to become net artists and in their
wake they leave a trail of unresolved experiments and re-stagings, unable
to develop an idea through before the next software upgrade is announced.
As if 'earlier' forms of new media had been 'outlived', no longer able
to express the forms of subjectivity that are now experienced. But by picking
up any magazine or observing any street advert we can clearly see that
on the contrary commercial design and photography has continued to exploit
and push the still image form way past the stage where many artists abandoned
it in their move on to more 'revolutionary' media. Through this work we
can still see the potential of continuing advances in the standard commercial
digital software packages like Photoshop which has unfortunately now taken
on the status of an office desktop accessory with many artists. The artists
that have continued to work in areas that are almost unfunded have shown
how much further image and print media can go in producing their own newspapers,
fly posters, fax art, graffiti and underground cinema and in experimenting
with alternative methods of distribution.
Similarly in moving image production,
developments in digital image synthesis are amongst the most advanced technical
accomplishments in the world today, but are only ever seen as 'special
effects' in feature films or promos, a 'modish' or stylistic use of the
medium as the new-as-always-the-same. It seems almost an accepted fact
that the sophisticated logics created to structure image events such as
dynamic simulation or motion capture can only ever be used for blowing
up space ships or for the latest shoot-em-up computer game. It is as though
they are perceived as so closely aligned with the interests of Soho art
directors that they can never be quite new enough to escape from its orbit.
Instead it appears far easier for arts organisations to develop schemes
to support work made for a particular piece of hardware or software they
have just seen on Tomorrows World than to look one layer below the surface
to ask what techniques, like montage in the 1930s, are likely to have an
impact on the function of many forms of practice. For it is surely the
case that technical and aesthetic developments in the basic manipulation
of sound and image are applicable to a wide range of media generally. Arts
centres fall over themselves to attract work designed for the latest internet
software, VR environment or multimedia platform but are not willing to
consider projects in image or sound making that could radically alter the
possibilities of all three.
There is an argument to the effect
that by being involved in the early stages of a new medium that artists
can exert some influence over the direction in which it develops. By getting
in first before mainstream genre forms have had the time to become entrenched
it could be possible to indicate alternative patterns, but it is still
very difficult for artists to work as maverick researchers against a corporation's
ultimate agenda. This approach also implies that media will inevitably
develop into a single optimum commercial form without any further hope
of an intervention, a kind of commercial determinism. In fact the computer
industry seems to be distinguished for its continuing volatility just when
everyone thinks the dust has settled.
I am reminded of a story related
by Graham Weinbren, the artist who pioneered the use of interactive cinema
in the late eighties. He and his brother had developed a system that allowed
for real time transitions between different story streams and was demonstrating
one of his first pieces to an audience of industry professionals. They
were duly impressed by the speed and fluidity of the system and wanted
to know the technical specifications. However, when Weinbren revealed that
it was based on an old 386 PC, a machine already obsolete even in those
days, their interest immediately cooled. The problem was that the logic
of the commercial industry demanded that new products were always premised
on the notion that they embodied nothing but the latest in technology and
manufacturing. To revert back to a previous 'generation' of machines would
have introduced an uncomfortable contradiction into that philosophy. Unfortunately
this is also a philosophy that has now been taken on by arts organisations
that feel that here is an easy way to align themselves with progressive
media simply by pointing to new black boxes.
So artists find themselves running
to keep still, trying to keep at bay the panic that they will be left behind
in the latest hi-tech funding opportunities and consigned to the back room
of old media. Condemned to chase a never ending succession of software
versions and hardware upgrades, their practice is now so 'transformative'
that it never gets past the round of demos and beta tests. By becoming
fixated on the receding horizon of technological developments the space
for consolidating what has been learnt is lost. The avant garde artist
trying to lever an oppositional advantage at the fringes of advanced materials
is replaced by the techno artist entrepreneur providing research and development
services for corporate sponsors. There is no reason to develop an idea
beyond the point at which it can be sold.
During the seventies and most of
the eighties artists that wanted to use computers were obliged always to
be working at the frontiers of technology because there was practically
no where else to be. Computing machinery was so limited that in a real
sense the machine was the artwork because you would always be using it
at the very extremes of its abilities. Such was the desire to escape these
restrictions that faster and bigger architectures were eagerly sought after
and resulted in the feeling that to produce the best art you needed the
best computers. Nowadays this principle clearly sounds erroneous, partly
due to the fact that desktop computers are so powerful that the 'best'
in computing is accessible to the point of being unavoidable. But it has
been surreptitiously replaced by a 'softer' version that implies that to
work in the newest media you need the newest technology.
The effect is to divert attention
from innovations in currently used media by implying that artists can only
retain their radical credentials by concentrating on the 'cutting edge'
of new technology. And, surprise, surprise, it is exactly this mythic trajectory
of technology that commercial companies depend on to motivate the consumption
of their endless releases of new products that allow you do the same thing
more often. Both are now united in their quest for a Killer Art for the
Imperialism as Deportation, Art
as Ideology--a contextual framework for creativity
Kuljit 'Kooj' Chuhan
"How do we collectively acknowledge
our popular cultural legacy and communicate it to the masses of our people,
most of whom have been denied access to the social spaces reserved for
art and culture? [...]Progressive and revolutionary art is inconceivable
outside of the context of political movements for radical change."
Angela Davis, "Women, Culture and
Politics" (Women's Press, 1990).
Art along with media is a form of
ideological production--consciously or unconsciously it reinforces, re-presents,
questions, or attacks various views we hold about our world, hence it always
has an educative component, positive or negative. Many artists (unlike
media practitioners) feel unable to think of audience and the political
effects of their work--a writer once said "If I worried about that, I'd
never write anything at all!" This mistaken and self-indulgent form of
individualism, fostered by western art education, is as foolish an approach
as it would be for a politician, scientist or media moghul to divorce themselves
of any responsibility for the social consequences of their work. Furthermore,
the art establishment is over-critical of art that speaks out with a direct
voice--I recall the continual scepticism during production of the 'Nach-ural
Struggle' CD-ROM, which we described as a 'digital art polemic', as to
whether it was 'True Art' or an educational CD. Yet in effecting change,
art and ideological production is most powerful when linked to progressive
struggles. It is as important for campaigns to use the arts and creative
media as required to meet their immediate and foremost objectives as it
is for artists and media practitioners to raise awareness and generate
discussion around those campaigns and the relevant issues. With reference
to the new digital media it is also the social use of a new technology
which finally determines its future, and the 'Virtual Migrants' new media
research project is developing this area through collaboration between
artists, educationalists and campaigners.
The title 'Virtual migrants', while
alluding to the 'digital technology' aspect of a project about migration
and deportation, essentially describes the sense of displacement among
those peoples who are constantly reminded that their area of residence
is not necessarily their home, a sense of an incomplete migration which
is perpetuated along racial lines. There is a great lack of CD-ROM material
on such a subject, with "the first CD-ROM on racism and the black presence
in Britain" (entitled 'HomeBeats') having only just been produced by the
Institute of Race Relations. 'Virtual Migrants' focuses on globalisation,
barriers to migration, state ideology and the paradox between the shrinking
world with freedom for information to travel, and yet the increasing tightening
of racist immigration laws and ever-increasing gaps between the 'first'
and 'third' world. Imperialism is more than ever the dominant global system
perpetuating extreme oppression and inequality. Its pre-development created
modern racism, and therefore attacks on racism will only scratch the surface
unless they relate to anti-imperialist struggles. This places the Black
artist concerned with race in direct alliances with the grass roots of
the Third World, and the story told must be as much about strength and
resistance as about abuse of state powers.
By 'Black', I mean the term progressed
here in the 80s indicating people of non-European descent, marginalised
here by notions of imperialist British nationality. While not without contradictions,
'Black' is still better than those subsequent liberally backward and anti-political
moves resulting in phrases like 'cultural diversity' and so on. Increasingly,
aspiring black artists seem to want the freedom to not tackle race since
whites don't have to be similarly pigeon-holed, yet this naive position
plays into the establishments' hands. Under a dictatorship artists who
innocently ignored the political reality around them are used as testimony
to the creative output of that regime while opposition is ridiculed and
suppressed; a broad consciousness of resistance informs art work even at
intuitive levels, and within this framework of a need for political change
there is no such luxury to avoid the social reality around oneself. Wealthy
liberal democracies such as in Britain cloud their injustices, inequalities
and global sufferings with a biting air of comfort and decency, but in
essence the framework is the same.
But let us take the relationship
between art and ideology a step further--how can a work of art consciously
and purposefully describe and express an ideology, and thereby develop
the tangibility and currency of the concept itself? If an ideology is a
set of related beliefs, attitudes and opinions, then the old linear narratives
have surely done a dis-service to their understanding. The non-linear nature
of the CD-ROM lends itself particularly well to the artistic exploration
of such abstract social concepts which are not normally described easily
using such narratives as in films and books. The medium carries with it
the potential for enabling the active viewer to link together seemingly
disparate events and pieces of information into a well-defined conceptual
framework, in any order. To this end, 'Virtual Migrants' initially focuses
on the story of Liverpool-based Nigerian dissident Bayo Omoyiola (currently
threatened with deportation) and the layers of interwoven connections that
link together Euro-British racism, colonial history, global economy, and
definitions of nationality. We will return to this story later.
Our last piece 'Nach-ural Struggle'
was an attempt to achieve a non-linear experience of a politicised yet
abstract concept, and did at least establish the strength of a piece which
was undeniably visually and aurally stunning as well as being rich in informative,
educative content. However, it remained arguable as to how far the piece
created an emotive sense of its central concept through the multiple connections
gained via non-linear exploration, and also whether experiencing the whole
really was greater than simply the sum of all of its parts. Nevertheless,
the piece clearly demonstrated that the CD-ROM medium enables possibilities
for a piece to be discretely artistic, educative and also campaigning all
in one physical format, due to the ability for a user to navigate through
specific sections without the need to encounter other entire bodies of
content. So with 'Virtual Migrants' we're trying it again. But rather than
simply engaging in cultural action, we need to think and understand the
political concepts and global contexts before any statement can hold firm.
Deportations are highly charged with politics, suffering and emotion, creating
life or death situations requiring people to take to the streets to demonstrate
anger and opposition. But looking at the construction of national identity
and global power concentration, the story is more complex and after some
decades of such action the goal-posts haven't moved - cultural activists
and campaigners alike need to further our understanding before we can act
with greater clarity and strength.
The example of Bayo Omoyiola (summarised)
Bayo is currently threatened with
deportation. He has lived here many years, has one child born here who
has the right to stay, yet his wife and other children are currently in
Nigeria awaiting Bayo's status here to be resolved. It was in 1995, just
a week after Ken Saro Wiwa was killed, that Bayo was given a deportation
order by the Home Office and from there his already two-year long campaign
intensified. The campaigners have weekly meetings, though typical of long-running
campaigns attendance can become erratic until something happens; he has
recently been given a 6-month reprieve before his next hearing and his
campaign has won the particular support of Unison along with some Churches,
MP's, and the local community and friends. Although 118 Labour Party MPs
had signed an early day motion for Bayo's right to stay during Tory rule,
it is uncertain if they would still go along with this now as Labour is
deporting people at a higher rate than the Tories ever did.
Nigeria gained 'independence' in
1960, yet its economy continues to be dominated by multinationals. Within
the oil mining sector Shell is the largest company and is widely held to
be responsible for various forms of ecological destruction. A military
coup in the mid-60s and further coups subsequently have led to military
control for most of Nigeria's history, despite a brief period of democracy
from 1979-83. Human rights abuses, detentions and deaths have been well
documented. The military remains accused of shooting down a demonstration
against Shell, who in turn is understood to support the military rulers.
The USA also has an interest in oil imports from Nigeria at favourable
prices. Despite this unholy alliance serving 'western' interests and those
of the Nigerian military elite minority, international pressure has slowly
criticised Nigeria (though without any material clout) who has claimed
it will release detainees and allow elections; the Pope's visit did indeed
trigger a few to be released.
Broadly speaking, it seems that
the exploitation which colonialism began is continuing through the multinationals,
and is continuing to destabilise the country--right through all the coups
and military regimes it would appear that only the multinationals reaping
their profits has remained constant. Dissenters and human rights activists
are frequently forced to live in exile, such as Bayo who was and still
remains involved in the pro-democracy movement. It was also the income
from exploitation for the white colonising countries which allowed them
to stabilise their own economies and diffuse political unrest; racism itself
was constructed during the colonial era to justify colonial exploitation,
and white workers were brought into this ideology. It is the same racism
which through colonialism created Nigeria as a third world country, which
destabilises and therefore in turn encourages corruption in Nigeria, which
was also able to bring about the influx of migrants into Britain from the
late 40s to early 60s, and which now denies Bayo the right to political
asylum from the corruption which it created the conditions for.
Bayo is constantly in touch with
Black issues in Britain via his own experience and community involvements,
and is clear that the threat of deportation against him would not have
happened if he were white. He has also received racism in various other
forms, including threats from clients of reporting his supposed bad conduct
to the housing office (while working for Liverpool City Council's Housing
Dept.); as a result he had to be moved to work on other estates. Bayo's
continuing experience of racism as a Black citizen in British society is
an equally significant microcosm of the global whole. The racist history
of changes in immigration laws and rules together with the associated publicity
is usually tied in with particular shifts in the economy, migration patterns
or nationalist sentiment, such as the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act
under the Labour government to prevent the rightful entry of British passport-holding
Kenyan Asians. Every such change has invariably whipped up a wave of racist
feeling, attacks and even murders; it is a cornerstone of British racism.
Immigration laws are also almost unique in terms of how fast major changes
are pushed through with almost no public debate; the 1968 Act was typically
rushed through in just three days.
In these ways, the British state
continually raises the question of national identity and its need to identify
Black minorities as never having any real claim to full social and economic
participation in this society; the laws and their practice are a continual
reminder to every Black person, and indeed every white person, of this
fact. In this role, the legal system and infrastructure is a major contributor
to the production of the racist ideology rather than merely an instrument
of it. Within a global context we must also remember this is a key component
of the system which also acts to ensure that cheap labour continues in
poor countries to enable cheap goods for wealthy countries such as Britain,
and ultimately to maintain the divide between rich and poor nations.
Towards a synthesis between digital
art and campaigning
In Britain it has been the numerous
anti-deportation campaigns which over the years have been in the front
line of opposition to racist immigration laws. For the past three years
the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC) has played
a co-ordinating, lobbying and consciousness-raising role at a National
level and also linking with like-minded organisations globally. In response
to the 'Virtual Migrants' project they pointed out that the immediate issue
for their campaigning groups was the lack of computer access. Out of 28
core campaigns of NCADC, only 6 had regular (but not ongoing) access to
a computer, which belonged to and was normally used by the host agency
for that campaign. Other campaigns used computers (e.g. for leaflet production)
by irregular or special arrangement. None of the campaigns had a central
computer or internet/multimedia access for campaign use. However, NCADC
recommend that all campaigns be linked to the internet with their own computer
due to the increasing speed at which changes in immigration and nationality
take place; it would be much faster and efficient to publish those changes
on a website or email them to a specified list than to organise a mail-out
and publicity. NCADC intend to develop this internet access as soon as
any possibilities arise, therefore the access for campaigns could change
significantly over the next few years.
With media such as interactive CD-ROM,
the direct benefits for and usage by individual campaigns needs to be gauged,
despite difficulties of access to the medium. Digital art practitioners
and cultural activists need to bear in mind that current problems of grass
roots access to the 'new media' (CD-ROM and the Web) may be partially resolved
in the near future, and that progressive media aesthetics and practices
have to be developed now in anticipation of this. Previous examples of
campaigning videos produced have often been linked in with student projects,
have been sold within campaigns to raise money and have possibly been shown
at meetings, but they have tended not to develop issues further than the
campaign leaflets and have mainly preached to the converted due to the
lack of any distribution or exhibition strategy. Nevertheless, they may
have raised the consciousness and resolve of campaign members/supporters
by giving them a more intimate and emotional insight to the issues at stake
than simply a leaflet or even a well-delivered speech. As with any media
production, there always remains the issue around the need to develop a
series of 'screenings' or an exhibition programme to encourage the visibility
of the material produced. The bottleneck for such products is indeed in
distribution; no artwork can be radical unless seen or heard and while
production tools seem to be increasingly accessible the distribution channels
are not, and even the supposed exception of the internet is under mounting
criticism. The cultural activity of an arts or media project within a campaign
may also assist in sustaining active member support and public interest,
particularly in lengthy and drawn-out campaigns which struggle to maintain
regular active presence until something happens.
Indirect benefits to campaigning
must also be recognised through their educational role in a wider context
thereby raising public awareness and insight; it may be possible for NCADC
(who publish a vibrant website and quarterly newsletter) to link in with
the project in this context. In the case of 'Virtual Migrants' this will
initially involve community networks, education and arts audiences and
at a later stage probably also some form of independent or semi-commercial
distribution. Even more, media activism of this kind which not only documents
real struggles of principled opposition but also imaginatively develops
it further must also be recognised as an essential part of creating a history
of resistance for future activism to learn from. Involvement with local
struggles in an ideologically conscious creative process which in turn
is embedded in a global context is a springboard towards a more holistic
political culture; let's pass it on.
the Decline and Fall of Music Journalism
"We belong to an age in which culture
is being destroyed by the means of culture."
If the music and related media consumed
by the young and curious are, to some extent, barometers of our anxious
age, any recent gauging might lend Nietsche's words an unwelcome resonance.
Those of us whose interest in new musical forms extends beyond the Ten
Commandments of the market niche may have detected a steep downward spiral
in both of the above. At a time when music intrudes in so many private
and public spaces, from shopping malls and music-on-hold to the routine
assaults of overdriven car systems, the levels of popular attention and
public expectation seem lower and more regulated than ever before.
A cursory scan of the numerous magazines
ostensibly enthralled by musical possibilities actually reveals a striking
uniformity of both presentation and content. Rare displays of critical
acuity, if indeed they can be found, seem strangely disconnected from the
cognitive poverty of their printed surroundings. Amidst the numerical reviews
announcing marks out of ten, any glimpse of more considered articulation
seems arch and incongruous, as if it were the improbable result of some
typographical glitch. Much of the music media no longer appears willing
to explore its subject in terms of shape, suggestion and intention. Accordingly,
the personal experience of music is almost entirely overshadowed by a fixation
with the collective leisure activities of clubbing, chemicals and rock
concerts. A journalistic preoccupation with convenient appearances seems
in unwelcome ascendance, sitting all too neatly with a wider contemporary
reduction of culture to a mere entertainment commodity, something to be
Perhaps the most dazzling marriage
of cult and consumerism is the phenomenon referred to as 'club culture'.
Few could have anticipated the rise to prominence of an inter-continental
youth movement whose tribal figureheads are acclaimed for an ability to
momentarily synchronise two turntables. The heated and uniquely functional
listening context of the dancefloor not only simplifies the range of musical
criteria, with its obvious emphasis on the linear and ballistic, but also
offers its initiates a heavily accessorised and uniform relationship with
the music they embrace. The narrow musical menu of the club experience
can easily become reified in the rituals of powders, pills and other chemical
paraphernalia, effectively relegating even the most geological low frequencies
to a convenient pretext for the more fascinating business of social preening,
sartorial status and sexual manoeuvres.
The default format of magazines
orbiting 'club culture' is perhaps the most obvious evidence of declining
expectations in the producers, consumers and critics of music. Paradoxically,
the exhaustive array of titles fighting for shelf-space and shrinking attention
spans offers the reader no significant choice at all. Largely interchangeable,
each brightly-coloured collage of sound-bites, self-reference and fashion
spreads provides few qualitative reasons for choosing one rather than another.
Despite the bold protestations of 'underground' status, the youth culture
being advertised has much in common with the bizarre homogeneity and anaesthetic
toy-town aesthetic of the shopping mall. (It is, incidentally, hard to
avoid the suspicion that almost every major chain-store now promotes some
form of 'loyalty card' precisely because there is no longer a reason to
feel loyalty toward any such organisation.)
The content of most popular music
magazines rarely addresses music directly at all and seems determined to
steer the reader toward purely visual concerns. Coincidentally, the arrival
of MTV and the music video could be said to have reduced music to a limited
menu of sneering postures and adolescent anomie, with the performer as
the exclusive and inevitable object of attention. Consequently, a neurotic
and fiercely territorial approach to music is fostered, with any small
criticism of the artist's work being felt as a barbed personal assault
by the fan. As the listener is encouraged to personally identify with the
figure and not the work itself, any serious discussion of the artist's
material becomes impossible. Both parties share a tacit conception of music
as an incidental accessory; an arbitrary vehicle to attaining the purported
nirvana of status and celebrity. In these televisual terms, gimmicks, gestures
and sexual fetishism are the true preoccupations of an audience hypnotised
by the relentless and banal imagery of youth culture.
A creed of coarsening expediency
and cultural utilitarianism runs unquestioned throughout mainstream music
publishing, an ever-decreasing frame of reference resulting in a myopic
constriction of ideas and debate. The notion of music without a prefix
is anathema to a generation of writers and retailers who discuss music
entirely in terms of endless, and often ludicrous, classifications. The
demanding and untidy ideals of journalistic depth, detail and factual accuracy
no longer seem necessary. Irrespective of their interests and intentions,
artists and labels are obliged to fit comfortably within the narrowing
parameters of a glib and frequently cynical media formulation. The testing
of artistic substance and probing of ideas appear to be in retreat, systematically
replaced by sweeping resumption and simplistic prejudice. Indeed, the word
itself seems increasingly squeezed into the inconvenient gaps left by advertising
As the proliferation of titles compete
for an audience of jaded palette and finite size, publishers have become
ever more dependent on advertising revenue to sustain their efforts. This
unannounced shift of emphasis from the reader to the corporate sponsor
inevitably jeopardises editorial autonomy. Few editors can afford to be
openly critical of the handiwork of companies whose promotional budget
keeps their own boat afloat. Writers previously known for a measure of
intelligence and forthright independence find themselves having to adjust
to a prevailing climate of cautious expediency and manic infantilism. If
a piece of writing does not directly endorse or promote a particular product,
the chances are it will be met with a degree of editorial discomfort or
quietly be excluded on the grounds it doesn't 'fit' the magazine's 'style'
or 'readership profile'. The cost of this uneasy compromise, and its broader
implications, are not difficult to fathom.
If the printed music media is often
fearful of deviating from the predictions of market research by talking
'above the heads' of its readers, it is evidently all too happy to talk
down to them and insult their intelligence as a matter of course. In his
recent book 'The Aesthetics Of Music', Roger Scruton points out: "Muzak
induces relaxation precisely in those who do not notice it. To the musical,
who cannot avoid noticing such things, muzak is exquisite torture." Similarly,
those who take the greatest pleasure from the experience of music are the
first to suffer from the lowering of aspiration and endeavour. Conversely,
those in whom the interest in music is superficial and transitory now dominate
the media agenda and command its overwhelming attention. The arts coverage
of the British broadsheet newspapers routinely favours barely grammatical
rock concert coverage over a spectrum of more substantial and demanding
musical forms. The Spice Girls were exhaustively covered by each of the
British 'quality' papers, all eager to billboard 'five low-forehead whores
and their male marketing pimp', albeit with varying degrees of irony and
post-modern ennui. For six months and more, the shadow of the incapable
seemed almost inescapable.
Attempts to articulate either the
wider considerations of an artist's work, or indeed the detailed specifics
of such work, require more than a glib identi-kit summary. The seriousness
and commitment that an artist may feel toward their own compositions, or
to creativity in broader terms, sits uncomfortably in a context of reflexive
cynicism. Truly innovative work, perhaps by definition, defies easy classification
and predetermined marketing niches. Of course, obviousness and immediacy
may be the aims and aspirations of neither artist nor listener, and some
measure of effort and attention may be required before the work unfolds
As the scale, expense and complexity
of the music industry have increased by orders of magnitude, cynical assumptions
and failures of imagination have hardened into habit, coinciding with the
emergence of an orthodox commercial blueprint. The sheer cost of launching
a new artist into the popular arena now dictates a shifting of priority
away from exploratory innocence and artistic autonomy toward a more self-conscious
calculation. The ascendancy of market research and the near-ubiquity of
focus groups define a climate of trepidation and second-guessing audience
appetites based purely on what has gone before. Artistic decisions are
thereby ultimately surrendered to the audience, a manoeuvre that confines
creativity to its own history and presumes art and show-business as entirely
indistinguishable concerns. The role of the contemporary A&R manager
can, and often does, serve to undermine the artist, diminishing their participation
to that of a convenient brand name or face.
Few A&R managers appear to entertain
the possibility that the listener might listen precisely because they don't
know what possibilities exist, and the musician's value is precisely as
an expert and guide through unfamiliar terrain. The idea that music might
be written independently of audience expectation and still prove to be
enormously popular has been largely abandoned, replaced by music that is
specifically designed to be popular. The principles of this careful engineering
are far from esoteric: Ask nothing. Give nothing. Offend no-one. We are
evidently expected to accept a new down-sized definition of artistic endeavour,
defined purely in functional terms of tactical calculation and rudimentary
problem solving. Dissent from this terminal orthodoxy is commonly viewed
as a Copernican heresy and the heretic is likely to be labelled as elitist,
quixotic or simply deranged. The poignant and ineffable connection that
music can make possible, often without warning or invitation, is, however,
an intangible quality and is therefore enormously difficult to quantify
or formulate. The value of music as meaningful and important is now all
too easily excluded from the very process it has made possible.
The vast media array of laissez
faire capitalism seems absorbed by this new economic fundamentalism, fixated
by surfaces, untroubled by the poverty of intimacy and substance, and indifferent
to the consequences that seem likely to follow. One of the prominent features
of this economic ideology is a tendency toward a pantomime of dubious egalitarianism.
Curiously, the more overtly commercial the publication, the more aggressively
this selective view of democracy holds sway. Significantly, the advertised
democracy is expressed as an inflexible and unquestioned devotion to feeding
appetites of the lowest common denominator. The over-riding tenet of faith
being: "Aim low, sell cheap". Any acknowledgement of the role of a diverse
and well-informed debate as a vital component of democracy is conspicuously
difficult to detect.
Perhaps this is merely a symptom
of some wider malaise. The immediate advantage of capitalism over the ideologies
it has largely replaced has been the diversification and choice it can
facilitate. Perversely, the current economic climate, which amounts to
a predatory struggle for distribution space and market share, shows alarming
signs of reversing this trend toward diversity in many areas of cultural
life. As corporate assimilations increase and global oligarchies form,
the gravitational effects of capital have become pronounced and unavoidable.
Money attracts money, and the bigger the available budget, the more of
other people's money tends to accrete. In the industries of music, film,
television and literature, an increasing proportion of financial and promotional
resource is being diverted to a handful of seasonal do-or-die blockbusters,
whether in the form of albums, movies or popular novels. The television
programme "Seinfeld" apparently amounted to no less than 40% of the NBC
network's profits for 1997. The success of this strategy depends heavily
on the occupation of all possible space within the media and distribution
systems. The underlying aim is simply to obscure and exclude any evidence
of alternatives. If the latest remake of "Godzilla" is shown across two
or three screens in every major American multiplex, the movie may do very
well indeed, but the freedom to choose one's viewing is clearly, and deliberately,
In a recent ECM catalogue, Manfred
Eicher, director of the acclaimed Munich label, asked "How can serious
music get a hearing in the absence of any substantial critical debate?"
The ongoing shrivelling of journalistic expectation threatens not only
the future of musical diversity and the risk-taking inherent to innovation,
but also calls into question the honesty of any residual discourse that
may survive. If the creation, criticism and circulation of music is ultimately
to be shaved down to a series of swift financial transactions and nothing
more, can the printed opinions of any writer be taken at face value? With
fewer spaces allowed for reflective pauses and open-ended questioning,
will the music journalist be expected to function primarily as a partisan
lobbyist, another extension of the PR machine? Will the potential for a
boot-strapping symbiosis between artist and critic--in which a mutual honesty
is essential to any development of the work in question--become entirely
'The New Labour project has always
been defined in an Anglo-American context.' 1
Gordon Brown used to tell interviewers
that he spent his summer holidays in the library at Harvard University.
In 1986, CND member Tony Blair went on one of those US-sponsored trips
to America that are available for promising MPs and came back a supporter
of the nuclear deterrent.2
Blair, Brown and John Monks, an important Blair ally as head of the TUC,
have all attended meetings of the Bilderberg group, one of the meeting
places of the European-American trans-national elite.3
David Miliband, Blair's head of policy, did a Masters degree at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology.4
Jonathan Powell, Blair's foreign policy adviser, is a former Foreign Office
official whose previous posting was in the British Embassy in Washington.5
Edward Balls, Gordon Brown's economics adviser, studied at Harvard, wrote
editorials for the Financial Times, and was about to join the World Bank
before he joined Brown.6
His wife, 1997 MP Yvette Cooper, also studied at Harvard. Sue Nye, Gordon
Brown's personal assistant, lives with Gavyn Davies, chief economist with
the American bankers, Goldman Sachs, and one of Labour's chief economic
advisers.7 Majorie Mowlam,
now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, did a PhD at the University
of Iowa and then taught in the United States in the 1970s.8
Chris Smith, now Heritage Minister, was a Kennedy Scholar in the USA --
as were David Miliband and Ed Balls.9
And then there's Peter Mandelson,
Blair's confidant, chief strategist and, as this was being written, Minister
without Portfolio. By the end of his final year at Oxford University in
1976, via the United Nations Association, Mandelson had become Chair of
British Youth Council.10
The British Youth Council began as the British section of the World Assembly
of Youth (WAY), which was set up and financed by the CIA and SIS in the
early 1950s to combat the Soviet Union's youth fronts.11
By Mandelson's time in the mid-1970s -- under a Labour Government -- the
British Youth Council was said to be financed by the Foreign Office, though
that may have been a euphemism for SIS. Peter Mandelson, we were told in
1995 by Donald McIntyre in the Independent, is 'a pillar of the two blue-chip
foreign affairs think-tanks, Ditchley Park and Chatham House.'12
Peter Mandelson, Majorie Mowlam,
Defence Minister George Robertson, Heritage Minister Chris Smith, and junior
Foreign Office Minister in the House of Lords, Elizabeth Symons, are all
members of the British-American Project for a Successor Generation (BAP),
the latest in the long line of American-funded networks which promote American
interests among the British political elite.13
The BAP newsletter for June/July 1997 headlined its account of the May
1997 General Election, 'Big Swing to BAP'.
An older and more direct expression
of American influence within the wider British labour movement is the Trade
Union Committee for European and Transatlantic Understanding (TUCETU).
TUCETU is the successor to the Labour Committee for Transatlantic Understanding
(LCTU), which was set up in 1976 by the late Joe Godson, Labour Attaché
at the US embassy in London in the 1950s who had become an intimate of
the then leader of the party, Hugh Gaitskell. Organised by two officials
of the NATO-sponsored Atlantic Council, TUCETU incorporates Peace Through
NATO, the group central to Michael Heseltine's MoD campaign against CND
in the early 1980s, and receives over £100,000 a year from the Foreign
Office. TUCETU chair Alan Lee Williams was a Labour defence minister in
the Callaghan Government, before he defected to the SDP; director Peter
Robinson runs the National Union of Teachers' education centre at Stoke
Rochford near Grantham. In the mid-1980s Williams and Robinson were members
of the European policy group of the Washington Centre for Strategic and
Among the senior union and Labour
Party figures on the TUCETU's 1995 notepaper were Doug McAvoy, general
secretary of the National Union of Teachers; CPSA general secretary Barry
Reamsbottom (a member of the Successor Generation Project discussed above)
and president Marion Chambers; Lord Richard, Labour leader in the House
of Lords; former trade union leaders Bill Jordan (now head of the International
Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the CIA's chief cold war labour movement
operation),14 Lord (Eric)
Hammond, and Lord (Frank) Chapple.15
The Atlantic Council/TUCETU network
provided New Labour's Ministry of Defence team. Defence Secretary George
Robertson was a member of the Council of the Atlantic Committee from 1979-90;
Lord Gilbert, Minister of State for Defence Procurement, is listed as TUCETU
vice chair; Dr John Reid, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, spoke
at a TUCETU conference; and MoD press office biographical notes on junior
Defence Minister John Speller state that he 'has been a long standing member
of the Trade Union Committee for European and Transatlantic Understanding'.
Peter Mandelson has written a (very dull) pamphlet for TUCETU based on
a speech he gave to its 1996 conference.
In other words, the people round
Blair, the key New Labour 'project' personnel, are all linked to the United
States, or the British foreign policy establishment, whose chief aim, since
the end of the Second World War, has been to preserve the Anglo-American
'special relationship' to compensate for long-term economic decline.
'We asked the Americans...'
Mr Blair has been quite open about
the US role in all this. To the annual conference of Rupert Murdoch's News
Corp he said:
'...the Americans have made it clear
they want a special relationship with Europe, not with Britain alone. If
we are to be listened to seriously in Washington or Tokyo, or the Pacific,
we will often be acting with the rest of Europe...the Labour Government
I hope to lead will be outward-looking, internationalist and committed
to free and open trade, not an outdated and misguided narrow nationalism.'16
It could hardly be more specific:
we asked the Americans and they said go with Europe and free trade. In
other words, go with traditional, post-war American foreign policy objectives;
and, since the mid-1960s, the objectives of the British overseas lobby.
Put another way: thanks to the massive exportation of British capital which
began during the Thatcher years, British-based capital has the largest
overseas investments after America, and we will continue to support American
political and military hegemony as the best protection for those interests.
This is being 'outward-looking' -- looking beyond Britain to where British
capital has gone.
But British economic policy being
'outward-looking, internationalist and committed to free and open trade',
in Blair's words, is precisely the problem from which non-metropolitan
Britain has suffered for most of this century. These are the values of
the overseas lobby, the Home Counties financial elite, people for whom
Hull or Norwich, let alone Glasgow and Cardiff, are far away places about
which they know nothing -- and care about as much.
The analysis of the Gould group
-- and that of the many other similar analyses which preceded it -- implied
that Labour, if it sought acceptability from British capitalism, should
look to the domestic economy, to a more radical version of the producers'
alliance attempted by the governments of Wilson, Callaghan and Heath. But
John Smith and Majorie Mowlam did not embark on a tour of the regional
offices of the CBI, or the Chambers of Commerce of the British cities.
They headed for the Square Mile. The Blairites, following the lead of John
Smith, have become the party of the City, the big trans-national corporations
and the Foreign Office -- the overseas lobby. They have become the party
of the Europe Union -- British membership of which is still supported by
a majority of the overseas lobby in Britain.17
This shift explains the enthusiasm for the Blair faction expressed by the
London establishment -- the Foreign Office, the higher media and the EU-oriented
section of British capital -- in the run-up to the General Election of 1997.
Labour under the Blair faction was a more reliable bet for continued EU
membership than the Conservative Party with its vociferous Euro-sceptic
wing.18 And with this
shift to an overseas orientation, comes the concomitant position that Labour's
traditional constituency -- so-called Old Labour -- the domestic economy,
especially manufacturing and the public sector, becomes merely a collection
of special interest groups to be taken for granted, conned, betrayed or
The problem becomes the solution
The key move was to see the City
-- the overseas lobby -- and the asset-stripping of the domestic economy,
which began in the 1980s, not as the problem but as the solution. This
shift can be illustrated by two quotations. The first is from the Labour
Party policy document, Meet the Challenge Make the Change: A new agenda
for Britain, the final report of Labour's Policy Review for the 1990s,
published in 1989. The sub-section Finance for Industry (p. 13), began:
'Under-investment is the most obvious
symptom of short-termism in our economic affairs, yet there is no shortage
of funds for investment purposes. The problem lies in the criteria by which
the City judges investment opportunities. If short-termism is the disease,
then it is the City which is the source of the infection.'
This section is a rewrite by what
Austin Mitchell MP called 'the leadership'19
of a section of the document written by the committee chaired by Bryan
Gould. The original Gould committee version had stated, inter alia :
'The concentration of power and
wealth in the City of London is the major cause of Britain's economic problems';
and that Britain's economic policy had for too long 'been dominated by
City values and run in the interests of those who hold assets rather than
those who produce.'20
Seven years later in their The Blair
Revolution, Peter Mandelson and co-author Roger Liddle, now Tony Blair's
adviser on Europe, said of Britain in the 1990s:
'Britain can boast of some notable
economic strengths -- for example, the resilience and high internationalisation
of our top companies, our strong industries like pharmaceuticals, aerospace,
retailing and media; the pre-eminence of the City of London.'21
Not only has the City ceased to
be the problem it was perceived to be nine years before, Mandelson and
Riddle have internalised the values of the overseas sector of the economy,
of which the City is the core. Not only is the 'high internationalisation'
of our top companies an 'economic strength', we now have a retailing 'industry'
and media 'industry'.
The prospect of North Sea oil revenues
had begun to persuade members of the overseas lobby that they could, perhaps,
abandon what they saw as the troublesome, union-ridden, manufacturing sector
of the economy. In 1978, we learn from Frank Blackaby, that a 'senior Treasury
official' had commented, 'Perhaps we can either have North Sea oil or manufacturing
industry, but not both.'22
On 3 July 1980, Samuel Brittan, who was then the leading economic commentator
on the right of British politics, published an article in the Financial
Times headed, 'Deindustrialisation is good for the UK.'
The former Thatcher Minister, the
late Nicholas Ridley, wrote in his memoir:
'I do not think it is a disaster
if we become an economy based primarily on the service sector. It isn't
vital, as socialists seem to think, that we have a large manufacturing
sector. They seem to think this mainly because Britain's old manufacturing
industries used to be the basis of their political support.'23
The former Conservative Minister,
Cecil Parkinson, one of Mrs Thatcher's Ministers at the Department of Trade
and Industry, wrote in his memoir:
'Trade [i.e. Ministry for Trade
at the DTI] traditionally took the view that it was the custodian of GATT
and upholder of the open market wherever possible. It tried to ensure that
we acted within the rules of GATT and was sometimes regarded as almost
unpatriotic when it argued the case that just because other people's imports
were unwelcome this was not necessarily unfair.'24
Whereas a domestically-oriented
Department of Trade might see its role as promoting British exports, defining
its role as the 'the upholder of the open market' is as clear an expression
of the overseas lobby's views as can be imagined.
As the Thatcher regime accelerated
the deindustrialisation of Britain, this was rationalised in and around
the City of London and by some of its spokespersons in the Tory Party,
notably Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, with the belief that
financial and other services would replace manufacturing industry: we were
moving to a post-industrial society, such as...... Switzerland?25
During John Major's period as Prime
Minister, Edward Pearce wrote:
'I have been told by a Treasury
knight that though very fond of Mr Major, he worried a little at his anxiety
about manufacturers. "He wasn't very happy with the analogies we made about
Switzerland, so prosperous entirely from service industries, so it was
necessary to let him make friendly things (sic) to the manufacturing people."'
Pearce is telling us that one of
the most senior civil servants at the Treasury, and by implication -- the
use of 'we' -- perhaps several or all of them, had decided that Britain
should pursue a policy of abandoning its manufacturing base altogether.27
One of Gordon Brown's appointments
to the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, the American economist
DeAnne Julius, was the co-author of an essay which argued that it would
be a mistake for Western governments to try and hang on to their manufacturing
base and that they should concentrate on service industries.28
(And according to William Keegan in the Observer 15 February 1998, Ms Julius
is 'widely considered to be the closest the MPC [Monetary Policy Committee]
has to someone in touch with industry'! )
Such attitudes are now openly expressed
in the financial media. Gavyn Davies is perhaps Labour's most important
economic advisor. He lives with Gordon Brown's office manager, Sue Nye,
and is the chief economist for the US bank Goldman Sachs. Immediately after
the Labour election victory in 1997 he dismissed concern about the damage
the rising pound was doing to British exporters, with the comment that
'the health of the one sector of the economy which is directly affected
by the exchange rate [i.e. domestic manufacturing] cannot take precedence
over the maintenance of the inflation target.'29
(Davies' implied claim that the City is not 'directly affected by the exchange
rate' is an extraordinary lie or self-delusion. The higher it is the more
money the City makes.) By early 1998 Davies' response had become the standard
reply to all complaints about the value of sterling.
The same line was offered in the
Daily Telegraph in 1998 in an article whose title, 'Metal bashers shut
up shop and do the nation a service', echoed that of Samuel Brittan's 'De-industrialisation
is good for Britain' nearly twenty years before:
'Sympathy for manufacturers is no
basis for economic policy...the plain fact is that manufacturing will go
on shrinking, and the more prosperous we become, the faster it will decline...interest
rates may be relatively high, but setting them in order to succour manufacturing
will only succeed in feeding inflation.' 30
With these attitudes comes the extension
of the term 'industry' to encompass any kind of economic activity. We now
have 'service industries', 'financial industries', 'leisure industries',
'the sports industry', 'the tourism industry', 'the gambling industry',
'the sex industry' etc etc. It does not matter if the manufacture of products
in Britain declines: they will continue to be replaced by financial 'products',
holiday 'products', leisure 'products' and so forth. (As yet I haven't
noticed welfare 'products' but they cannot be far off now.)
New Labour's economic policy makes
no distinction between the City and domestic manufacturing. But policies
which suit the domestic economy -- cheap money, expansion, controls on the
uses of money and credit; planning, consistent demand in the economy --
do not suit the City which wants expensive money (sorry: 'competitive interest
rates') and freedom from controls (sorry: 'self regulation'). This used
to be understood by the Labour Party and was the basis of party economic
policy until the mid 1980s.31
New Labour still occasionally recognises
that there is something called the domestic manufacturing economy, and
as the value of sterling rose throughout the first year of New Labour's
first term in government with the steady dose of increase rate rises imposed
by the newly independent Bank of England, government spokespersons initially
watched from the wings and made ritual noises of sympathy and regret --
what the unnamed Treasury official quoted above called 'making friendly
things to the manufacturing people.'
* 'Mr Brown...is concerned that
sterling's 20% appreciation over the past 12 months will damage industry
by making exports more expensive.'32
* Helen Liddell, Economic Secretary
to the Treasury: 'We share the concern about the impact the pound has on
* President of the Board of Trade,
Margaret Beckett: 'The Government values the manufacturing base of this
country and shares its belief in the benefits of a stable and competitive
But three months later Mrs Beckett
told the annual dinner of the Engineering Employers' Federation that the
government 'has to take a view of across the whole economy, not just a
part, even as important a part as manufacturing' -- the line offered by
Gavyn Davies, quoted above.35
A fatal inversion?
British politics has been stood
on its head. The Conservative Party, traditionally the party of financial
and overseas interests, has been replaced in that role by Labour. Instructed
by its new friends in the City, Labour has become the party of financial,
pre-Keynesian, orthodoxy. Gordon Brown looks determined to re-enact the
role of Philip Snowden in 1931--the perfect Labour Party front man for the
interests of the overseas lobby. The last three years of the Major regime
saw Chancellor Kenneth Clarke running the kind of orthodox demand management
policy -- increasing government deficits in response to the recession --
which Labour, under Wilson or Callaghan, would have run, but which is anathema
to 'Iron Chancellor' Brown. On becoming Chancellor, virtually his first
action was to make the Bank of England independent; and the Bank of England
said, 'Thanks very much' and began putting interest rates up, despite the
pound being too high for the domestic manufacturing economy. The first
year of New Labour's term of office produced a stream of newspaper stories
complaining of the damage being done to British manufacturing by the strength
of sterling identical to those which appeared in the first years of Mrs
Thatcher's Government -- and for the same reason: interest rates were being
put up.36 Once again,
just as in the first years of the Thatcher regime, the exchange rate for
sterling was not a consideration.
Gordon Brown gave up the state's
influence on the Bank of England, as far as we can tell, in the belief
that independent central banks have a better record on preventing inflation
than those under political control.37
Which is another way of saying that, without prioritising the effects on
the domestic economy, central banks can be relied on to put interest rates
up. Gordon Brown acts as though he's got the equivalent of economic amnesia,
and cannot remember anything that happened before 1997. How else can we
explain his determination to try to 'control' inflation using only interest
rates -- what Edward Heath used to dismiss as 'one club golf' -- and ignoring
the large range of other economic tools which were used, in the days before
We are powerless
'New Labour' believes -- but is unwilling
to state in so many words -- that governments can do nothing against the
power of trans-national finance. This belief has become the acid test for
'New Labour'. In the Commons debate on the Nick Leeson-Barings debacle
on 27 February 1996, it was Sir Peter Tapsell, a High Tory stockbroker,
not Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown or Labour's City spokesman Alastair
Darling, who declared that the derivatives market was 'so speculative in
nature as to deserve the term gambling and perhaps should be banned in
international law.' Gordon Brown meekly echoed Chancellor of the Exchequer
Kenneth Clarke and called for an inquiry. In a letter to me on the subject
of Tapsell's remarks on derivatives, Alastair Darling, now Chief Secretary
to the Treasury, made the following assertions:
'It is not possible to ban derivatives.
They have been about for 200 or 300 years. Properly controlled and supervised
there nothing per se wrong with them. The fault lies in the control systems.
In any event, I trust that you will accept that it would be impossible
for one country to ban the trade even if it was desirable. The trade would
need to be banned throughout the world.'
To the implicit question, 'Why not
do something about this?' Darling replied:
It cannot be done. (So do nothing.)
In any case, there is nothing wrong
(So do nothing.)
Even if there was, and you wanted
to ban them, it would have to be done world-wide. (So do nothing.)
The financial sector's interest in
not being controlled by government has been universalised into the beliefs
that not only is it impossible to impose such control, it is positively
a bad thing to try. (The market is magic.) In an article in The Times,
Peter Riddell said what the politicians never quite dare to say: 'Politicians
know that real power lies with global business'. But where is the evidence
to support this belief? Where is the evidence to support the view that
the nation state can no longer manage its own economy? When you ask you
usually get told of the 'French failure' in 1983, when the Mitterand Government
tried to expand the economy in a pretty traditional demand management fashion
-- while trying to remain a member of the European Monetary System. But
as an example of the impossibility of demand management in one economy,
this example fails. Just as Heath did in 1972 with his expansion, the French
government reached the point where they either floated the currency as
the trade balance went into deficit, or abandoned the expansion. Pursuit
of the geo-political competition with Germany inside the then EEC, the
so-called 'franc fort' policy, proved more important, and the French government
abandoned the expansion.38
Thus, it is believed on all sides, did 'Keynesianism in one country' die.
But even the most lumpen accounts of demand management economics acknowledge
that it may be necessary to abandon attempts to maintain fixed parities
if growth is pursued. (The real mystery of the French expansion in 1983
is how they thought they thought they could have expansion and 'franc fort'.)
But while the French failure looms
large in the we-are-powerless Labour modernising mind, the experience of
Britain leaving the ERM in 1992, does not. Yet what happened in 1992 when
Britain was forced out of the ERM in 1992 by these 'global forces' we are
supposed to fear so much? Dire consequences were predicted if the pound
left the ERM, notably a massive increase in inflation. (Being in the ERM
was claimed to be a guaranteed anti-inflation measure by both Labour and
Conservative economics spokespersons.) The world's currency dealers concluded
that, at D-mark 2.95, the pound was seriously overvalued -- a view shared
by a wide section of British economists and, we are led to believe, despite
their silence on the subject at the time, the Labour Shadow Cabinet.39
The Conservative Government tried to defend an unrealistic exchange rate
by the usual means -- giving the Bank of England's reserves away to speculators
-- and then recognised defeat. The value of sterling fell, and none of the
predictions of economic disaster turned out to be true. Inflation did not
shoot up; domestic production expanded with the more competitive pound,
exports expanded and unemployment fell. In direct refutation of everything
Labour's economics spokespersons apparently believed, the relatively good
economic position inherited by the Blair government in 1997 is a direct
consequence of the British economy leaving the ERM.
In the Independent on Sunday of
15 January 1996, Alastair Darling, now Treasury Minister, was quoted as
saying, 'It is not up to the government to say that the banks can only
make so much profit.' It certainly used to be 'up to the government': even
Geoffrey Howe imposed a windfall tax on the banks in 1981; but that was
back in those far-off days before the Government handed power to set interest
rates, perhaps the most powerful single economic tool and the surest means
of regulating how much banks earn, to the people who stand to gain by putting
them up! Just before the 1997 General Election Roy Hattersley wrote in
his Guardian column of meeting one of the then Labour shadow economics
team, who told him that in the new global economy it was not possible for
a government to increase taxes.40
On his visit to the beleaguered
Bill Clinton in February 1998, Tony Blair told Guardian journalist and
long-time Blair ally, Martin Kettle, of the 'five clear principles of the
centre-left'. The first of these was:
'...stable management and economic
prudence because of the global economy.'41
The acid test for Labour 'modernisers'
has become how completely you accept the powerlessness thesis. The line
sounds immediately plausible to those, like New Labour economics spokespersons,
with little economic knowledge: it is what they keep reading in the newspapers
and being told by their advisers from the City. The powerlessness thesis
also has the advantage of being a popular line with Labour supporters of
the European Union who can argue, as the Labour Party has done since it
became Euro-enthusiasts, that we need Europe to control capital ('the speculators').
A decade ago Gordon Brown et al. believed that British membership of the
ERM would do it; when that failed they concluded that only a single currency
would do it. But the propositions that nation states are powerless against
capital movements, or that the free market model is the only one possible
(or successful) are immediately falsified by the experience of Norway,
and the Asian variants on corporatist, producer alliance, restrictive,
trade barrier and exchange control-laden, nationalist economies of the
Far East. These so-called 'tiger' economies had developed and grown in
defiance of Anglo-American free market theories.42
Why have New Labour adopted the
powerlessness thesis? In part, it is simply that they are in the grip of
theories; and like most people in the grip of theories they exclude information
which might challenge them. The theories are reinforced by the fact that
they are those currently approved of by their mentors in the United States
and the British overseas lobby. In so far as alternative views are perceived,
they are offered by people who for one reason or another, are regarded
by New Labour as either discredited, such as the Labour Left, or beyond
the pale, such as the Tory Europhobes. Thirdly, and most importantly, New
Labour politicians like the belief that they are powerless against the
world's financial markets. Powerless as they are, a range of things that
Labour leaders used to have try to deliver -- growth, economic justice,
redistribution -- have ceased to be rational expectations of them. Nothing
can be done short of the European-wide level; and maybe not even then.43
Life is infinitely easier for Labour economic ministers when all they have
to do is follow the City's line.
1 Martin Kettle, the Guardian 3
2 The Observer 14 April 1996. This
visit is missing from John Rentouls's biography of Blair, Tony Blair, (Little
Brown, London, 1995).
3 Gordon Brown, with the late John
Smith, attended the 1991 meeting at Baden-Baden. (This is not included
in his 1998 biography by Paul Routledge.) The full list of those attending
was published in the US magazine The Spotlight 22 July 1991. This article
with others from the same source on the Bilderberg group and Trilateral
Commission can be found on the Net at http://www.real.net.au/insurge/politics/global_power/nword.htm/
The Spotlight is undoubtedly a racist magazine. Nonetheless it is the only
magazine which consistently prints articles about trans-national forums
like Bilderberg and Trilateral. Monks attended the meeting in 1996. The
list of those attending the 1996 meeting was published in Canada and then
put up on the Net. Tony Blair's Bilderberg meeting is in his Parliamentary
declaration of interests.
4 The Guardian 3 October 1994
5 Ken Coates and Michael Barett
Brown suggest in their book The Blair Revelation (Spokesman, Nottingham,
1996) that Powell's job in the British embassy in Washington concealed
a role as the liaison officer between British intelligence and the CIA,
but they have no evidence. Powell's career summary as given in The Diplomatic
Service List for 1995 contains nothing from which to directly infer an
intelligence role. He was born in 1956 and joined the FCO (Foreign and
Commonwealth Office) in 1979. Since then he was Third later Second Secretary
in Lisbon, 1981; Second later First Secretary at the FCO, London; UK delegate
to CDE Stockholm 1986; UK delegate at the CSCE in Vienna 1986; First Secretary
FCO, London 1989; then First Secretary (Chancery) Washington 1991.
6 The Guardian 3 October 1994. Balls
was profiled in the Guardian (G2) 16 March 1998.
7 The Sunday Telegraph 24 March
1996. Davies was an adviser to the Callaghan Government as a member of
the Downing Street Policy Unit, headed by (now Sir) Bernard Donoghue. He
was included in the party which visited President Clinton in early 1998.
8 Who's Who 1992
9 Peter Hennessy, 'The View from
Here', in the Independent (Education) 1 May 1997
10 Mandelson 'flunked first year
exams because he was spending all his time working as president of the
United Nations Association's youth and student branch.' Independent 1 July
11 On WAY see the scattering of
references in Joel Kotek's Students and the Cold War, (Macmillan, London
1996), Joseph B. Smith, Portrait of a Cold Warrior, (Ballantine, New York
1981) and Jonathan Bloch and Patrick Fitzgerald, British Intelligence and
Covert Action, (Junction, London 1983).
12 The Independent 29 July 1995.
McIntyre is reported (1998) to be writing a biography of Mandelson.
13 See Tom Easton's 'The British
American Project for the Successor Generation', in Lobster 33.
14 On which see, for example 'The
AFL-CIA' in Frazier (ed.) and Peter E. Newell, 'The International Centre
of Free Trade Unionists in Exile' in Lobster 31.
15 These paragraphs on TUCETU are
taken from David Osler's 'American and Tory Intervention in the British
Unions since the 1970's' in Lobster 33.
16 The Times 17 July 1995.
17 The non-EU section of overseas
UK capital, located chiefly in the US, the Commonwealth and the Republic
of South Africa, is less enthusiastic about EU membership. Their views
are expressed most clearly in the Sunday Telegraph.
18 An unnamed 'businessman close
to the Labour leadership' said in the Observer (Business)13 April 1997,
p. 5: 'The big companies - the ones who do the most trading with Europe
- are really worried about the xenophobe right.'
19 See his review of Defeat from
the Jaws of Victory: Inside Kinnock's Labour Party by Heffernan and Maquesee,
in the Guardian 15 December 1992.
20 Cited in Eric Shaw's 'The Evolution
of Labour's Campaign Strategy 1987-91: some Preliminary Notes and Comments',
a paper presented at the Conference of the Political Studies Association,
Queen's University, Belfast 7-9 April 1992. Thanks to John Booth for this.
21 Faber and Faber, 1996, p. 12
22 Frank Blackaby, 'Exchange Rate
Policy and Economic Strategy' in Three Banks Review, June 1980.
23 Ridley p. 71
24 Parkinson pp. 238 and 9
25 In the 1000 plus pages of Nigel
Lawson's memoir, there are only four indexed references to the manufacturing
sector, in the last of which he comments that if North Sea oil has 'crowded
out' manufacturing, then as North Sea oil declines, it will spontaneously
'crowd back in'. See p. 196.
26 Guardian 8 January 1992
27 The 'Treasury knights' are the
Permanent Secretaries. I asked Pearce who he was quoting but while he did
not identify the Treasury official, he commented: 'I'm pretty sure that
factory-despising attitudes are common in the Treasury though not universal.'
Letter to author 14 January 1992.
28 See Nick Cohen's 'Why is CIA
ex-agent setting our interest rates?' in The Observer 19 October 1997.
Ms Julius, now with British Airways, worked as an analyst for the CIA.
29 The Independent 12 May 1997
30 7 February 1998
31 See for example Neil Kinnock's
Making Our Way (Blackwell, 1986)
32 Guardian 7 July 1997
33 Guardian 11 July 1997
34 Guardian 5 December 1997
35 Guardian 18 February 1998. She
repeated this central 'line' in an exchange of letters with Austin Mitchell
MP. See Larry Elliot, the Guardian 9 March 1998.
36 See, for example, the leader
'Manufacturing a recession' in the Guardian 20 January 1998.
37 See, for example, the arguments
by Labour economics adviser Gavyn Davies, in The Independent 12 May 1997,
and the replies in the Letters on 14 May.
38 On this see Seamus Milne, 'A
French lesson for the left' in Tribune 26 March 1993.
39 Neil Kinnock's assistant at the
time, Neil Stewart, commented that the reason Kinnock did not express his
belief that pound was over-valued was, 'It's a dickhead says it before
the Tories.' Rintoul p. 267.
40 Hattersley declined to tell me
the name of this person. My guess? Alastair Darling. This was an echo of
Tony Blair's 1996 comment in Japan that, 'We also recognise that in a global
economy..... our tax rates need to be internationally as well as nationally
competitive.' Blair p. 123
41 Guardian 7 February 1998.
42 This was written just before
the 1998 collapse of the so-called Asian 'tiger' economies. As far as I
can see the collapse is chiefly the result of those economies reducing
the restrictions which used to exist, in pursuit of the western free market
model, thus encouraging speculation (aka 'investment') by their domestic
and Euro-American financial sectors - with the usual disastrous results.
On Norway see Larry Elliot in the Guardian 6 April 1998.
43 General Secretary of the TUC,
John Monks, called in 1996 for 'world works councils for each major international
company', Guardian 31 January 1996. International capitalism did not noticeably
tremble at this absurd prospect. Against the globalisation-nation-state-is-powerless
thesis, see for example Martin Wolf 'Far From Powerless' in the Financial
Times 13 May 1997; 'Grand National idea produces winners', Larry Ellliot,
the Guardian 20 October 1997, 'Don't be fooled: multinationals do not rule
the world', Independent on Sunday 12 January 1997 and 'Globaloney', Paul
Hirst in Prospect February 1996.
Tales of the
This is me just getting in. Honest
to God, this has been me since yesterday, that's, what, oh my good god,
twenty-eight hours? No, no way, aye, that's right enough, can you believe
that? Honest to God, I'm pure like that so I am. What? Eh, I shouldn't
really, ach I might as well then, aye, well, make it a double, and give
us a can of that bulls balls or whatever it is, what? Aye, red balls then,
that's it, ach, red balls, big balls, bulls balls, bulls eyes, who cares,
you know what I mean anyway, so one of them and two of the other and that'll
be fine. Honest to god, I'm pure like that so I am--Cheers doll.
Jesus that's good.
Aye, so that was us last night,
that bowling club, right, mind? So it was the usual right, I calls Eddie
for the cars and we get dropped off about nine or something, just round
the corner by the shops, you know where I am, there's that late co-op right,
so out we get and there's all the girls, about ten of us or something,
Julie, Shell, Wee Mags, Assumpta, Kelly, Diane, the two Kylies, most of
the girls turned up, only Queenie couldn't make it with her man being in
with his legs, aye, they're away on him again, so we're already charged
up a wee bit you know, just a couple down at mine before we left but we
were alright, and we get out and start giving it laldy going along that
big hedge outside the club right, and it was a laugh so it was, and we
finished off what we had and planked the bottles in the hedge cos you know
what it's like now with having bev in the streets and that, but we ditched
them and starts up the path into the club right, and this wee thing comes
out of the club right, I mean, he was no bigger than my Tam right, honest
to god he was up to there right, and he's a sort of janny or security guy
right, he's got this wee uniform on right, and he starts giving it these
are private premises and all that shite and I was pure like that right
away I was just going to give him one but Wee Mags gets him first right,
and honest to god it was a pure laugh so it was cos she just pure grabbed
his tie and yanked it like that and you could hear him panicking and she's
like that, if you don't get out of my face I'm going to tear the nuts off
you right, and he's pure like that, honest to god, so she lets him go and
he pure runs inside. So we get nearer and you know how it's like off the
road a wee bit so when you get away from the street it's a bit weird cos
it gets sort of dark like maybe you're in the country or something, and
you can see the big lounge bit where the band's on and they're playing
crystal chandeliers I think it was, and Wee Mags starts joining in and
the two Kylies were going pure mental so they were, and we all got back
on the pots and that and it was a pure racket man, honest, and then you
can see them sort of coming up to the window and that but by this time
it's too late for them to stop us so we're in the door and there's not
even anyone at the reception bit, like the wee janny guy, I suppose that's
his patch but he was just pure vanished you know, offsky, so in we go and
you should see their faces I mean, honest to god they're all pure like
that. So Shell's got the potty right, and she's doing the bride bit, all
shy and all that eh, I mean, come on, Shelly shy eh? I know, I was gutting
myself. But we start getting into it right, and the band just pure grinds
to a halt you know, they're just started doing that one, that sultans of
swing right, and it must've been with us banging on the pans and that put
them off cos they pure lost the rhythm and this guy that's singing gets
really mad with the guitarist and starts giving him pelters so that makes
us shout and bang more you know, so the whole place is a pure uproar and
I dumps the potty on the deck in the middle of the dance floor, like it's
not that big a floor but it's pure cleared you know, and we're all giving
it yooha about the potty and Shell's sitting there and she drags out a
sneaky wee quarter bottle from her dress and starts getting into that.
Honest to god, I was like that so I was.
Aye, might as well doll. No, I've
still got some left here. Another double then. You know how to charm a
lady so you do by the way.
So you can see these old things
all giving it oh dear what a palaver and all that, and pure panic stations
so it is, and this one comes over, I'll tell you who she is, you know him
that was done for the expenses thing at the council, aye him, the furniture
and all that, well this is his missus right and she's a right bruiser by
the way, looks like Jocky Wilson, remember him? My cousin almost got off
with him once. Anyway, she comes over and she's pure like that so she is,
all veins and all that pure red, and she's like do you mind, this is a
private club, and she's giving it pure eyeball right, growling at me, and
I don't take that right, I just do not take that, so I was like that, boosh,
just like that, pure cracker and down she goes and somebody shouts out
and they all come ahead and it was a pure barney honest to god, all these
things with frocks on and those shitey dummy pearl necklaces and all that
and it was about two minutes we're all rolling about and what a tanking
we gave them right, so eventually they sort of group and back off a bit
so we've still got the floor. Thing is right, we've still not got a penny,
so I'm like that, where's the men? and the girls start giving it like this
mad war chant or something, where's your men? where's your men? and we
head off for the bogs cos you know that's where they'll be right, so we
find the bogs and it's like honest to god the door was pure shut tight
but it's not like one with a lock on it it's them inside trying to keep
us out so we're like that, all against it giving it pure heave and the
door opens a wee bit and you can hear them shouting at each other and all
that but eventually they give in and the door flies open and we all dive
in and honest to god there's like about twenty five guys crammed into this
wee bog all giving it pure climbing over each other and all that trying
to get away so we piles in and I was like that, right lads, who's first
for a kiss for the bride and they all go like pure mad, all trying to get
through this wee window up on the wall, so I starts flinging them back
out and the girls get them in the corridor and Shell's got the potty and
we started getting through them good style, and it was all paper going
in there, a good few tenners and loads of fivers, no shrapnel at all right,
they were glad to get away so they were, and you could hear the sirens
coming so we speeded up and Wee Mags helped me get out the one that was
stuck in the window and we gets back into the hall. So there's all the
wifes up at the bar giving it a big conference about what's going on and
trying to make ice packs and all that and the big one that I clocked, she's
sitting with her head between her knees right, or as close to her knees
as she can get it right, and the men's all kind of milling about and straightening
their ties and all that. So we're just about to get out right, and Assumpta's
like that, Jawwwwwn and we're all like that, who's John by the way? and
you can see this guy pure dying off, old guy right, and his wife's looking
at Assumpta and looking at him and he's trying to get behind the bar right,
maybe wanting to nick through the back somewhere or down the cellar, and
Assumpta's pure like, oh my god I don't believe it and all that and she's
pure smiling and she heads over, she's pure pished by the way, and the
guy's just pure white as a sheet right, and we all head over cos he wasn't
one of the ones that was in the bog and I stick the potty in front of him
and he's like that, boosh, two twenties right in there and he's nearly
greeting and he's like that, please leave, please leave now, and I'm just
pure ending myself honest to god it was brilliant right, and his missus
goes to have a smack at Assumpta but she's game for her anyway, and that's
when the cops come in.
Sorry son, it just came back on
me a wee bit there. It's alright, I'll get it. It's getting mopped anyway.
No thanks. A cup of tea and I'll be brand new.
So the cops right, well that was
a pure laugh right cos it's the usual right, they're about twenty if they're
a day, a guy and a lassie, and the guy's like that about a disturbance,
an anonymous tip-off and all that, so I'm like that, this is Shelly and
all that, giving it big licks about the wedding and how it's her second
time around and she's really looking forward to it and all that and Big
Kylie's already spotted the lassie cop right, like she knows one of her
sisters from school and all that so they're started chatting but then it
turns out that your man in charge is this guy John, he's like the president
or something, so he's like that, yes yes yes, these ladies are guests and
there's no problem, he's on about a bit of high spirits and all that, and
you can see his missus is pure ready to go off you know, but he's got her
arm and he's like that, so the cops are like that, are any of you girls
members of this club and all that, and we're giving it what do you mean
and butter wouldn't melt you know, so good old John's like, well, the girls
will be signing the guest register officer, so everything will be in order,
no problem, and then the one I belted right, she appears and starts mouthing
and the cops are like oh-ho, here's someone with a burst lip but her man
moves in smartish and god only knows what he whispers to her but she shuts
it and that's us, no bother. Cops go into the back for a cup of tea and
a wee sarnie, we stay for a drink on the house and end up having a great
night. Almost two hundred in the pot, memberships all round, and I end
up getting off with the wee janny guy. He's alright actually, looks a wee
bit like Neil Diamond.
Anyway, I'll put that kettle on.
It's not too bad in here this morning. Quiet night was it?