Tales of The Great
Politics of Friendship
Creative Music in
a Plain Brown Box
The Glasgow University Media
William Clark & Ian Brotherhood
Context, Audience and the Symbolic
Economy of the City
Comic & zine
Another story of
September 26th to October 3rd
1998, South London
an undeclared war
Baader-Meinhof: Pictures on the
run 67-77 by Astrid Proll
Ripples in the
Experimental electronic music
and audio arts at ISEA 98, 2--7 September, venues in Liverpool and Manchester
The viability of the artist-led
Round Table Discussion
"I was a ball of
nerves and sleepless paranoia..."
New Labour, the
media and the British secret state
In the early days of World War II,
when Hitler was dividing up Poland, he told the two Generals he appointed
that he would ask no questions about their methods. It is a common enough
euphemism in politics and the exercise of power to this day. When questions
are asked about methods they unearth the fact that power acts covertly
to conceal its part in the ruthless consequences of its design.
In this issue, Marshall Anderson's
Another Story of Art Development is not presented as a salacious expose--more
rather an example of the norm. That there will be conflicting opinions
of his account is unavoidable since the statements of the parties involved
themselves--officialdom--are at odds with each other.
Our interview with the Glasgow Media
Group--we would hope--will be read carefully and encourage a reconsideration
of the theories which have led to such betrayals of common sense and progressive
politics. The 'cultural compliance' referred to in the article is the culpable
failure to address the enforcement of anachronistic right-wing politics,
through an adherence to a view of culture which is based on intellectual
meaninglessness. This compliance carries with it a failure to question
the free market--despite the effects it is having on our society. Masses
of people are unemployed--deemed to have no use in life--because the market
has dictated so, and that this ideology cannot be challenged.
In the arts, and many other sectors
of society, the involvement of a mass of people is touted as a worthy criterion
by funding bodies, except when it comes to decision making. Consultation
is considered something to be put into the hands of professional consultants
at public expense; public consultation is the joke of organising a meeting
to tell the public what they are getting. Decisions are taken before public
consultation, during it or by ignoring it. This taxation without representation
is wide open for factions to follow a line of interest. The private will
incline towards partiality; the general will incline towards impartiality.
Talk of independence abounds while the centralisation of the arts and culture
Our open discussion on artists'
initiatives will hopefully encourage debate on the collusion of private
business and public development agencies in deciding what is 'culturally'
relevant in Dublin and Belfast. Aware only of the corporate facade of such
schemes in Ireland, the Scottish Arts Council--blatantly evading its own
responsibility in decision making and monitoring--asks in its visionary
'Scottish Arts in the 21st Century' document:
"Does the subsidy system diminish
entrepreneurial spirit of artists and arts organisations? Are there ways
of supporting the Arts in which this could be avoided or which entrepreneurial
spirit could be stimulated?"
Who wrote this--Baroness Thatcher?*
Is their vision of the future that art becomes an adjunct to a corporate
logo. Will this even maintain their own position? Can we show entrepreneurial
spirit in questioning their methods or are we all to be herded into the
ghetto which will be constructed for us?
*No, Ruth Wishart.
Tales of The
--We're all to be on the telly, says
I get behind the bar and dump my
bags at the foot of the stairs. We've been on the go twenty-four hours
what with the flights being rearranged at the Turkey end of things. I'm
that way I know I won't sleep, and I want to catch up with the news anyroad.
When we were away I only called back the once and Diane assured me all
was well and not to call again.
--So what's this then?
--It's a programme about the writers
and them, and the telly's coming to see this fella doing his research and
that's when he's mixing with the likes of us. And it's drinks on the house.
I look hard into the bilious bag-bound
eyes of Joe Doghead and wonder what strange new fever of mind makes him
think he will ever get another drink on me after his behaviour at the New
Within the minute I've Diane in
the office, and instead of giving her the doll I bought her, it's a dressing-down
--I don't care if it's the telly.
What's this about free drinks?
--Technically free as far as the
customers are concerned, but all covered if you submit an accountant's
statement for the best Wednesday you've had in the past year and there's
twenty-per-cent on top for inconvenience plus a flat five hundred cash
for you. All they require is three hours, access to power, a maximum of
ten genuine regular customers who should ideally be unemployed or retired
manual labourers, and your signature on these.
She's got the forms, it's all worked
out. They'll be arriving before tea-time. I tell her not to do it again,
then give her the doll.
--Who's this writer guy anyway, I
She's looking at the doll, which
is a wee girl dressed in the Turkish national costume. She attempts to
remove the hat and the head comes off.
--Bill Mantovani, she says as she
puts the head in her pocket.
--Am I supposed to know him or what?
She gives me one of those knowing
wee smirks that drives me mad. It's like when I've forgotten the soft drinks
order and she has to remind me, or when she's got the evening off and it
turns out I okayed it when I was pished, so have to pay her treble time
to stay on.
--I'm very surprised you are unaware
of this author. Mr Mantovani has created some wonderful Scottish characters,
all drawn from real life but possessed of a dignity which allows them to
transcend poverty, rise above the class-ridden mores of...
--Aye, alright. So is he famous or
--Moderately. His most recent work
is set in a fictional bar called The Waiting Room. The characters have
colourful names and enjoy sophisticated discussions on topical matters.
It seems that he is nominated for the Harrison-Bland award. That is why
they are making this short film. It is for the programme during which the
winner will be announced next month. He is the favourite.
So I hit the sack and try to kip.
I don't need this. I wanted to get in, have a decent bath, then go down
and have a few jars, a chinwag and an early night. But that's a good deal
right enough, five ton cash, so I'd best try and look sharp and be about
I get up, have a shower, put on
the good white shirt that's for funerals and weddings and the like, and
the autographed Tommy Gemmell tie. It's a nice dark-green silk and the
writing's with one of those silver pens. It actually says 'kissmyjarlers'
on it, but the writing's so squiggly no-one can tell. Seventy notes for
that too. Then on with old faithful, the tweed suit I got in Slater's back
in seventy-two. Cost a packet back then but worth every bob. I even get
a bit of pomade in the old crowning glory, and that's the first time for
years, but it kills the white and lets me get it combed back a bit, so
no harm. Got to look the part if there's cameras and that.
Going down the stairs, fierce blue
light is streaming through the gaps about the closed door leading into
the bar, and when I open it it's like I've walked right into Close Encounters
and I screw my eyes shut and have to grope for the gantry. The silhouette
of Joe Doghead slowly assumes features as my eyes adjust.
The whole bar is swarming with folk,
wires everywhere, and great big black boxes stacked here and there. I recognise
no more than a dozen folk, all regulars, and even they look strange in
the glare from the big lamps stood all over, and curtains of dust hanging
about making the place look a lot dirtier than it really is.
-- You must be Mr Doodlehoo, says
this fellow who's appeared beside Joe.
--Doohihan, I say, and the young
bearded fellow bites his bottom lip and says sorry, makes a note on the
clipboard then tears off a bit of paper and sticks it on the bar afront
I'm almost finished writing my signature
when the fellow screams.
--That's him! Oh my God! he says
and then he's off towards the door.
The little figure advancing towards
the bar is maybe four feet tall, and it's impossible to guess his age.
He might be fifty, he might be ninety three. Under the huge faded Black
Watch flat cap, his straight fairish hair is tufted above his ears, and
his short trimmed beard is dense and looks soft, like fuzzy felt. He walks
slowly, with shoulders back, and from the noise of his boots on the floorboards
I guess he's got segs nailed in the soles. He's wearing a wee dark suit
of fifties style, a collarless shirt, perhaps once white, and the waistline
of the breeks hovers about his rib-cage, suspended by the button-on braces.
So this must be him. Bill Mantovani, Scotland's foremost man of letters.
He is looking at me as he approaches,
the gaggle of telly folk taking tiny steps behind him as he nears, and
a couple of them have books that they must want signed and he does so without
looking at either the folk or the books, moving forward all the time. When
he reaches the bar he goes out of sight, and I'm leaning forward to check
if he's still there when the bunnet bobs and shifts upwards and he grunts,
climbs up the bar stool, and perches himself on it.
--Fitlike, hunestwurthy loonie '
E'en a muckle body wid craw aw the nicht whin the barley-fever drouth taks
haud. Huv ye a hauf a' yon ale, Samson's Auld Arsecracker, an' a wheen
o' Sot 'n Veenaygir billscrapins, if ye huv them mind.
He smiles. I don't. I've no idea
what he's on about. A girl appears behind Mantovani, and even with him
atop the stool he has to look up when she whispers to him. She's a right
nice looking lass, not much older than my Mary, maybe twenty or something.
--Lovely. Now, just be natural Bill.
We want to capture the essence of how earthy your world is, how symbiotic
the relationship between you and your people. I know this isn't your regular
hostelry, but we've made sure that these men are, to use one of your inimitable
phrases, ambassadors for the dispossessed. Natural, natural, natural.
I catch Joe Doghead's eye, which
is like a trapped shark's. Mantovani removes his bunnet, and I watch Joe
staring at the shiny beige wig, which is almost the same shape as the cap,
but smaller, and from the way the fringe has been cut it seems a fair bet
that Mantovani has been trimming it to compensate for the shrinkage of
his ageing skull. He licks his tiny forefinger and smooths down his eyebrows,
which are like strips of rusty brillo pad. He stares at me again, and the
voice is quieter.
--Half heavy and a glass of low-flyer
with water squire, he says.
This I understand, so I set about
the Grouse and Diane gets the beer. The mirrors behind the gantry look
smeared and dusty in the light, and the reflection of activity in the area
behind the spotlit Mantovani is shadowed and warped.
--Tape running! shouts someone.
I turn with the whisky, set it on
the bar, then slide the water jug across. Mantovani's little hand holds
a crisp fifty note, and the hologram shines like a wee dish of rainbows
in the light. I reach out to take it. I feel strange and stiff, like my
body is drunk, or just awake, and I've the note between my fingers when
I remember our rule about no fifties. Even twenties are dodgy these days,
the fakes are that good.
--Sorry my friend, but maybe you
didn't see the notice, I say, and the wee man's eyes widen.
--Cut! Cut! shouts the lassie, and
there's a hubbub of chat and laughter.
Mantovani snatches back the note,
stuffs it inside his jacket, then rakes about in his wee pocket and there's
jangling of change as he mutters and fires me dirty looks. The lassie comes
over and wags her pen at me, and for all that she's smiling, and a nice
smile it is too, you can tell she's not the most patient of creatures.
--This time we'll just take whatever
Bill gives you and we'll ring it up as normal. The cash isn't really important
I smooth down my tie. KISSMYJARLERS
gleams silver upside-down in the light.
Three hours later, and I don't care
about the five ton any more. My eyeballs are knocking together like coconuts
in a sock. I want these folk out of my place. It took an hour to get the
shot of Mantovani at the bar done, and all he did was sink one short after
another, a double malt for every one of the six takes, a different malt
every time. I've made sure Diane keeps a right close tally. Of course,
Joe, trying to keep up, is cataleptic, and only the fact that the drink
is free is keeping him going.
Sippy Pat and her Mum, Bobby Elbow
and his fiance have been in the alcove by the puggy, and from the bar they
can barely be seen through the cloud of fag smoke. The fags are free as
well, handed out for every take, and Diane has had to empty the ashtrays
three times already, a task made easier by the beardy assistant director
fellow, who gets her to just empty them onto the floor for added grittiness.
By the toilet door, directly beneath the wall-mounted gas heater, Halfpint
Henderson and his three sixty-something sons are gleaming with sweat, devouring
pints as fast as Diane can pour them in an effort to replace the fluids
being sapped by the powerful beams. It's take-ten of their domino game
because Jerso, Halfpint's youngest, keeps laughing, and this is ruining
the grimness of the set piece.
It's almost ten. They're well over
the agreed time. I get my jacket off, and I know there's big dark stains
at my armpits and the pomade has long since been boiled off my hairs. I
want my bed. The director lass is chatting to the beardy fellow. I get
my bad boss face on.
--Excuse me dear.
--Jack? she says, all surprised like
maybe we had a love affair once and she's seeing me for the first time
in years, and it's like she pulls the smile out of a bag and sticks it
on faster than the eye can detect.
--If I'm not much mistaken, the agreement
was three hours. You've had near enough four. I'd like my pub back now,
if that's alright with you.
She glances at Beardy, and he looks
for something imaginary hovering above his forehead.
--Jack, you've been an absolute dream.
We couldn't have managed without you, she says. We just need to get the
interview done and we'll be off, promise.
--Interview?I say, and it's like
God himself is having a wee joke with me cos her eyes go to the front door
and Beardy's follow, and I turn to see this character come strolling in
like it's him, not me, that owns the place.
He's a big lad, maybe heights with
myself, and very portly too, to be nice about it. But not heavy in a fit
way this one--it's like puppy fat he's not managed to lose, even with him
being maybe thirty or so, and his cheeks are as rosy and smooth as a baby's
fundament. He's wearing a kilt and one of those dress jackets that has
a huge big frilly shirt sticking out of the front. His hair is crewed to
a number three or thereabouts, and it's silvery white. He pauses, hands
on hips, sporran swinging, scans the bar, and makes like a berserker when
he sees Priscilla approach.
She gets an arm about his big waist
and guides him over to the corner by the fag machine where Mantovani is
smoking his pipe and dozing. I catch Beardy looking at me before he scuttles
off to join in the hoo-haa over this new arrival--he looks at me as if I'm
getting in the road. The temper sparks and catches. But I can't lose it.
I take a deep breath, and the influx of real and artificial smoke sparks
a fit of coughing that leaves me doubled and gagging. That's it. Enough's
I get to the table just as Mantovani
stands up, and they turn as one towards me. Priscilla gushes at me again,
--Jack, I want you to meet Peter
Princely, presenter of this year's Harrison-Bland Awards programme. Peter,
this is Jack Doughy-hand, he's the manager here.
Peter Princely offers his hand and
smiles at me with teeth so bright I want to retreat. I shake it as I stare
at him, and make a point of holding it firm.
--What an unusual name, says Peter,
and his grip is so strong that I hear a whimper coming from myself.
--Yes it is, I say in much higher
voice than my own.
Priscilla accompanies me back to
the bar, filling me in. My hand feels like the udder of a knackered cow.
She wants Mantovani back on his seat at the bar. Peter will ask the questions.
Mantovani has already seen them, and will rattle off his answers. Little,
if any, of the material will be used unless Mantovani actually wins the
award. It's a one-take job, no problem. Three hundred extra, off the record.
Ten minutes set-up, done within the half-hour, and if they're a minute
over I'll be due another three ton. Fine. I stick the cash in my shirt
pocket, keep my trap shut, and rub the blood back into my fingers as I
work out who to call first.
The telly bodies are milling, moving
their gear, nipping outside for a breather, the two agency lads checking
passes as the crew move in and out. They're big and healthy enough, these
chaps they have by way of security, but nothing special.
There's a mobile phone on the bar.
Maybe Priscilla's, maybe Beardy's. I slip it in my back pocket, then move
across to say a quick hello to Joe Doghead, who is still upright and breathing.
He looks at me. The whites of his eyes are mother-of-pearl. I have never
seen him like this. He is beyond drunkenness. Perhaps it is the way the
likes of your shamen and whirling dervishes get, or maybe the holy men
who've been buried for months. He's barely breathing, but he must know
how close he is to the end. This is the only state in which Joe Doghead
Ryan could be called upon to defend the honour of the woman who loves him.
Sippy Pat is still in the alcove with her mother, who is arm-wrestling
Bobby Elbow. I mentally cross myself, cup Joe's head and draw him close
and tell him what I have to tell him. There is a grunt to acknowledge that
the information I have given him has been received, and only the further
dilation of his pupils gives a clue as to the imaginings now coursing through
his befuddled mind.
Priscilla is calling for positions.
The artificial smoke machine starts up again. Beardy appears with another
carton of fags and exhorts all those awake to partake. Peter Princely is
having his make-up seen to while a couple of the young female crew members
lift Mantovani onto his stool at the bar.
Have to work fast now. Nip in the
back, flip open the mobile--makes me feel like Captain Kirk under siege
on the Enterprise. Fishy Maggie isn't home. Her and the girls are out working
the hen-night down The Spring, so call there and by the racket when the
phone's answered it seems they're there alright. The chargehand fetches
her. Yeah, she can make it. She listens, laughs, is very interested. She
can get The Carpet and his guys up as well. Fair enough. She's leaving
now. The big lamps bang on again, and I can hear Beardy shouting. The blue
fag smoke slips under the door. I'll be needed for pouring more drinks.
Fast. Bang in the numbers, do it too fast, have to do it again. Big Polly
can shift anything--he's home, and none too pleased at first what with girlish
giggling in the background, but when I give him a rough description of
the gear they've got you can hear the lassie's giggles becoming whines
and complaints and you can tell he's getting his clobber on. I give him
the instructions. He'll be there.
--Where's Mr Doodlehoo? shouts Beardy.
I sling the jacket on and quickly
comb back the hair, and when I go out they're all waiting. Waiting for
me. I take my time, whistling and smiling. Priscilla does not look at all
happy, and neither does Beardy. Big Peter Princely draws daggers, and wee
Mantovani's features are clouded with fatigue and impatience. I wink at
the little man, turn to the gantry, pour myself a measure of rum, then
take my place at the end of the bar. Joe has turned a shade of grey only
ever seen on cadavers and is staring down at the top of Mantovani's head.
--Thanks for joining us Jack, says
Priscilla. Right, final shot, interview with Peter and Bill, then it's
a couple of Peter noddies and home. Run the tape. Let's go!
Peter Princely clears his throat,
fiddles with his bright blue bow-tie.
--Bill Mantovani. The characters,
the tradition, the sheer weight of history. The legends. You've become
one of those legends, dare I say, a myth? says Peter Princely very softly,
and with much gentle finger massaging of something unseen on the bar.
Mantovani rubs his beard, and a
wee bit of salt and vinegar scratching falls from the rusty felt, plops
into his large Black Bush. He downs the lot, wipes his hairy gob. His voice
is strong and echoes about The Great Unwashed.
--History. Yes. Inscrutable. Long
inertia, the steady dribble of hopelessness in a community of souls where
to commit poverty is to once again thread the needle of interminable, nay
glacial, misery. Myriad personal anarchies need not be indefatigable, but
the inevitable, unimaginably heroic defiances which are what we stand for,
which delineate the boundaries of what we are, these cannot reasonably
hope to successfully combat the underlying compliances demanded, if not
wrested from us, by status quo.
Far off in the corner, Bobby Elbow
and Sippy Pat start singing 'Down Down, Deeper and Down.' Priscilla's voice
--Carry on Peter! Keep going!
Peter Princely empties the last
of his half-heavy-shandy. I top it up as he consults the wee card in his
cupped hand. Another glass of cratur for Mantovani.
--The new work, says Peter, shaking
his head with awe. The Waiting Room. Innovative. Authentic. Provocative.
Dare I say, ground-breaking?
--The breaking of ground, yes. Dirt.
Coal. Men in holes, digging their own cells. Elemental, fundamental of
life. Water. Drink. Aesthetic preoccupations? The working class artist,
seduced, luxuriates in the surreptitious undermining of establishment,
unguenting conscience with the conviction, solidified through constant
introspective repetition and the encouragement of his peers, that he is
a foot soldier within that wooden horse sitting at the heart of that beast
which is the enemy, whiling away the hours before the surprise attack by
pondering the innumerable permutations which might lead to the decipherment
of that most enigmatic of all codes, that infinitely inexplicable crossword
puzzle we call life. But for my characters, for all of them, there is no
life. There is only...reality.
Peter Princely starts to cry.
They chunter on for a while, Princely
lobbing questions, Mantovani speaking in tongues. I glance at my watch.
It is the time agreed. I look over to Sippy Pat, who is grimacing at me,
waiting for the signal. I loosen my tie. She gets up and moves towards
us despite the best efforts of the crew to return her to her seat. I lean
against the door jamb, poise my thumb over the switch for the big Guinness
sign outside. Peter Princely is closer to Mantovani, trying to whisper.
--This is the one in case you win
it, he says, nodding, wide-eyed.
Mantovani shakes his head, smiling
coyly, as if the possibility had not even occurred.
--Sorry I won't be able to make it
for the dinner. It's just that it's been lined up for yonks Pete, know
how it is. It's the timeshare you know, use it or lose it. And Magaluf's
nice this time of year, says Mantovani.
Sippy Pat has got as far as Beardy,
and is staring at Mantovani with raw lust. Joe notices her, and half-shuts
his lids, as if making sure that she really is there. Princely smiles over
at Priscilla, who nods.
--Bill Mantovani, winner of this
year's Harrison Bland Award for Scottish Literature, congratulations.
--Yes. Thank you. I'm sorry I can't
be with you all tonight to...
Sippy Pat advances, brushing Beardy
aside. Princely, turning to see the Afghan-clad figure bearing down upon
him, shrieks and hops back from the bar.
--Mister Mantovani! cries Pat as
she embraces him.
Mantovani momentarily disappears
from sight as he is engulfed in the nicotine-stained coat, and when she
does release him his wee wig is swinging from the topmost of her fat imitation-bone
buttons. I sense Joe shift. I told him that Mantovani had already made
some very indiscrete enquiries as to Sippy Pat's bill of fare, convinced
she is a lady of the night. A low growl confirms Joe's growing displeasure.
--I just love your stuff so I do,
says Pat. That Pink Panther, that was the best. I used to always watch
that with the weans, Jesus, I was near enough a wean myself. That car was
pure gallus by the way. Were you ever in it? Eh? You're wee enough anyway
aren't you? Eh?
--Do you mind ! shouts Mantovani.
This happens to be a very important...
--Bet you I can remember it. Right,
here we go, shouts Pat.
--Is it money you want? says Mantovani,
and from his pocket he pulls the crumpled fifty.
At the sight of the money, Joe looks
at me like a man about to be shot, then drains his glass and stands. I
flick the Guinness light switch off, then back on right away. The front
and side doors burst open simultaneously, Fishy Maggie and her dozen or
so girls streaming in the front while The Carpet, Big Polly and ten or
so of the Spring lads rush in the side, all wearing see-you-Jimmy bunnets
with red hairy sidelocks by way of disguise. Mantovani whimpers. Peter
Princely runs towards Priscilla, who is heading for the toilet with her
--Right, here we go now! If you don't
know it, clap!
Pat has her hands on hips, head
back, eyes shut.
--Think of all the animals you ever
hear about, like rhinoceros and tigers laddy-da, I can never get that bit,
never mind, oh-ho there's lots of funny animals in all the world, but...
--Take this! Please! shouts Mantovani
as he waves the fifty in front of Pat, but she's away, sent.
Fishy Maggie has clearly come to
some kind of understanding with Big Polly and the Spring boys--the ladies
head straight for the bar and the fag machine while the lads concentrate
on shifting the crew's hardware, carefully removing plugs but otherwise
working fast. The two minders brought by the crew flee for the Gents, manhandling
smaller colleagues out of the way.
--Think! A panther that is positively
pink! Oh here he is...
Joe lifts Mantovani from the seat
by the scruff of his jacket, gets the other hand under the wee man's arse,
lifts him up high like he's offering a new-born son to the gods, then releases
a howl which seems to freeze everyone.
--And he's a gentleman a scholar
Joe hurls Mantovani the full length
of the bar, and the wee body bounces off the shiny surface and straight
into the wall of crisps and other boxed snacks stacked at the far end,
causing an explosion of small multicoloured bags. The raid resumes, and
I lift the bar phone. Fishy Maggie looks at me, looks at the till, raises
an eyebrow. I nod. She opens it and takes out the whole tray. I throw the
mobile phone to her. She'll get rid of that. The boys have almost finished
wheeling out the large black boxes of sound and light gear, and have started
on the bar furniture. Maggie's girls have all but cleared the gantry, and
have managed to remove the fag machine from the wall.
--Yes, my bar's being looted. The
Great Unwashed. Doohihan. No. Doohihan.
--Yes he's the one and only truly
original, Panther Pink Panther from head to toe-hoe! Dumpity-dumpity dum!
I applaud, as does Joe and Sippy
Pat's Mum. Everyone else has gone. The telly crew are all in the Ladies,
and will probably stay there until the cops arrive. The sirens are getting
nearer. The only sign of Mantovani is a tiny clenched fist defiantly thrust
from the carnage, and in it is clutched the crumpled fifty note. Pat gets
on the stool beside Joe and puts an arm about him. He'll succumb tonight,
that's for sure.
Pat shrieks and flicks Mantovani's
tiny wig off her coat. It lands on the bar.
--It's a rat! she screams.
Joe's mighty fist batters down on
the hairy scrap, and I remove it quickly. Pat sighs and pulls her hero
closer, and he acknowledges her attention with a toothless grin.
Politics of Friendship
Has Derrida taken a political turn?
After his frustrating re-reading of Marx many will no doubt rush out to
buy "The Politics of Friendship" in the hope of finding clarification on
Derrida's politics--if such a thing could ever be said to exist. Deconstruction
supposedly laid bare the problematics behind the grand political projects.
It announced a period of skeptical reflection, a gap between action and
justification which rendered political activity impossible. It contributed
to the groundlessness of contemporary political beliefs. It placed "'truth'
in quotation marks". (p. 44)
If deconstruction gave reasons to
suspend judgement, to distrust the choices available, it also created an
atmosphere of apathy and frustration. Ironically, Derrida has now turned
to re-assess politics to see if it is now safe to go back to some of the
secure notions of responsibility, commitment, and political allegiance
that have so been missing.
Of course we should know better.
While theorists like Baudrillard and Lyotard at least offered the promise
of a controversy, Derrida will not be reduced to a soundbite theorist.
He will not carry the can for Post-modernism, will not write a book that
sums up the journey so far and shows us where to go next; which is exactly
what post-modern theory needs right now, if it is not to be relegated to
history as a temporal blip. Instead Derrida has done what he always does:
produced yet another exquisite and rarefied book, polished and hermetically
Derrida is no doubt aware of the
pressure on him to act as seer and leader for those left floundering in
the wake of Post-modernism. He is unlikely to succumb to such a temptation,
and warns again and again in "The Politics of Friendship" against such
'hasty' readings of his work. Throughout the book he chastens the reader
to have patience. As always his work is a multiplication of questions.
Of course we should by now expect to be frustrated by Derrida, to not reach
a conclusion, to undergo his endless deferrals of meaning. Derrida's digressions
are not errors in logic, but a necessary strategy which tries to prove
his own theory that meaning is differential--interpretation infinite.
As with all of Derrida's work "The
Politics of Friendship" starts with a quotation, and proceeds to lay it
open to a multitude of interpretations. In this instance the quotation
is one attributed to Aristotle by Montaigne.
"O' my friends, there is no friend."
The book is an enquiry into the
meanings of the words "friend" and "enemy". The aim is to focus on: "the
political problem of friendship." To do this Derrida traces the chain of
this quotation from Aristolte to Kant, Blanchot, Montaigne, Nietzsche and
through to the Catholic political theorist Carl Schmitt.
Derrida's method is to set in motion
the contradictions and imbalances behind each attempt to define "the friend"
and "the enemy". Through this he unearths a convincing array of aporias:
gaps, divergences of meaning--contradictions which have nonetheless been
acted upon throughout history.
"The Politics of Friendship" chastens
the zeal of those who have sought conceptual clarity and acted in its name.
It is possible to read from this book that the entire concept of "fraternity",
as enshrined in the French revolution, was based upon a confused notion
of "brotherhood" which sought universality and the eradication of the enemy,
but which nonetheless depended upon the enemy for its existence.
Throughout the book Derrida follows
the shifting positions of "the enemy": The enemy as the other, as the brother,
as the alibi for the self and finally as the self itself. A reading could
be as follows: if fraternity always posits an enemy, if the existence of
the enemy is what constitutes not just the identity of the friend, but
also of the self, then is it possible to reject the opposition friend/enemy,
on which "the self" is based? And finally to reject "the self" and the
western philosophical tradition that rests upon it? This is the question
which Derrida leaves us with. The possibility of a different way of conceiving
of the self--a self without a centre, without parameters--the decentered
We will recognise this critique
of "the self" from the 1970s. From Foucault and his announcement of the
death of the subject. As such, "The Politics of Friendship" is another
contribution attesting to the end of humanism, and which ushers in something
else: Post-humanist theory?
It is surprising really that the
coming of the decentered self has been announced for so long, and yet we
still know so little about how we can cope with being "decentered selves".
Who is this decentered self, this
deconstructed subject, this person with no fixed identity, with no fixed
principles, without a basis for ethics or politics? The person who lives
deconstruction. The major question which has haunted Derrida (and Foucault's
work) is just how a society comprising such Post-humanist subjects might
operate. How we live with our decentered selves is one question that post-modern
thought has always left hanging.
The simple reduction is to see deconstruction
as a historical moment and to see the decentered self, as an event in advanced
capitalism. Deconstruction is then seen as being symptomatic, or descriptive
of the breakdown of western values. The decentered self, from this perspective
is a social, political disaster, a retreat from the enlightenment project.
The shifting values of the post-humanist subject, are said to map directly
onto the fragmented self which is the consumer. Inevitably, deconstruction
is forced to face what might be the political implications of the theory
of the decentered subject.
"The Politics of Friendship", is
a long awaited but tentative attempt at doing just that. But what would
such a project be--a sociology of the deconstructed subject--a political
study of post-modern man? Of course for Derrida such a project would be
impossible. He cannot use a grounded methodology to critique deconstruction.
However, the question of the political, of how individuals act in society
haunts this book, and tries to assert itself, albeit in hidden forms.
In one passage, notably one of the
most awkward in the book, Derrida implies the question of the social repercussions
of the dissolution of self.
"If we were not wary in determining
them too quickly, about precipitating these things towards an excessively
established reality, we might propose a gross example, among an infinity
of others, simply to set a heading, since what a naive scansion dates from
the "fall of the Berlin wall" or from the "end of communism", the "parliamentary-democracies--of-the-capitalist--Western-world"
would find themselves without a principal enemy. The effects of this destructuration
would be countless: "the subject" in question would be looking for new
reconstitive enmities; it would multiply "little wars" between nation-states:
it would seek to pose itself, to find repose, through opposing still identifiable
adversaries--China, Islam? Enemies without which, as Schmitt would have
said--and this is our subject--it would lose its political being; it would
purely and simply depoliticise itself." (p.76)
This is an important point, but
it is couched in terms which are elusive. This is classic Derrida. The
idea he puts forward is "naive"--"a gross example", "it exists among an
infinity of others", "these are questions we must mutter to ourselves."
He cites "we" "ourselves" and as "Schmitt would have said." Hiding what
he wants to say behind a series of disclaimers, each one distances the
statement from any authorial intent. This is however, the one passage from
which the entire book gains its urgency and direction. Derrida echoes the
point throughout the book, with reference to Schmitt:
"A world in which the possibility
of war is utterly eliminated would be a world without the distinction of
friend and enemy."
"For Schmitt losing the enemy is
losing the political self." p.83
"A crime against the political--the
death of the enemy." p.88
These points from Schmitt, reinforce
what we already know to be Derrida's own theories about "the subject".
What they do though is situate the deconstructed subject at a point in
history. Deconstruction has long laboured in breaking down the binary oppositions
which it presupposes that western culture is based upon. A reading of Schmitt
would suggest that society itself is moving towards the breakdown of the
opposition between friend and enemy, political right and left. But at what
What happens when society itself
moves towards the dissolution of opposites? This can only be a pressing
question for Derrida, as his entire theory is based upon the negative critique
of the role of opposites in western thinking.
Derrida however cannot admit to
the issue of the "social relevance" of his theory. By his own method cannot
be seen to be making a statement or looking for evidence to support a statement.
Therefore what we are left with in this text is this endless apologising,
this infinity of disclaimers, this slow sensitivity in approaching the
possibility of actually saying something, this way of hiding his intent
behind the voice of others. Derrida's work has always had such suggested
or inferred meanings, which he can usually pass on as "the reader's interpretation".
However, never before has such an important suggestion played so pivotal
a role in one of his books.
There is a vampiric quality in Derrida's
writing. It saps the life out of that which it quotes, while at the same
time exalting the original for its valour, its arrogance, its naive certainty.
His love of controversial and powerful texts is exemplified here by his
use of Nietzsche, Schmitt and Victor Hugo. But while Derrida draws these
powerful and important quotations together he can only hint at his reasons
for doing so, and cannot thread them together into an argument which might
There must be a frustration at heart
here for Derrida. By his own method, he can never make a bold statement,
neither can he explore a subject analytically, or systematically. He can
only deconstruct each quotation, rendering them unstable, unverifiable,
problematic. Neither can Derrida assess theory against facts, or found
opinions upon empirical observations, as writers like Schmitt do. Derrida
has through his work systematically problematised such attempts by others
to jump from fact to theory, to seek proof of their ideas in reality. He
does however want to imply to us that the text has some importance to the
period in which we live. How can he do this though? Through vague allusion,
and through saying the opposite of what he means.
Throughout the book Derrida makes
repeated attacks on Schmitt's "historicist's" discourse. In typical deconstructive
method, Derrida looks for the one "undecideable" which undermines their
entire discourse. For Derrida, Schmitt's theory hangs upon the existence
of a possible "concrete"--a phrase which bridges the gap between Schmitt's
theory and the facts he claims to observe: a reality which is nonetheless
contingent--an absolute which is temporal.
"What are the political stakes of
this figure? On the other hand, the unending insistence here on what would
be the opposite of spectral--the concrete; the compulsive and obsessional
recurrence of the word concrete as the correlate of 'polemical'--does indeed
provide food for thought. What thought? Perhaps that the concrete finally
remains in its purity, out of reach, inaccessible, indefinately deferred,
haunted by its spectre." (p.117)
So Derrida effectively undoes the
concrete terrain on which Schmitt, the "modern political expert" has built
his discourse. But does Schmitt not in turn haunt Derrida in the form of
the necessity to address Schmitt in the first place? In the form of the
question of the political relevance of theory?
There is undoubtedly something about
Schmitt's prediction of a post-cold war world, fragmented into struggles
for identity that troubles Derrida. What if a world without binary opposition
(friend/ enemy, left/ right) is a world without meaning. Perhaps it is
that Derrida sees in the post-cold war struggles of small nations and ethnic
groups, a metaphor for the "decentered subject" in which the old binary
oppositions no longer apply.
How often has deconstructive theory
been used to undermine the "binary oppositions" of imperialist culture?
Since the '60s there has been a tacit understanding that although deconstruction
did not have an overt politic, it was of use in theoretically destabilising
oppressive hierarchical structures. This has been the implied ethic behind
the use of deconstruction. Deconstruction would take us beyond the rigidified
culture of entrenched opposition--it would be a radical cultural force.
But what if the end of binary oppositions
(black/ white, gay/ straight, left/ right) does not spell a positive future,
in which the old oppositions end, but one in which chaos rules, and in
which the form that instability takes is violence--violence beyond reason.
There are only vague allusions to these concerns within the book, but it
could be that Derrida has started to become anxious about "the social relevance
of deconstruction". Naturally no one has marched into battle carrying a
deconstruction banner, but culturally the infiltration of deconstruction
into our institutions has meant a filtering through into culture of some
of its inherent attitudes. Was Deridda wrong to give up on the enlightenment
project, the left? These questions haunt this text, but Derrida cannot
Is there an unwritten politic behind
this book without conclusion? Through each of his works Derrida has repeatedly
told us that every philosophy is haunted by the spectre of its opposite.
What then is the opposite that haunts deconstruction? What if not linear
discourse--the statement--the need to adopt a subject position. Could it
be that Derrida is haunted by what it is he really wants to say?
"Who could ever answer for a discourse
on friendship without taking a stand?" (p.229)
In the Politics of Friendship we
see a Derrida trapped in his own method, unable to articulate the real
questions that concern him without threatening the credibility of deconstruction
Politics of Friendship
Verso - ISBN 1-85984-033-7
in a Plain Brown Box
"Those who compose because they want
to please others, and have audiences in mind, are not real artists. They
are merely more or less skilful entertainers who would renounce composing
if they did not find listeners."
Arnold Schoenberg, 1946.
As the music industry seems enthralled
by the shrinking circular logic of its own marketing NewSpeak few small
organisations remain pleasingly unmoved by the makeover imperatives of
packaging. As one company's name suggests, the Unknown Public shows scant
regard for audience demographics and makes little concession to the music
media's appetite for modish imagery and sound bites. If the company's motto
"Creative Music in a Plain Brown Box" qualifies as a sound bite of sorts,
it's also a perfectly reasonable summary of what the Unknown Public does.
Conceived as an irregular audio
journal of contemporary music, and with a loyal and growing audience of
subscribers in 51 countries, the Unknown Public (UP) catalogue spans an
enormous range of sounds and sensibilities, presenting as standard: a breadth
of frontier innovation few conventionally structured record companies could
hope to match. The UP aesthetic accommodates an encyclopaedic sweep of
compositional possibilities, whether conventionally scored, electronically
rendered or configured by some other means. As so many labels, festivals
and publications adopt elaborate territorial postures that define audiences
by exclusion, UP's open-ended blueprint seems subversive, simply by default.
In the space of six years, UP founders
John Walters and Laurence Aston have given an artistic home to more than
250 composers and performers, presenting exclusive or neglected work from
figures both known and unfamiliar. A hasty scan of the UP archives reveals
contributions by Gavin Bryars, Sheila Chandra, Steve Reich, Trevor Wishart
and Frank Zappa. Each subtitled issue offers a loose and often abstract
theme, around which the featured recordings gravitate. With no underlined
sleeve-note connections to follow the listener is free to fathom whatever
associations their own listening may inspire.
The ninth collection, subtitled
"All Seeing Ear" circles around notions of synaesthesia and music's potential
for rich visual suggestion and metaphor--a personal cinema experience for
the ears and imagination. The featured pieces include the automotive agitation
of Rob Elli's "Black Bullet Fiesta", Andrea Rocca's playful cartoon cut-ups
and the gorgeously hesitant cellos of Richard Robbin's "He Meets His Mother".
Also making appearances are the Polish Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra
and a brief, febrile extract from Michael Brooks' "Albino Alligator" soundtrack.
The imminent tenth UP anthology
takes solo performance and solitude as points of departure. Linked by the
title "Naked. Music Stripped Down", thirteen pieces of audio erotica reach
from improvised jazz and classical forms to live electronica and clouds
of atomised ambience. Amidst the popular assumption of music as an incidental
soundtrack to collective leisure activity, neither warranting nor rewarding
significant attention, the pieces curated here invited a more serious and
intimate consideration. From Helen Chadwick's slow sparing rendition of
Osip Mandelstam's poem "Words" to the data glove-directed electronics of
Walter Fabeck's "Les Astronautes" and Julian Argue's gorgeously discreet
saxophones, the sense of detailed intent and introspective absorption is
difficult to resist.
Rather than adopt the conventional
strategy of reinforcing boundaries and generic familiarity the diversity
of the UP collections quietly encourages the audience to investigate each
piece with little of the prejudicial baggage that is fostered elsewhere.
Irrespective of size and musical orientation, many record labels now employ
marketing to prescribe an audience response that is more or less uniform,
typically patronising and entirely premature. In effect, the listener is
told how he or she should feel about the music before it can be taken home
and scrutinised. In marked contrast, the UP's plain brown boxes invite
their listeners to browse the music and to find out for themselves.
The Glasgow University Media
In 1974, through involvement in
a social science research project, a small group of 'academics', Jean Hart,
Alison McNaughton, Paul Walton, Brian Winston, John Eldrige and Greg Philo
got together to produce the book Bad News. Their analysis penetrated the
surface appearance of neutrality and balance of the news media and found
the partial and restricted reality.
They did not present a crude
notion of bias. Their central question was simple enough: 'Does television
news as presently constituted help explain, and clarify events in the real
world or does it mystify and obscure them.' The BBC were hostile to their
research even before it began obliquely threatening them with the
possibility of copyright action, complaining to the Principal of the university
and pressurising the Social Science Research Council to limit the freedom
of researchers. With ITN there was 'no hostility and equally almost no
co-operation.' When the book emerged the group was described by Lord Annan--who
had conducted the government's own inquiry into broadcasting--as "a shadowy
guerrilla force on the fringe of broadcasting."
They had called themselves the
Glasgow University Media Group simply to collectively represent their work.
Follow up books More Bad News and then Really Bad News completed a trilogy.
According to Greg Philo the group didn't really exist--it was just a collection
of academics who were still writing--he encouraged a slightly more organised
structure so that they could carry on working together. This was a significant
move enabling them to involve more people--the Glasgow Media Group became
anyone who wrote with them to produce the books. That included journalists
working on the production side of news media together with their own content
and audience studies. At the same time they also set up the Glasgow University
Media Unit which could apply for research grants. War And Peace News (Open
University Press 1985) with its focus on the twin subjects of the Falklands
conflict and Nuclear Defence highlighted the wholesale abandonment of impartiality
in the news media. With their work on subjects such as the miner's strike
the group gained something of a reputation for not shying away from a whole
range of politically difficult social and political issues. Getting The
Message (News Truth and Power) Routledge 1993 saw the group investigate
media treatments of areas such as food panics, health scares, public understanding
of health issues, AIDS in the media, mental health and Ireland. John Eldrige's
work moves towards a critical position of the Chomsky/Herman model on how
the media functions.
The new works are: Message Received--a
collection of work from '93--'98 with various writers with subjects such
as race, migration and media; disaster and crises reporting and violence,
mental illness and suicide. Cultural Compliance (Dead Ends of Media/ Cultural
Studies and Social Science) by Philo and David Miller (of the Stirling
Media Research Institute) is a shorter critique which turns its attention
to sociology as taught in universities.
Both works set out serious indictments
of the political failure of media and cultural studies as they are presently
taught in Britain's universities. The 'cultural compliance' that they speak
of is not specific to sociology but has a relevance to the effects of the
absorption of the inadequate political assumptions of post modern writers,
such as Baudrillard, into artistic interpretation and production. Here
too, if we view contemporary art as a form of media and social science,
we see the same symptomatic loss of the ability to engage critically with
the society in which it exists and a similar drift into irrelevance.
'Within the post-modem vision,
there can be no agreed reality or 'facts' because meanings are not fixed
but are re-negotiated in the constant interplay of the reader and the text.
This focus on the text and the negotiation of meaning has reduced the ability
to study the real and often brutal relations of power which form our culture
(and the perspective actually legitimises the absence of such studies).
If texts have no inherent meaning and 'it all depends on how they are interpreted
and used', then it is not possible to argue that some elements of our culture
are oppressive and damaging.'
Greg Philo, from the Introduction
of Message Received.
The following interview with Greg
Philo was recorded last autumn in his office in the Sociology department
of Glasgow University. The questions were by William Clark and Ian Brotherhood.
Greg Philo: We've got a new
book coming out at the end of this year  called Message Received
which is a critique of contemporary cultural studies; the media, in this
country and abroad. We've basically said it's lost its critical edge, that
it's ceased to have the ability to comment critically on the society which
exists. That it's become, really, a celebration of the popular, without
any critical edge in terms of the negative elements of the society that's
developed. That the market for a long time in the '80s was seen--by many
people--as potentially positive in that they focused on elements of consumption
and saw the market as a liberating force in some way. I think a number
of people went down that road. Marxism Today did, but then at the first
hint of capitalist crisis they neatly did an about turn and, ha ha! marched
in the other direction. Opportunists to the last.
Variant: Yeah well...They
brought out that recent edition?
GP: It's ghastly. It's depressing
watching people who've moved so far in the direction away from what was
the original critique of the market.
V: Well they've brought it
out and it's all 'Tony Blair's got it wrong'. Marxism Today has Stuart
Hall, but from what I gather Hall taking over in Birmingham was seen as
a big push for media studies. The introduction of Marxist critiques, semiotics,
but that was some time ago.
GP: I would think Stuart
has done some very interesting things. I think in his early work for the
New Left he wrote some very important material and I think we did use some
of his work when we first started doing Bad News. He wrote an excellent
article called The World at One With Itself, which was, I think quite inspirational
at the time. Having said that I think a lot of what the Birmingham Centre
went on to do was to move between one or other branches of increasingly
obscure academic theories. And it moved away from--I would say--empirical
work which could be used to mount a sustained critique of the society as
it developed in the '80s. I actually think that it moved into obfuscatory
and non-critical work, and I think some of the problems that now beset
cultural studies come from that. The emphasis on the encoding/decoding
model--which they used--was basically wrong. It was full of flaws. I think
it led them into a concern with audiences, and audiences having the ability
to make up their own meanings and make up their own worlds. And once you
start to go down that road you lose sight of the power structures which
exist in society which actually position people. Power structures which
relate to what I would see as key issues like ownership and control. They
stopped talking about who owns the society or who owns the world; and instead
focused on small elements of how people construct and develop their own
systems of language and meaning.
V: There seems to be a division
of people who are just interested in a theoretical approach--arriving at
some sort of theoretical model, and there's work which I would say is quite
polemic. I'm sure that's a big insult for people seeking to be objective.
But your work seems to have more of a scientific spirit about it.
GP: I've nothing against
theory at all, I've nothing against science--what I'm talking about is abstract
theory: theory that proceeds in the absence of any practical empirical
critique of the society which we're in. The post-modern turn in social
science left people moving away from what I would say is any serious critique--which
was empirically evidentially based--of the society which they exist in.
Cultural Compliance (Dead Ends of Media/ Cultural Studies and Social Science)
is very much a critique of what you might call the 'discursive turn' in
social science: The move towards the obsession with meanings and meaning
construction; without looking at the social practice which position the
possibility of action. It moves towards meaning to the detriment of any
analysis really, of the conditions under which meaning can become possible.
...Its really quite a long critique,
it takes on most of the contemporary theories and theorists in cultural
studies. What we did was to say that first of all there have been a series
of major changes in the last 20 years: The rise of the market, the free
market and deregulation; the release of market forces in the society as
a way of disciplining trade unions, as a way of lowering wages, as a way
of changing the balance of power in society was pushed through very effectively.
But it had a number of very powerful influences in the way in which people
related to each other in society, so the influence wasn't just in the workplace--in
the sense that there's a change in the shift of power at work, that trade
unions were broken, there was a series of strikes which were successfully
defeated by the government of the time.
All of those things happened but
at the least the market changed our culture as well. It increased the levels
of insecurity in our society, it increased the stress levels, it changed
the way in which people worked--we brought in part-time contract type labour.
That is going to have all sorts of implications for the way people address
each other, relate to each other, the sort of clothes people wear, the
way people relate to commodities, the way in which conformist dress-styles
are likely to increase. Children now all wear the same kind of clothes,
very tightly defined dress styles now occupy almost the whole of society.
It's not the kind of invention you saw in the '60s and '70s because people
are just very conformist. The nervousness and insecurity of society produces
those kind of changes.
So what we did was to go through
a whole series of material cultural changes that occurred in the last 20
years. And then we said why is it that contemporary cultural studies cannot
explain any of these, or is not addressing any of these things? That the
actual conduct of children in schools, the way in which they relate to
films, the way in which they identify with new kinds of role models--like
the characters from Pulp Fiction--all sorts of things that we've been doing
here--are not being typically done in most of cultural studies. They're
actually not looking at the power structure of society, and how that structure
is impinging upon tastes, style, what is possible and the everyday lives
of most people, the everyday problems that most people confront in their
lives. In this country it's that you can't get a job or if it's Africa
you can't get water. That everyday culture is not any longer part of most
social science studies.
So what has happened? Basically
in the '80s the bulk of academia stuck its head in the sand, and went up
a very easy road: Which was to go along with the post modern account. Which
is to say well we'll focus on small groups of people who in different ways
construct their own little worlds for themselves, and we'll see this as
a liberating force in society. And in fact they very rarely even looked
at what anybody was actually doing because they never got beyond discussing
the theoretical implications of that kind of position. If you look at the
quotes at the beginning: There's one which is actually a quote from Stuart
"The 'discursive turn' in the social
and cultural sciences is one of the most significant shifts of direction
in our knowledge of society which has occurred in recent years."
(Introduction to Open University
course book on 'Culture, Media and Identities.' 1997)
Now I have to say we think that's
wrong. We follow that with a quote from Raymond Tallis which is:
"When the emperor is restocking
his wardrobe, he usually shops in Paris."
Which is pretty much what we thought
was happening--that they simply moved into one after another of a series
of increasingly obscure and really pointless academic debates, which I
think went from Althusser, to Lacan to Baudrillard, just one after the
other of these theorists who were posing these questions at a theoretical
level and had no empirical base for what they were saying. If you read
Baudrillard's work I mean it is just rubbish. He makes statement after
statement about audiences, about beliefs, about what people think in society,
about how all the population is deceived by the simulacrum. If you read
his book on the Gulf War I mean it is simply rubbish. I mean we studied
in detail both the Falklands war and the Gulf war...
V: I've always felt so distrustful
of the adulation--this is similar in art theory--with all that kind of stuff.
I understood it to be pushed by a lot of film theory people, Colin McCabe
from Strathclyde University--it was just so dull...
GP: But it works in a certain
way, because it has no empirical base. But the value of that is that you
can make outlandish statements which have a sort of...
V: Entertainment value?
GP: A kind of entertainment
value, ha, yes! And a kind of happy ring to them. And then people can use
them with their students and they're catchy. It's like 'The Medium is The
Message' or 'The Global Village'. These are wrong--this is actually not
how it works. But the process of actually going through different cultures
and finding out what does actually happen in culture and how people did
really relate to the Falklands war or really did relate to the Gulf war
is very, very complicated. It takes a long time, you've got to interview
hundreds of people. It's really bloody hard work. And you can avoid all
that by saying 'all of the population is taken in by the simulacrum'.
The first question a real social
scientist would ask is: 'do you mean all of the population except you'.
How did you escape? Are you the only one who did?' As soon as you start
to question the premises of these people their statements all collapse.
Reality is constructed in language, the classic post-modernist philosophical
position: And then you say now that last thing you just said--is that true,
or is that just for you, did you just construct that? So what you're actually
saying is all reality is constructed in language except what I just said
which really, really is true. You see--you go round and round with these
V: Also a lot of this stuff
is so based on 'text'.
V: Most people must be able
to see through that.
GP: It's great for students
you see--actually students hate it--but it has a kind of cachet in teaching
because it's easy to do, it can be applied across borders--because you're
not actually relating it to anything very special, other than the most
general statements about 'this is what the Gulf war was like and this is
what happened'. But you're not actually relating it to the different conditions
in different countries; there's no point in which Baudrillard for example
discusses whether the French press was different from the English or from
the Scottish press, or whether American television is the same as British
television. Nothing like that--he's quite happy to make statements about
how everybody relates to the media without the slightest bit of work on
the issues that--actually the media are quite different and audiences are
quite different and there are many different audiences within a single
national audience. So none of those kinds of issues are discussed. And
in a way that's its strength. You can have an all purpose theory which
is applied to everybody everywhere and you simply say oh well there's no
difference now between reality and its image.
This seems to us to be ridiculous.
If Baudrillard dressed up as Napoleon Bonaparte a picture of him would
not show the real Bonaparte, ha ha! An image is not the same as what it
represents, and that you can't collapse one into the other. And that in
order to say that, to even raise those kinds of things you have to have
in your own head that there is a clear division between the image and the
reality. The sorts of examples they give constantly depend on making the
division that they say doesn't exist.
You know the one about how television
stories are constructed as news events. So they say for example the timing
of bombings is done so it times in with the Nine o'clock News or something
like that. The first question we would ask is are you sure that was what
was done? You're absolutely clear that this actually really occurred that
they actually did time the bombing in this kind of way? So someone's done
some empirical research to know that's really what they did. As soon as
you tell the audience that's really what they've done--there is an immediate
division in the audience's mind between the reality of what they've done
and between the image that's been constructed. And of course that happens
all the time and audiences do pick those kinds of arguments up. And that's
what we find. We find people very distressed at the actions of governments
because they start to be aware of these kind of things. Television journalists
start to reveal that sort of thing, they start to deconstruct it and to
constantly point out the difference between the reality of what's occurring
and the image that's attempting to be constructed. To say that it's all
one bundle of images and you can't distinguish one from the other is just
What seems to be most peculiar was
that as the society got worse in material terms, as it created more and
more problems for the people who actually lived in it, at the same time
cultural studies seemed to be less and less able to actually analyse that
or to talk about what was going on
V: You're describing certain
academics who have got all this material and are saying we'll just give
this to the kids, that'll give them something to do: There's vague amorphous
stuff which we can check if you've actually been reading or not. This is
very much painting a picture of academia as having just a Bourgeois agenda--and
that it always will have, even when they get hold of quite radical stuff--it
will always fold back into this...
GP: Yeah that's fair enough,
ha ha ha! There's a marvellous quote here from Nick Garnham which describes
exactly what you've just been saying. Post modernism was the perfect practice
for academics because it came with lots of cheap research opportunities,
it in no way challenged anything, you didn't get into any trouble, it didn't
require any major movement out of their offices...
He says that the focus on the text,
the postmodernist approach:
"Developed out of literary and film
studies and carried its texuality into versions of structuralist and post-structuralist
Marxism and on into post-modernism. It took with it the bacillus of romanticism
and its longing to escape from the determining material and social constraints
of human life, from what is seen as the alienation of human essence, into
a world of unanchored, non-referential signification and the free play
of desire...It is also perfectly designed as an ideology of intellectuals
or cultural workers for it privileges their special field of activity,
the symbolic, and provides for cheap research opportunities, since the
only evidence required is the unsubstantiated views of the individual analyst."
What you find is this odd combination
where you have a complete relativism in what is being taught to students
combined with an absolute demand that they toe the line. If people come
round and say what about material structures or...this is just dismissed
as oh that's old fashioned. This is what you have: a movement through intellectual
fashions. And I do think the Birmingham school were terribly susceptible
to that, not just them, a lot of cultural studies moved in that direction.
But it left it in the end unable to address the everyday life of most people
in the world.
There's a section of the book called
'Critical Journalists and Silent Academics'--which is saying that the great
bulk of critical work done in the 80s was not done by academics at all.
There are one or two people at it, but the actual analysis of power all
but disappears and is not a fundable area--so we find the whole of the '80s,
if you look at research councils, the way in which funds were given out,
it was very difficult to do any kind of research that was critical at all.
If you wanted to, for example, investigate even something like the relationship
between unemployment and ill health: very difficult to do--to get funds
for it. It was a kind of area which would be almost impossible to fund
through normal research-type channels because it would be regarded as an
absolute no-no, a very politically difficult thing to look at. And you
can imagine how much trouble we had when we wanted to look at Northern
Ireland, when we did all that work on the broadcasting ban. We had to do
that entirely out of our own resources, people were working for free.
V: What I've never understood
about that was when Thatcher banned the BBC from reporting, all the independent
journalists just fell into line, they just complied with the ban. What
power has the government got over independent journalists? With the Independent
network why did it comply?
GP: Fear. That's the main
issue. I think they are much more tightly controlled than people imagine.
'I've spoken to some friends on the Sunday Times: They were talking about
short-term contracts, how quickly people just get tossed out if your face
doesn't fit, if you do something wrong. People like Andrew Neil who you
would not see as a radical by any means was hoofed out of the Sunday Times
because of the story on Malaya and the dam. If somebody like Andrew Neil
can go well what about the lesser mortals. This friend who was on the Sunday
Times was saying to me that it's like Watership Down working here--people
just disappear, you look around and someone else has gone.
V: Would you say what is
happening In the Glasgow media group is unique...it was hardly really taken
up as a model throughout the country was it?
GP: I think it was used a
lot by journalists. I think we are closer in that sense to the practice
of journalism, we are contacted as a source of information, because we're
the ones who have done the empirical work, there's so few people doing
it and they keep coming to us...there's a few people, we're not the only
ones. There's people in Leicester, in Loughborough (Peter Golding), James
Curran in Goldsmiths, in Liverpool. There are quite a number of people
who are in the same tradition as us on empirical work on the media.
V: I'd like to ask about
the development of your research methodology...
GP: First of all we started
with the study of television news--we looked at the content of it, we did
a very big study of the news and what was available in terms of explanation.
Then we started quite quickly to move into production processes. One of
the first studies was 'From Buerk to Band Aid'. We started to look at the
conditions under which stories became stories and who made decisions and
what the basis of the decisions being made were and things like that. And
the difference really between the media's version of how wonderful they
were in covering such an issue and what had actually occurred if you look
at it--the cack-handed series of accidents...
V: Yeah it almost never got
GP: Absolutely, if Mohammed
Amin hadn't have gone and met Buerk at the airport you would more or less
not have had the whole Live Aid thing. The point that we made in that particular
case, was that the story was turned down by most of the media. It was 'just
a new famine.' They were really quite shocked at the public response to
it. So we continued with a lot of work on production, interviewing people
about particular stories.
David Millar came to work with us
in I think about '85/6. He started to work for the Media Group then later
formally in the Media Unit. He pioneered all the work on Northern Ireland.
We had done some work on Northern Ireland before, but David did a PhD on
it and then later published a book 'Don't Mention the War'. He worked in
areas of production processes and began to look at audiences as well. Just
before that I had started to move into audience work--so I did the Miner's
strike stuff. Apart from theoretical and academic interest, it just seemed
to me to be a crucial issue to show how the media did in fact inform public
opinion; we couldn't go on just doing content studies we had at some point
to say well look it does make a difference. So I interviewed a large amount
of people up and down the country with the intention of seeing whether
it was possible to show in a definitive way what the power of a media message
It seemed to me that all of the
previous studies had not been able to do this because--I don't want to be
too rude about people, ha ha ha--they had not managed to identify very clearly
what the impact of specific messages were on audience beliefs or understanding.
That was the problem--they had a blunderbuss approach. They would use divisions
like heavy watchers and light watchers. It's not very clear how you draw
a line between a heavy watcher and a light watcher. Then they would say
heavy watchers are more scared of the dark, or more scared of strangers,
or more scared of being attacked in the street. You weren't clear whether
they'd actually watched violent programmes or which programmes they watched.
So there was a lot of work which seemed to me to be not very methodologically
There was also a lot of work which
had relied upon showing people a video or a television programme and trying
to measure whether there was any difference in their beliefs. It was very
difficult to work out what the contamination was--all the other possible
factors which they could be bringing to bear on that. Anyway you were putting
people into very artificial situations, by forcing them to watch something
which otherwise they would not have watched.
So all of those things seemed to
me to be wrong. What we did was to develop a method which turned all that
on its head; and said the first thing we've got to do is empty people's
minds of what they already know. The way to do that is to give them a very
minimal stimulus and to get them to write the programme. Then you can find
out what's already in their head about that particular issue. Then the
next step is to take apart all the things they've written and to work out
what the sources were. But tie it to very distinct and very measurable
issues which are new so that you can date the entry of this information
into the public arena. That was why the Miner's strike was so good because
there was a whole range of new information which was coming in: Like 'Miner's
pickets are violent', things like that, which have never really been in
the public area before that or been associated with violence.
One of the things we did was to
give photographs and tell them to write [a headline]. What we found was
that people could reproduce actual headlines from the strike--over a year
after it had taken place. These lines--almost word for word--the juxtapositions
of the failure of the strike and the apparent increase in violence were
very deeply rooted in people's minds. We then traced the source of people's
beliefs and we found huge differences between people who had any kind of
experience of the strike, even at the level of a solicitor driving to work
in the morning and who would go past a picket line: His vision of it was
completely different from anyone who had got their ideas from television
news. That sort of person would say 'oh... they just lay about on the grass
all day'. Ha ha ha! While people down in St. Albans or something--who'd
never seen a picket line were terrified of even meeting a miner in case
they were set upon! We showed very clearly that this had occurred.
Context, Audience and the Symbolic Economy of the City
Belfast recently played host to several
high-profile touring exhibitions, as well as a season of prestigious contemporary
opera, dance and theatre productions, all courtesy of the 'Festival at
Queens'. The participation of Yoko Ono, David Byrne, Philip Glass and Bill
Viola helped to secure the Festival's position in the "premiership of world
class culture".1 The international selectors
of the 'Perspective Exhibition' (October/November 1998) at Belfast's Ormeau
Baths Gallery also displayed a concern with the placing of the city on
the 'world scene'.
'Perspective '98' was the first
of the Ormeau Baths' proposed annual open submission competitions, aiming
to "highlight the diversity and quality of contemporary visual art practice".2
It was followed in November by the city-wide project 'Resonate' which in
some ways functioned as the antithesis of the gallery-based exhibition;
an artist-led initiative incorporating a website, a touring artwork and
a series of site-specific interventions. Criticism of 'Perspective '98'
has tended to focus on the paradigmatic opposition between the curated
show and the artist-initiated project. Reviewer Derval Fitzgerald, writing
in Circa, notes that the "artist-run project in Belfast was set up, at
least in part, to supersede the kind of send-in competition/ exhibition
of which 'Perspective' is a (slightly) updated version".3
The 'Resonate' project, unlike 'Perspective
'98', appears to privilege the local rather than the international context,
through its emphasis on site-specific art practice. However despite the
frequent labelling of artist-run projects as 'alternative' or 'oppositional'
it is apparent that no model can be regarded as inherently unproblematic.
In this article, it is perhaps more useful to address each in terms of
its relation to what Sharon Zukin terms the 'Symbolic Economy of the City';
"[the] intertwining of cultural symbols and entrepreneurial capital".4
Zukin has focused primarily on the development of 'place entrepreneurship'
in New York City but her emphasis on the role of visual culture and artists
in framing urban space is increasingly pertinent in the European context.
Zukin emphasises that the symbolic
economy operates at several levels. Cities, she claims, have always manipulated
"symbolic languages of inclusion and entitlement", a phrase which clearly
takes on particular resonance within the Belfast context. She suggests
however that modern cities also owe their existence to a more abstract
economy devised by 'place entrepreneurs' and the related activities of
a 'patrician class' whose "ability to deal with the symbols of growth yields
'real' results in real estate development, new businesses and jobs".5
Within the national and global market this symbolic economy speaks for
and represents, the city.
The redevelopment of Belfast's Cathedral
Quarter by Laganside Corporation, like the transformation of Dublin's Temple
Bar, provides an almost text book example of such 'place entrepreneurship'.
Laganside (according to the official website) aims to secure the regeneration
of the city with the participation of local communities, and to develop
a "positive international image of Belfast" leading to "increased investment,
visitors and tourists".6 Plans for the Cathedral
Quarter include "residential accommodation, cultural facilities, shops
restaurants, bars and areas of open space". The recent Laganside-sponsored
Fringe Festival 'Live in Cathedral Quarter' celebrated the corporation's
role in the area's "cultural and artistic renaissance".7
Laganside's plans to redevelop the
Cathedral Quarter may be linked to the fact that the area includes several
'alternative' exhibition spaces, such as Catalyst Arts, the Clear Spot
Gallery and the Community Arts Forum. As yet however Laganside have no
specific plans to build facilities for artists, focusing instead on the
improvement of public space through the provision of 'street furniture'.
In an examination of the gentrification of New York's Lower East Side,
Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan emphasise the fact that the presence
of 'pioneering' artists in an otherwise economically depressed area places
it on the road to gentrification.8 Their work
has highlighted the art world's crucial role in the displacement of blue-collar
communities from the city. The regeneration of the Cathedral Quarter cannot
be categorised in quite this way but the work of Deutsche and Ryan does
expose a relationship between the artist, place entrepreneurship and the
increasingly symbolic economy of the city.
Survey shows, such as 'Perspective,'
also play a part in the symbolic economy, contributing to the promotion
of the city as a cultural capital. 'Perspective '98', as I have already
suggested, positions contemporary practice in relation to the 'world scene'.
Hugh Mulholland, exhibition director of the Ormeau Baths, acknowledged
the importance of the international panel in his introduction to the catalogue;
"having an international panel travel to Belfast to select Perspective
is crucial if the exhibition is to contribute to a wider debate around
contemporary visual art".9 The international
curators were thus over-valued specifically for their perspective as outsiders.
In his catalogue essay Paul Hedge expresses the hope that 'Perspective'
"may contribute to the discovery and assistance of many artists that turned
[sic] out to be important on the world scene".10
He goes on to compare Belfast with other regions which are "in geography
and character NOT LONDON".11 Dr. Slavka Sverakova,
another selector, is even more 'cautious' in her definition of the regional
context, acknowledging the "slippery character of the idea of a context".12
Overall 'Perspective '98' set out
to celebrate variety; "a mix of work, which represents many of the ideas
current within contemporary visual art practice". The curators set themselves
the task of providing audiences with access to a broad spectrum of current
art practice within the domain of the gallery. As Louise Dompierre states
"many of the works that captured our imagination were intent on generating
new, broader and perhaps easier dialogues between art and its audiences".13
According to Dompierre the
curators "developed a non-linear
narrative of forms, ideas and emotions".14
In practice however the exhibition format could be said to have encouraged
a rather linear reading of the works on display. Many visitors followed
the guidelines of the gallery handout, progressing from 'Gallery One' through
to 'Gallery Four' in the correct order, reading the explanatory notes on
Each of the numbered galleries appeared
to display works which shared thematic or formal concerns. In some instances
this was a successful strategy; encouraging the interplay of ideas and
extra-textual references. Eamon O'Kane's digitally altered 'Wederland'
cityscapes, Russell Hart's pseudo-documentary photograph entitled 'I want
to believe but...' and Andrew Vickery's model 'Theatre' all worked particularly
well together. Many of the works in this section of the gallery explored
the relationships between memory, fantasy and narrative, often utilising
photography. In this context the snapshot documentation of Fiona Larkin's
prize-winning performance piece 'The Sand-Bagged Arse' seemed somewhat
out of place. Dan Shipsides' 'The Stone Bridge', another performance piece,
suffered from superfluous video documentation. Approaching the gallery
as a hostile terrain, Shipsides climbed across one wall, leaving a series
of footholds and scrapes marks, exploring the notion of the artist as 'pioneer'
Works displayed in 'Gallery Three'
were more concerned with the language of the museum. Mary McIntyre's large
scale photograph 'The Grand and the Mean' foregrounded framing as means
of fixing cultural value. Prize-winner Blaise Drummond's 'Untitled History
Paintings' utilised the techniques of fine art to explore the common territory
shared by imperialism and cultural tourism. 'Thoughts and Second Thoughts'
by Mark Dale consisted of a series of painted fragments contained within
two sets of ornate moulding, inviting the viewer, according to the handout,
"to actively engage with the work, making new compositions from the available
sections". The critique of exhibitionary practices, evident in the work
of Drummond, Dale and McIntyre, exposes the relationship between museum
culture and the maintenance of class distinctions.
'Perspective '98' sought to display
a full spectrum of contemporary art practice, within the gallery. The exhibition
thus featured two installation pieces. Ruth Jones' 'On Mercury the Days
are Longer than the Years', incorporated a drinking fountain and investigated
biological rhythms. Susan Philipsz's atmospheric sound and light installation
'Alone is not Lonely', was positioned in the stairwell. Both pieces functioned
effectively in their respective sites but the inclusion and the positioning
of this work could be read as a attempt to incorporate 'site-specific'
work within the domain of the survey show without any real degree of commitment
to this type of art practice. Overall 'Perspective '98' succeeded in displaying
diversity but the exhibition format tended to efface contradictions between
the works rather than promote debate.
The 'Resonate' project, organised
by Susan Philipsz and Eoghan McTigue under the title of 'Grassy Knoll Productions',
featured a total of seven site-specific artworks at various locations throughout
the city. The project, according to the press release, aimed "to raise
questions relating to the profile of, and possible function for contemporary
art beyond the gallery space, and ultimately to the role of the artist
in the city". The brief for artists was simply to choose a functioning
environment within the city and to make a piece of work in that context.15
In a discussion of several public
art projects, including 'Resonate', Circa reviewer Aidan Dunne emphasised
the usual problems associated with site-specificity; "weaving arts into
the fabric of day-to-day life is a process fraught with problems... When
you go into a gallery you know if it's in there it must be art but out
in the wild, who knows?"16 Projects such as
'Resonate' often succeed in placing the issues of context and audience
on the critical agenda for reviewers, simply through problematising access,
despite the fact that these issues are sometimes side-stepped by the work.
Although the 'Resonate' organisers/
participants are mostly Belfast-based, there was an international dimension
to the project. French curator Guy Tortosa, who has widely espoused this
type of public art practice, was invited by the organisers to give a public
talk during the Belfast Festival, Tortosa's speech, which centred on his
experience of curating 'EV+A' in Limerick in 1996, explicitly promoted
the regional or peripheral context as an appropriate site for experimentation
by established international artists. Tortosa categorised the relationship
between the 'provinces' and the mainstream as a process of 'exchange',
thus problematising the construction of the peripheral as a 'pure' or 'alternative'
Careful choice of environment was
arguably the key factor in the success of the project as many of the interventions
were decidedly modest in scale. Graham Fagan's drawing of 'Belfast as World
Garden', a rather child-like map of the city could easily have been mistaken
for a school project. However its placement in the Victorian palmhouse
at the Botanic Gardens linked the process of mapping with both imperialism
and contemporary tourism.
Susan Philipsz's 'Filter', accapella
versions of pop songs played over the sound system at Laganside Buscentre,
was both evocative and eerie. Philipsz succeeded in creating a tension
between those positioned as the audience for the piece as many of those
listening to the 'Filter' were unable to determine its source. Mary McIntyre's
mobile billboard piece 'Home', which toured the city, featured ambiguous
domestic images. This work played with conventional definitions of private
and public arena, and functioned as an antidote to the slick billboard
images of Yoko Ono and David Byrne (displayed in Belfast during the Festival).
Karen Vaughn's 'Untitled' was a
barely noticeable intervention, consisting of a grey painted band, painted
at waist height on the facade of a building on Castle Street. This work
(which drew attention to the subsidence of the building) hinted at the
complex relationship between the artist and the city. The notion that cycles
of decay, redevelopment and renewal are somehow 'natural' has been critiqued
by several urban theorists, including Deutsche and Zukin.17
No one could mistake the destruction of sections of Belfast city centre,
occurring at various points during the last thirty years, as a 'natural
process' of urban decay. However the role that artists and artists' initiatives,
even those which appear to function outside the 'mainstream', play in the
re-imagining and re-presentation of the city, still requires critical interrogation.
The 'Resonate' project, incorporated
into the Belfast Festival, formed part of a series of high-profile events
designed to promote the city as a world-class cultural capital and several
of the 'Resonate' sites were well-known tourist landmarks (such as the
Botanic Gardens, Queens University and the Linenhall Library). 'Resonate'
was thus ideally positioned to explore the re-construction of the city
as tourist destination but, although the project placed the role of the
artist in the city on the critical agenda, many of the works stopped short
of addressing problematic issues, such as urban regeneration.
Cultural practices such as 'Perspective
'98' and 'Resonate', although they appear to function as opposing paradigms,
play a significant part in the re-presentation of the city. Several of
the artists participating in both projects did attempt to investigate the
workings of, and their place within, this process. It is apparent that
both the site-specific project and the survey show provide opportunities
for contextual art practices. Work which actively engages with the production
of meaning, whether inside or outside the gallery, can contribute to a
much-needed critical interrogation of the artist's role in the symbolic
1 ‘Belfast Festival at Queens’ Programme introduction, p. 1.
2 Ormeau Baths Gallery Programme, July/October 1998.
3 Fitzgerald, Derval, Circa 86, p. 59. Fitzgerald notes the fact that many of the selected artists have participated in the activities of ‘Catalyst Arts, Orchid Studios et al.’. Three Belfast-based artists (Theo Sims, Mary McIntyre and Susan Philipsz) have contributed to both ‘Perspective’ and ‘Resonate’.
4 Zukin, Sharon, ‘The Cultures of Cities’, (Cambridge, Mass.,: Blackwell) 1995, p. 3.
5 Ibid., p. 7.
6 Laganside website.
7 ‘Fringe Festival’ (November 10-28) Programme Foreword, p. 1.
8 Deutsche, Rosalyn and Ryan, Cara Gendel, ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’, October 31, 1984.
9 Mulholland, Hugh, ‘Perspective ‘98’ Exhibition Catalogue Introduction.
10 Hedge Paul, ‘Perspective ‘98’ Catalogue Essay.
12 Sverakova, Slavka, ‘Perspective ‘98’ Catalogue Essay.
13 Dompierre, Louise, ‘Perspective ‘98’ Catalogue Essay.
15 Interview with Susan Philipsz and Eoghan McTigue, SSI Newsletter, January/ February 1999, p.11.
16 Dunne, Aidan, Circa 86, p. 5.
17 See Deutsche, Rosalyn, ‘Evictions’, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1996) and Zukin, Sharon, ‘Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change’, (Baltimore; Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982)
Comic & zine
Original 1960s underground cartoonist
Justin Green makes a living these days plying his craft as a signwriter
in California. Justin Green's Sign Game is a collection of single-page
strips that have appeared in Signs of The Times, the professional signwriters'
monthly magazine, over the last decade. Green obviously enjoys his work
both sign painting and cartooning and it shows, these strips manage to
combine the practical--technical hints, tricks of the trade, safety warnings,
small business advice and typography lessons--with anecdotes on how to deal
with and extract payment from clients, flamboyant self-promotion schemes,
and diatribes against the universally hated vinyl lettering. The onslaught
of computer generated lazer-cut vinyl lettering in dull typestyles is held
responsible for a decline in work for traditional signwriters. The Sign
Game obviously has a devoted readership in the sign industry--many strips
are based on tips and stories sent in by readers.
The "Story of O" strip, about the
endless quest for a perfect letter 'O', comes closer to his earlier neurosis-soaked
mystical tinged stories in "Sacred and Profane" and "Binky Brown meets
the Holy Virgin Mary".
This collection is extremely obscure--I
don't think it's had any publicity or distribution outside the signwriting
trade, and is incredibly difficult to get hold of. I eventually got one
mailorder from the U.S., but it's worth the effort. Ostensibly just a collection
of comic strips about signpainting Justin Green's Sign Game is an massively
enjoyable oddity from a cartoonist who never really fits in anywhere.
Looking back over a pile of previous
issues of Chris Ware's The Acme Novelty Library I realised that
the main reason I'd bought them was because they looked so interesting.
I'd cherished them for a couple of weeks before getting round to actually
reading the stories, they really are sumptuous visual novelties first and
foremost, top-grade Eye Candy to be sure--and should be enjoyed as such!
I like the way The Acme Novelty
Library seems to change names with each issue, employing a library of subtitles
which dominate the front covers of successive issues, "Big Book of Jokes",
"Jimmy Corrigan--The Smartest Kid on Earth". For issue #11 we're treated
to an alternate spelling, "Novelties" instead of "Novelty", which crawls
around the spine so that it can't be properly seen from either side. I
like The Acme Novelty Library's use of different types of paper within
an issue and its fluctuating page size and cover price. I like the sumptuous
palettes of colour chosen for each story individually. I like the pages
of small ads and line upon line of pedantic small print, explanations and
exhortations. I like the detailed paper cut-out models of robots and spaceships.
I like everything about The Acme Novelty Library apart from the stories,
they're just a bit too sad and mean spirited, not just occasionally, but
persistently, issue after issue, maybe now I've realised why I prefer just
looking at it to reading it. Can we expect The Acme Cruelty Library next
Top Notch Comics #1 has got
me puzzled, and I don't like it, this is so similar in every respect to
The Acme Novelty Library--same publisher, same price, same city of origin,
very similar name, similar size and format, mean spirited Father &
Son story, mean spirited Robot strip, paper cut-outs, duo-tone print, spoof
adverts and patterned endpapers, that it's impossible to tell if it's an
elaborate self-parody of Acme Novelty Library by Chris Ware himself, (it's
probably the kind of thing he would do, but given the gargantuan amount
of work that goes into each issue of Acme, it's hard to believe he'd have
the time) or a comic so wholly inspired by Acme that it comes across as
a "School of Acme Novelty" title.
Either way it's an impressive exercise
but kinda pointless. Much, much worse than any of the above it looks like
it was done on a computer--aaarrrggghhh.
Measles, Teddy & Comic Book
are "Comics for Kids of All Ages". In the Measles anthology, the
best strips are the first two, Venus by Gilbert "Love & Rockets" Hernandez
and Jim "Jim/ Frank" Woodring's Little Frogs. Both deal with subjects in
a light and happy way, everybody, particularly the little frogs, ends up
happy in the end, as indeed they should in kids comics.
In Hernandez's strip, Venus introduces
herself proclaiming "I love Comic Books! So what?" Later on her way home
from the comic shop, in a comics-induced reverie, she takes a forbidden
shortcut home, and in what must be a comics-industry first scares off a
possible stalker (or is he just looking for a lost dog?) with a super-duper
loud fart! I hope that copies of Measles will be included in The Sun's
"Free Books For Schools" scheme...
In Jim Woodring's Little Frogs,
Hippy chicklet Aloris subtly persuades two pesky boys against harvesting
baby frogs by pelting them with the decomposing body of a massive dead
toad that she finds nearby!
The anthology format is always problematic,
there just isn't space in 28 pages to develop a coherent style and identity,
and for readers to avoid the "Well I paid £2 for this and half the
comics are crap, so I feel cheated out of half my money" feeling. I like
Steven "yikes" Weismann and Rick "Doofus" Altergott's work, but they should
both get back to their own comics, where they belong.
Teddy faces repeated hassles
from the unemployment office for just being a teddy and not having a job.
When things get really bad and they're starving, Jean-Pierre, Teddy's cat,
decides it's time to utilise his predatory instinct and go find some mice
to eat, not expecting his intended victims to be quite so well trained
in modern crisis management techniques, the mice decide to help Jean-Pierre
by sneaking into a printers and pinching several thousand vouchers for
free pots of yogurt! Another delightful story has Jean-Pierre escaping
a boring Saturday night a home with his owner by pinching Teddy's cigarettes
and slinking off to the cathouse, to guzzle as much milk as he can in the
company of dancing felines and accordion-playing tabbies.
After the frustrating but financially
rewarding trauma of having his previous characters Ren and Stimpy removed
from his control John Kricfalusi vowed to go it alone. In Spümco's
oversized, high-intensity colour Comic Book we're presented with
John K's latest deranged characters, Jimmy the Idiot Boy, and George Liquor
his all-american huntin'n'fishin uncle. We see Jimmy feeding scabs to the
squirrels, and together with George spanking a sassy fish, with other bonkers
adventures just too ludicrous to attempt describing in print. With their
animated cartoons (you can watch at <www.spumco.com>) and merchandising
(dolls, skateboards and animation cel painting kits), George and Jimmy
are much more worthy of your attention than those South Park guys--a sad
waste of plastic, they should be thankful if every South Park toy in the
world was melted down to be made into Jimmy the Idiot Boy's incontinence
Jack Chick's tracts are palm-of-your-hand
sized religious rants in comic book form, I've accumulated a collection
of 12 over the years but have no idea where these mysterious publications
came from, handed out in the street or picked up off seats on the bus?
Dan Raeburn got to wondering about them and dug a bit deeper, The Imp?
a 64 page overgrown monster of a tract is the result of his hideous fascination
with this series of candy-coloured hate literature/soul savers.
In the 1960's Jack Chick decided
that his mission was to spread his rabidly anti Roman Catholic, anti pretty
much everything else, religious views and chose the microsized comic book
format as the most appropriate method to do this, using powerful images,
persuasive language and an accessible, cheap format--he's since distributed
over 400 million tracts worldwide.
Dan Raeburn's read them all, well
over 120 different titles actually, his extended essay examines Chick's
perverse take on theology and hateful obsessions. The Imp? delights in
damning Chick with his own words and pictures and provides a concordance-reference
list of themes and characters for those wishing to study the tracts further.
If you've ever been puzzled when one of these mysterious tracts has fallen
into your hands, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of The Imp? and find
Peter Bagge sometimes seems to have
more fun doing occasional one-shot mini comics than his regular title,
the recently deceased Hate. Donna's Day is a great little
slice of life 16 pager following the repeated ups and downs of slackerette
Donna Day. Publisher Slab-O-Concrete's new "missive device" format, a postcard-comic
hybrid, solves the problem of what to do after you've read the comic in
a couple of minutes--write your message inside, stick a stamp on the back
and send it to a friend. My copy will be staying exactly where it is though,
carefully filed next to Bagge's thoroughly reprehensible and totally enjoyable
Tiki News excavates the legacy
of the 1950's vogue for Hawaiian/ Polynesian culture, looking at artifacts
of the craze that originated in California and spread worldwide. Editor
Otto von Stroheim has assembled a globetrotting team of lounge-bar archaeologists,
these committed cocktail tasters travel to the world's major cities revisiting
ancient tribal sites--Tiki bars deep in the bowels of hotels, or currently
languishing as strip joints, it seems that most major cities in Europe
and the US have surviving Tiki-themed bars.
Issue #14 is the Exotica Erotica
issue and has serious fun examining the many and varied representations
of exotic dusky maidens presented for consumption in the West, Illustrated
with collections of Velvet Paintings, Hawaiian shirts, Record Sleeve Artwork,
Restaurant decor Menus, matchbooks, tacky tourist souvenirs, carvings and
waitresses themselves! Tiki News shows the artifacts that were created
to satisfy consumer demand for exotic fantasies and forbidden desires.
Infiltration--"the zine about
going places you're not supposed to go", is the underground journal of
alternative urban exploration, all about exploring hidden, forbidden parts
of our urban environment-subways, rail tunnels, storm drains, catacombs
and other supposedly off-limits structures. Editor Ninja, and the enthusiasts
who contribute to the zine, seem to locate and access these places pretty
With minimal design and plenty of
atmospheric murky photographs, each issue is a collection of factual accounts.
It's particularly impressive that Ninja is so committed to his hobby (sport?)
that he plans his holidays around illicit tunnel tourism, meeting up with
catacombs explorers in Paris, but feeling slightly less adventurous in
Milan after seeing submachine gun toting police and security guards everywhere.
I like the subversive, yet responsible
tone of Infiltration, it's clear that careful planning and precautions
are necessary in potentially dangerous spaces, one issue is full of tales
of getting caught, and offers practical advice on what to do if security
guards find you--play dumb and say sorry seems to be the best strategy!
At first glance both Infiltration
and Tiki News seem incredibly narrowly focussed, you can't help wondering
if there's enough material to fill 30 A5 pages of a zine, let alone a dozen
or more issues about Tiki Bars or Old tunnels, yet for me this is where
the success and strengths of both these zines lies, in focussing on a highly
specific, obscure yet accessible area of contemporary culture and covering
it well, with the editors enthusiasm showing through and thus attracting
JUSTIN GREEN'S SIGN GAME, 80pgs,
ST publications, USA, available in UK from Disinfotainment £10.95
ACME NOVELTIES LIBRARY #11 $4.50,
TOP NOTCH COMICS#1 $4.50 and MEASLES#1 $2.95, Fantagraphics, USA, both
$4.50, should all be available from any decent comic shop
THE IMP? 64pgs, $6.00 inc p/p, Chaplain
Dan Raeburn, 1454 W Summerdale 2C, chicago IL 60640 USA. Available in UK
for £4.00 inc p/p from Disinfotainment
JACK CHICK Tracts may or may not
be available in your local Christian bookshop
Jack Chick Website: www.chick.com
DONNA'S DAY, 20pgs, £1.50
inc p/p, Slab-O-Concrete, PO Box 148, Hove, BN3 3DQ-ask for their catalogue
of other fine comics
TEDDY by Virginie, 48pgs, Bill,
Luc vandewalle bruggestraat 11,
8755 Ruiselde, belgium in Uk £3.50
inc p/p from Slab-O-Concrete
SPÜMCO COMIC BOOK,
Dark Horse Comics, $5.95, might
still be available...
INFILTRATION, 24pgs, $2.00 inc p/p
, Infiltration, PO Box 66069, Town Centre PO, Pickering, ON, L1V 6P7 Canada
Available in UK for £1.50
inc p/p from Disinfotainment
TIKI NEWS, 40pgs, $3.00 inc p/p
2215-R Market Street #177, SF, CA-94114,
in UK £2 inc p/p from Disinfotainment
-- mailorder catalogue P.O.Box 664,
London, E3 4QF
of art development
According to Bob McGilvray, consultant
director of Dundee Public Arts Programme, the idea of an arts centre for
Dundee originated in the printmakers' workshop and associated gallery organisation
in the Seagate in 1986. McGilvray could not say from whose actual lips
this idea sprung. It must have issued forth from the wellhead of group
wisdom. An arts centre, a greater ideal, would provide them with a more
prestigious stage to improve their position within the city, and most importantly,
might extend the range of facilities for artists independent of the art
Dundee Printmakers Workshop Ltd
& Seagate Gallery had little money. Its rent and running costs were
paid by the District Council (DC) and Scottish Arts Council (SAC). In order
to drive forward their arts centre initiative they had to interest parties
with more money. Pieda, an Edinburgh-based arts consultancy, was commissioned
to produce a feasibility report but, in the words of McGilvray, "It was
a waste of money. They sent along some office junior who hadn't a clue."
The Scottish Development Agency
was then asked to contribute to another feasibility study. This time a
consultant, Tim Jacobs, did the honours. I have not been able to find a
copy of what was entitled, Jacobs' Intrinsic Strategy. It was published
sometime between 1989 and 1991 and cost between £15k and £25k.
It was trashed. McGilvray told me that Jacobs had been asked to examine
three likely sites to develop as an arts centre: A vacant building next
to the Repertory Theatre, a vacant lot behind Dock Street, and the Seagate
Gallery building itself. Jacobs' vision was to cost £600,000 per
year to operate. As far as the DC was concerned his figures did not 'stack
up'. They were certainly not prepared to invest such a sum in art at that
time. The vision was impracticable and was summarily forgotten. The feasibility
study was assigned to wastepaper-bins throughout the city. Hence its subsequent
rarity. Maybe in years to come these products of '90s culture will be seen
as works of art in their own right and become highly collectable.
Bob McGilvray was highly regarded
as an artist by his peers. He painted the first two public murals in Dundee,
which were commissioned by the DC under pressure from SAC who paid McGilvray's
fee. He had become a part-time lecturer at Duncan of Jordanstone (DoJ)
and was the director of an initiative called the Dundee Public Arts Programme.
He was an obvious and popular choice of artists' leader.
Originally McGilvray was paid as
the Exhibitions Organiser and shared the work of running the Seagate Gallery
with Ann Ross, the part-time administrator. During this time the Board
of Directors was being chaired by Jonathan Bryant whose vice-chair was
Steve Grimmond. The Board was still actively pursuing the dream of an arts
centre as being a natural progression of Seagate Gallery and its stablemate,
the printmakers' workshop. However, it was told by SAC that in order to
seriously pursue its ambition it would have to appoint a full-time director
whose duties up until that point had been shared by Ross and McGilvray.
The post was advertised and McGilvray encouraged an Aberdeen-based artist
called Dave Jackson--who had held a successful exhibition at the Seagate--to
apply. Steve Grimmond who was actively involved in the local art scene
as a musician and printmaker resigned as vice chairman of the Board in
order to apply for the director's post. It was awarded to Dave Jackson
in April 1993.
When Jackson assumed his post as
Executive Director, McGilvray was employed as Exhibitions Consultant. The
Board paid him £5,000 per annum to carry out part-time duties and
when Jackson was hired on a salary of £17,000 it was obvious that
McGilvray's post would be sacrificed. Obvious to most people except McGilvray
that is. He accused Jackson of stealing his job and as far as I know never
spoke to him again. McGilvray had been enjoying a privileged position at
the Seagate from where he could run the Dundee Public Arts Programme rent
free and by doubling up staff could take on three part-time jobs. He remains
highly critical of Jackson who, by uniting the printmakers with the gallery
under the banner, Seagate Ltd, ultimately sacrificed it to DCA Ltd.
Jackson perceived McGilvray as the
'clan chief' and was aware of the acrimony his arrival as an outsider had
caused. His determination to reverse the collective apathy split the ranks
and likely brought about recriminations that affected ensuing developments.
The organisation had died on its feet as a result of dismissing the Jacob's
report, having no clear exhibition's policy and a lack of proper management.
With complete endorsement from his Board of Directors Jackson effected
a 'Nordic House' styled policy: To raise the profile of locally-based artists
and the gallery while bringing in the best contemporary art he could afford.
He recognised the gallery as being the interface with the public and concentrated
on raising its overall profile. Live events, coupled with a policy which
incorporated Dundee Photographic Society as associate members, helped treble
the annual attendance figures. Jackson had been briefed by his Board to
make the Seagate break even and this he did by creating a popular centre
of cross media events. But there were many who mocked him within the arty
cliques and pubbing huddles where historic loyalties were watered and cultivated.
Dundee is a small city with a village closeness and it is all too easy
to offend and to incur petty jealousies. History is the result of the cause
and effect of human relationships: The colliding and denting of egos: The
marrying of partners. And this is a story of such.
During this time Steve Grimmond
worked for Dundee Council, within the corridors of power traditionally
dominated by more ruthless and corrupted characters. When I interviewed
him in his office on December 9th 1998 he was distinctly on edge. His body
language betraying his casual executive exterior. He had been Corporate
Planning Officer since 1994. One of the first jobs he had been given was
the development of the arts centre project. What he neglected to tell me
was that prior to this he had been handed the Dundee Arts Strategy Consultation
Document to complete and publish.
The first Consultation Document
was a spiral bound A4 report of 79 pages. It clearly defined The Arts as
being "set out in five generic parts: A. The Visual Arts; B. Literature;
C. Music; D. Sound and Vision; and E. Performing Arts." It was an audit
of every facility for the aforementioned within Dundee.
In December 1993 the DC's Chief
Executive, Alex Stephen, issued an open letter 'Dundee Arts Strategy--Consultation'
enclosing a "Consultation Return Form, How You Can Help," to be completed
and returned by the 14th February 1994. By completing the form arts organisations
would be invited to attend an informal consultation meeting. This was convened
in April 1994 at the McManus Galleries. Its agenda included a 'Welcome'
by Alex Stephen; a 'Chairman's Introduction' by Eric Robinson, Director
of SALVO (Scottish Arts Lobby); 'Outline Remarks' by Andrew Nairne, then
Visual Arts Director, SAC; and 'Brief Statements' by spokespersons from
the main local groups:
Dundee Printmakers Workshop Ltd
& Seagate Gallery, Dundee Art Society, Dundee Photographic Society,
the Embroiders' Guild (Dundee & East of Scotland Branch), the Saltire
Society (Dundee Branch), the School of Television and Imaging (DoJ), Dundee
Rep and several 'Individuals'.
The only organisation represented
that advocated a City Arts Centre "with an emphasis on a facility like
the Printmakers Workshop, but encompassing a broader range of media to
include photography and electronic imaging" was DPW Ltd & Seagate Gallery.
SAC suggested "that a further consultation
paper setting out the goals and priorities of the Arts Strategy should
be issued before the District Council agrees the Strategy." SAC also included
detailed comments on the proposed new City Arts Centre and suggested "that
the Public Art project should continue to receive support from the District
Council and other agencies and should be widely promoted to enhance the
city's image both in respect of its quality of life and also its artistic
and cultural aspirations."
The second Consultation Document
was an Arts Strategy of 29 pages bearing the Scottish Arts Council logo.
It had evidently developed from the McManus meeting and was so redolent
of SAC documents that one must conclude that DC was led by the nose by
SAC in its production. This is confirmed in the introduction: "The development
of an Arts Strategy for Dundee compliments the Charter for the Arts in
Scotland which was launched in January, 1993 by the Scottish Arts Council."
At this time every Scottish city and region was undergoing similar exercises,
each one subsidised and endorsed by SAC.
A shift in emphasis
This second draft became a glossy
A4 'Dundee Arts Strategy' designed for public consumption. Published in
December 1994, its idiom is formulaic hyperbole. The DC refers to itself
as "a listening Council" which "Aims to confirm Dundee's status as a major
regional centre for the Arts." The Strategy informs us that "no art activity
is intrinsically superior to any other," and that as a force "arts and
cultural activities can make a major contribution to putting the heart
back into the City"'. A city that was disembowelled throughout the 1960s
and '70s, culminating in the corrupt stewardship of Lord Provosts Moore
and Charles Farquhar from '73 to '76.
The Strategy defines "the development
of a City Arts Centre, primarily for the contemporary visual Arts." Under
'Strategies', we find highly questionable statements that pre-condition
the City Arts Centre vision: "It is only through experiencing the best
that would-be artists will be encouraged to excel." Under 'Facilities',
the City Arts Centre is described as being "independent", a description
that would become even more contradictory with time. This statement is
followed by 'Economic Benefits', one being that arts provision attracts
tourists and prolongs their time in the City. "To capitalise upon this
a longer term strategy will be to develop links between arts, tourism and
economic development organisations in the City with a project driven remit
to identify high profile initiatives." One presumably being the City Arts
Centre. Under 'Participation', it clearly states that: "Every member of
the community should have the opportunity both to practice and enjoy the
arts. Access to creative self expression should not be in the preserve
of a minority." This ethos is further declared under 'Access and Equal
Opportunity': "Underpinning all of the specific Arts Strategies for Dundee
is a commitment to ensure equality of opportunities and of access for all."
The publication concludes with an
Action Plan and the first priority under Short Term Action is to "Establish
a Steering Group to develop proposals, locations and costs for a City Arts
Centre." This is to be achieved by a grouping of the Chief Executive (Alex
Stephen), SAC (Andrew Nairne) and Arts Organisations (those above mentioned
as operating in Dundee). Within the publication this list was extended
to include a new partner, Scottish Enterprise Tayside (SET) who had obviously
been encouraged, through the wording of the second edition of the Strategy,
to participate as a major investor; contributing £920,000.
1995 to 1997
Back in Steve Grimmond's office
he told me that he was placed in charge of building a partnership that
could make the art centre concept work. A concept, it must be said, that
was very confused in its expectations and ideology. So much so that the
arts community believed that it would be independent and entirely for their
Grimmond's boss, Alex Stephen--who
had been in the DC during the notorious Farquhar era and had held the post
of Head of Finance and who set up the Arts Strategy--was now manipulating
his officer's strings. Grimmond 'arranged' a meeting with Dr Chris Carter,
the Deputy Principal at DoJ. He was very keen on the arts centre proposal
from the point of view of a partnership. And, according to Grimmond, was
interested in the way such a project might help the college to raise its
public profile and connect more strongly with the city. This meeting served
to affirm the college's role as a partner within a major investment, the
costs of which could not be met by the DC or any one partner alone.
Grimmond also told me that his job
entailed establishing a "greater clarity". This was achieved by "listening
to the different ideas of what an arts centre might be." His general recollection
was "that there wasn't a huge discrepancy between what the DC wanted and
what those at Seagate wanted." Grimmond's recollections are highly suspect
for although the Seagate artists expected the arts centre to be independent
of DoJ the DC could not develop the project without Dundee University,
DoJ's parent organisation.
"The vision," said Grimmond, "was,
from the outset, that a new art centre would contain the printmakers' workshop
and that the galleries would be the principal enhancement. They would have
to be better than what we already had. If they weren't the whole project
would be a waste of time. There were also ideas for cinemas, artists' studio
space, a ceramic workshop and sculpture studio." There were even possibilities
for photographers and live arts too.
These informal Steering Group meetings
encouraged an open forum which included Dave Jackson and James Howie from
the Seagate, Ian Howard and Charles McKeen from DoJ, and the DC's Steve
Grimmond and John McDougal (Finance Dept) augmented by engineers and architects.
The Steering Group discussed and examined forty potential sites within
Dundee. The most significant of these, 'McLean's Garage' being a large,
city centre site commanding a view of the River Tay and virtually straddling
the boundary between the university campus and the city centre. From the
point of view of all the major partners, DoJ, DC, SET it was the site that
offered the most spectacular economic benefits in terms of its central
location and tourist potential. Such a key development would also attract
significant funding from SAC and other agencies. By this stage Seagate
Ltd (a brand name devised to unite the print workshop and the gallery)
was being castrated. It had neither the financial muscle nor the strength
of a unified community of artists with which to fight off its emasculators.
What followed was a condensed, energetic
period in which the steamroller gathered a momentum that was not to ease
off enough for people to take stock until the building was underway. During
the spring of 1995, to prepare for single tier government, while the old
DC was being shadowed by Dundee City Council (DCC), a new administrative
organisation was put into place. Arts & Heritage was established in
April and with it a restructuring of staffing levels was implemented. Clara
Young lost her role as Keeper of Art: a role that permitted local artists
direct access to the McManus Galleries in terms of talking through projects
and ideas. Young was replaced by a Team Leader and a Chief Arts Officer,
Andrea Stark, who was appointed in July '95 having previously held the
post of Head of Arts Development with Sunderland City Council. Before relinquishing
its bank account to DCC the DC purchased MacLean's Garage for £390,000.
The role of the Steering Group was over. The policy of open debate was
also at a close. It was time to consolidate and to develop. A private company
Dundee City Arts Centre Ltd (DCAC Ltd) was set up and the major partners
were invited to send representatives to attend regular meetings.
At this stage Seagate Ltd believed
that it held a third stake in a new arts centre and felt confident that
its reps, Sheena Bell and Douglas Black would report back to the Board
all that was being discussed behind DCAC Ltd's closed doors. However, this
belief was unfounded when the reps refused to inform the Board as to what
was going on. No minutes were made available. Minutes that were being kept
by Steve Grimmond who, when I questioned him in his office about the role
of SAC and its rep, Andrew Nairne, declared quite categorically that they
"were observers only. They maintained an arms length approach throughout,"
he said and then continued: "They never sent an observer. They received
minutes ... As far as I recall they were never represented." I found his
statement incredulous, for although SAC certainly do favour an arms length
policy when it comes to dealing with their revenue clients they had certainly
showed enough interest in the arts centre project from its first murmurings
to take an active part through attendances by Andrew Nairne at several
meetings. I asked Grimmond if Andrew Nairne had ever attended meetings
of DCAC Ltd. "My recollections are," he declared, "that he was never there."
On December 22nd '98 I met with
Professor Ian Howard in his office at DoJ. Involved in the arts centre
project from the outset, he had been asked by Dr Chris Carter to attend
meetings as a representative of the School of Fine Art in the company of
Charles McKeen from the School of Architecture. Would his memory be sharper
than the man who had kept the minutes? "The SAC were observers more than
advisers," he confirmed. But they did attend meetings either in the person
of Sue Pirnie, Amanda Catto, or Andrew Nairne. "We met once a week or once
a fortnight," he continued, "SAC came once a month."
According to Howard another feasibility
study was commissioned. A number of consultants tendered for the job and
it was, once again, awarded to Pieda. He referred to this as an interim
report which outlined various options by which the arts centre might proceed.
One option was chosen. "We built a much larger vision" he said. "Other
consultants were brought in to develop the Business Plan," and "a bigger
plan enabled it to be a larger project. We wanted to achieve 'critical
mass,'" he explained. Originally the college investment would have been
for post-graduate studios only but as the project became bigger the potential
for research facilities began to look obvious. "We have no custom-built
research facilities here," he explained. "Only teaching facilities. Custom-built
laboratories would make for more interesting developments, different synergies
and links." I was beginning to see how dreams are made, especially when
they can be endorsed and supported by large, state financed institutions,
corporate development and a powerful City Council.
Howard's relatively open approach
to my questions confirmed one thing. Grimmond's uneasy and edgy display
had been a clumsy attempt at concealment. But what was he trying to hide?
From the time DCAC Ltd appeared with a controlling influence of the project
all sorts of rumours about coercion and small town gangsterism began to
emerge. It was alleged that Councillors and Council employees had begun
a campaign to weaken the administrative structure of Seagate Ltd. Particular
Board members were harassed, asked to stand down, abdicate their responsibilities.
Effectively turn a blind eye to what was going on. A local guitarist with
aspirations to establish an annual Guitar Festival was advised, reputedly,
that the Council would not fund his event if... The past president of Dundee
Photographic Society and an employee of DCC was coerced into resigning
from the Board after serving on it for ten weeks only. He believes the
command filtered down from a higher authority within the Council. The bully-boy
tactics of the past were still in evidence. When James Howie threatened
to withdraw Seagate Ltd's support of the arts centre he received a threatening
letter from Alex Stephen suggesting that he was jeopardising the future
development of the city. Seagate Ltd had, by this time, taken legal action
to ensure that minutes of DCAC Ltd meetings were released to the Board.
Later their firm of solicitors informed the Board that they could no longer
represent them. At the AGM in November 1996 it was noted that Sheena Bell
and Douglas Black had resigned from the Board on the 28th November 1995
while maintaining their positions in DCAC Ltd. They wanted to preserve
a continuity, but a continuity of what? Self-interest?
Grimmond had been so emphatic that
he had repeated it twice. "They (Sheena Bell and Douglas Black) were representing
the interests of the membership (of Seagate Ltd) which largely consisted
of local artists." I had asked if local artists' interests were represented
at DCAC Ltd. Clearly they were not. Local artists' only grasp of what was
going on with the arts centre development was via a wilting grapevine.
Seagate Ltd was effectively reduced to a scramble as Howie valiantly attempted
to recruit people to sit on the Board in an attempt to hang onto threads
of communication and control. The Council withdrew its financial support
of £8,000 per annum and SAC likewise saved itself £80,000.
And although Seagate Ltd was earning up to £30,000 a year it was
evidently perceived as an organisation worth sacrificing. The one person
who should have taken up their cause, Andrew Nairne, the Visual Arts Director
of SAC, did not. One could be forgiven for thinking that he had set his
ambition on running the new gallery now that Seagate Ltd was effectively
out of the picture.
According to Steve Grimmond, however,
the decision to subsume Seagate Ltd if the arts centre went ahead had been
discussed during the Steering Group meetings to which those at Seagate
were a party. "The revenue funders," Grimmond stated, "would not duplicate
their commitment. And in terms of the Seagate reps they stuck to that principle."
Dave Jackson was made redundant in March '97 despite being employed to
take Seagate Ltd forward as an arts centre. He took Seagate Ltd to an industrial
tribunal who found the company guilty of unfair dismissal.
Professor Ian Howard was not alone
in taking the university's vision of a Research Centre for national and
international collaborations forward. For not only did his colleague, Charles
McKeen attend DCAC Ltd meetings but so too did Dr Ian Graham-Bryce, Dundee
University's Principal, and Alex Stephen, DCC's Chief Executive. From reasonably
modest beginnings a major development began to take shape. Arts & Heritage
were incorporated into the vision along with the Steps Film Theatre which
had occupied space within the Wellgate Public Library since 1979. The vision
did include the printmaker's workshop but its membership was dismantled
and it was reinvented as the Print Studio. According to Howard there will
be: "A continuum from local to international." The Print Studio providing
the link between the ordinary practising artist with an interest in printmaking
and the international research fellow invited to work in the 'Laboratory'
on cutting edge, high-tech projects. Links too will be developed between
the Research Centre and local industry as well as other faculties within
the university, such as the Medical School.
Howard's vision is in harmony with
Dundee City Council's Economic Development Plan; while in the Council's
Corporate Plan 1996 to 1999 it says that a new City Arts Centre "will be
a significant focus for the development of Dundee's cultural industries
which is a sector of the economy the City would need to achieve growth
in." One-person and small businesses operated by artists and craftspeople,
musicians and writers did not count as "cultural industries," for the partnership
that drove forward the development of the City Arts Centre did not include
them. The partnership consisted of state subsidised "cultural industries"
that had access to major capital funds. Nowhere is there any mention of
supporting and promoting the work of local artists who, if they create
outside of the medium of printmaking, will not be catered for within the
In April 1996 an architectural competition
to find a suitable design for the City Arts Centre was launched. A panel
comprising DCAC Ltd, SET, DCC, SAC and the Competitions Unit of the Royal
Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, selected Richard Murphy Architects.
Dundee City Arts Centre would be their first major rebuild. The package
to present to the Lottery Board was taking shape and it must be concluded
that the decision to go for a major Lottery award had been taken during
the early stages of DCAC Ltd because the Lottery as a capital funding source
came on stream in March 1995.
Andrea Stark, Arts & Heritage's
Chief Arts Officer who had begun to attend meetings of DCAC Ltd was put
in charge of the application. A comprehensive Business Plan was commissioned
from Pieda. It begins: "The Dundee City Council, in conjunction with Scottish
Enterprise Tayside, is seeking Scottish Arts Council National Lottery funding
to develop the Dundee City Arts Centre. The project will provide a unique
experience within Scotland allowing visitors to view and participate in
state of the art visual arts exhibitions and processes. The project cost
amounts to £8.6m and a contribution of £4.8m is sought from
the Scottish Arts Council (National Lottery)."
Interestingly, the background details
say: "More recently the project has been championed by the Dundee Printmakers
Workshop." No mention of Seagate Ltd as a driving force or a partner is
made. No mention of Seagate Ltd as an organisation with a director and
board of directors is made. Under Construction Costs it states that "the
disposal costs of the Seagate Gallery, have been included." It goes on
to say: "The disposal cost has been calculated to be £168,000, if
the Council has to buy out the lease from 1998 to 2010." Presumably these
details were being discussed at meetings of DCAC Ltd while Seagate Ltd
still had a director on a salary with an understanding that he was to be
responsible for taking the arts centre project forward. Dave Jackson and
James Howie were quite right to feel concerned for it is obvious that Seagate
Ltd as an organisation was to disappear while its 'sub brand' organisation
who shared the same building would survive.
Through a misleading and confusing
use of brand names Seagate Ltd had been divorced in people's minds from
the print workshop. If the gallery was to be redundant so too was its director
despite the fact that as Executive Director he was responsible for both
organisations. This underhand strategy made economic sense because the
new Print Studio would rely on the old DPW Ltd equipment while the gallery
was simply an empty space with no material assets to carry forward. We
can also assume that this strategy and the entire contents of the Business
Plan were being debated and finely tuned during meetings of DCAC Ltd.
The SAC Lottery application was
signed and dated on 24th August 1996 by all the partners excluding Seagate
Ltd. In April of that year Laura MacDonald, acting Chairman of Seagate
Ltd's Board, signed what she believed to be the final draft of the Business
Plan. However, it was amended and republished in August and this version
was the one that was sent to support the Lottery bid. On 29th October 1996
it was announced that a record sum of £5,380,756 had been awarded
to Dundee City Arts Centre. The role of DCAC Ltd was complete.
Dundee Contemporary Arts Ltd
DCA Ltd had been formed in May 1997
after DCAC Ltd was dissolved and three months after its director's post
had been advertised. Many rumours about Andrew Nairne had preceded his
appointment. It had been a "stitch-up" according to one academic at DoJ.
Allegedly he had been in a position to negotiate his own salary when, as
an SAC rep., he had attended meetings of DCAC Ltd. Almost everyone in the
know in Dundee will tell you how he handed in his resignation at SAC two
months before the post of Director was advertised. The post was advertised
in February 1997 and, according to Prof. Ian Howard who assisted with the
interviews, attracted a fairly wide field of applicants. Only two, however,
were deemed suitable. An anonymous person from London and Andrew Nairne.
Both were interviewed by Andrea Stark, Ian Howard and Councillor Andrew
Lynch, convener of Arts & Heritage. All three having attended meetings
alongside Nairne throughout the planning and development of the city arts
centre project. No wonder conspiracy theories multiplied.
His previous record working in an
arts centre as Exhibitions Director in the Third Eye Centre is peculiar
to say the least. Stoy Hayward, Chartered Accountants, were appointed as
administrator to investigate the accounting records for the fifteen months
ending June 1991. This revealed a trading loss of £242,873 which
compared to a reported profit of £4,618 as shown in the Management
Accounts for the year ending 31st March 1991. In a written statement Stoy
Haward's Douglas Jackson said: "During the fifteen months prior to my appointment,
the company's expenditure on the centre's cultural activities significantly
exceeded its grant funding. (£220,100 from SAC and £15,000
from Glasgow District Council per annum). A balance sheet prepared by me
on a going concern basis at 18th June 1991 showed an insolvent position
with current assets at £106,000 from which to meet current liabilities
Stories of deliberately concealed
travel receipts and personal extravagances abounded--someone had been spending
money without due concern. Six members of the Board of Directors resigned
and a chorus of rumours echoed around the art community of Scotland. Astonishingly,
in his report Jackson said: "Subsequent enquiries showed that the company's
ledgers and bank account had not been updated or reconciled since 31st
March 1990 and therefore management accounting information presented to
the Board after that date could not be relied upon."
The SAC provided "a dividend fund
for the benefit of unsecured creditors". This amounted to £125,000
but of course SAC had to settle other 'accounts'. An unlikely scapegoat
was found in Lindsay Gordon, the Visual Arts Director of SAC. He took SAC
to an industrial tribunal and won his case of unfair dismissal. In a opportunistic
move, Andrew Nairne applied for and was given Gordon's vacant office. There
he stayed until destiny called in Dundee, The City of Discovery.
Nairne took up his Dundee post in
May 1997 and according to the Pieda Business Plan was to receive a salary
of £21,740. But then at this time the company with responsibility
for the operation of the galleries, print studio, cinemas and cafe franchise
was to be named Dundee Visual Arts Ltd. Later the word 'Visual' was to
be replaced by 'Contemporary', a trade name to describe a hybrid, homogenised
artform that often denies its cultural origins.
It is premature to judge how DCA
Ltd might fulfil its own remit in the Business Plan because it is not scheduled
to open until March of this year. However, we can assess its character
on the evidence of what has emerged in this story. After a period of consultation
followed by a duplicitous development (when artists were not informed as
to what was being discussed behind closed doors) a partnership representing
the interests of powerful organisations within Dundee, with the complicity
of SAC, railroaded through a vision that failed to address the needs of
local artists. The resulting institution will enhance the career prospects
of those who were directly responsible for its development and further
the careers and status of an exclusive minority who operate within its
studios and laboratories.
DCA's internal hierarchy is based
upon the assumption that the 'best' art is produced by those with an art
college training. It fails, therefore, to acknowledge that some of the
'best' art of the 20th Century was produced by artists who were outside
of this self-acclaimed elite. Academic research during the last fifty years
has shown that there is an equality within art which DCA's philosophy denies.
Instead of commencing from the basis that all artists are equal it imposes
a pyramidal power structure onto art, at the top of which are the staff
of DoJ. Local artists will provide a workforce for the facilities within
the institution and perform outreach and educational roles. That the exhibition
policy excludes locally-based artists on the assumption that their work
would not attract tourists speaks for itself.
That the welfare and interests of
the local community of artists was sacrificed by DCA's perspicacious and
career-blinded developers in favour of a corporate vision is obvious by
the way they refused to accommodate the city's largest grouping of amateur
and professional photographers (the Dundee Photographic Society) who have
been promoting the medium (and the city) since 1880. The photography darkrooms
are geared to service the requirements of printmakers and not necessarily
The absence of a creche is a blatant
denial of the existence of women artists with young children. These artists
are the most vulnerable in terms of the struggle to create. Without a caring
support structure many simply give up. That the developers represented
a white Christian majority within a city of a diverse cultural blend must
also be noted.
Despite all the rhetorical devices
employed to secure funding the keystone to DCA's existence is its claim
upon the territory of tourist and economic development. That Dundee University
has 11,257 students plus staff on campus and contributes approximately
£10m to the city's economy is the central reason why it was invited
to join the arts centre partnership. Not only is its rent of around £70,000
per annum and its initial investment of £197,000 crucial to the building's
economic viability but its staff and students will produce the art component,
provide an audience for events, and help staff the facilities.
There has always been an unhealthy
umbilical connection between art groups in Dundee and DoJ as mother figure.
Such symbiosis has not assisted a truly independent art scene with sufficient
cultural distance from 'mother' to make radical and original art. Now that
DoJ has secured an even stronger position within the heart of the city
and within the very citadel of art production which also houses two public
art bodies, the art cinema, and the DCC's Arts and Heritage offices, there
is absolutely no cultural distance whatsoever between state run institutions
The state has the controlling influence
on art in Dundee and this does not bode well for a culture that is taking
its first steps towards independence. That the state is so firmly behind
the construction of DCA as a "unique cultural institution" with links to
similar hi-tech institutions in Europe reflects New Labour's millennialist
vision for the 21st Century rather than a more modest and fundamental solution
as proposed by Dundee-based artists. With New Labour's aspiration influencing
Lottery funded projects, which tend towards over-excessive schemes requiring
vast sums to maintain and operate at the tax payers' expense, there is
a danger that those sectors of the community most in need will be disenfranchised
and alienated. This state of affairs being exemplified in Dundee where
individualistic and self-taught artists will shy clear of DCA because it
has little or nothing to offer them.
Not only has the original notion
of an arts centre, independent of DoJ and serving, first and foremost the
interests of the local community of artists, been lost but the very name
'arts centre' has gone from this new institution's corporate logo. The
building is now called Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) and a pale, electric
blue neon sign, visible from the waterfront and railway approaches to the
city, advertises it as such.
Limerick's EV+A 98, in its 22nd year,
showed the work of 150 artists and as such is Ireland's largest group exhibition.
Usually EV+A, in an attempt at 'objectivity' brings high profile curators,
such as Jan Hoet and Guy Tortosa, to Ireland from Europe. Referring to
this objectivity, the chairman, Hugh Murray writes of how "this very detachment
and lack of knowledge of the Irish art scene was also a weakness". With
these reasons in mind the EV+A committee decided that Paul O'Reilly, the
director of Limerick City Gallery, should curate it. One gets the sense
that O'Reilly on taking the position was reflexive in terms of his approach
to the power involved. Worth noting was a willingness to engage with people
and discuss why their work was not chosen for EV+A's Open Submission. This
has to be a first. It also shows an acknowledgement by O'Reilly of the
power inherent in judging people's work.
The work was dispersed over 20 different
centre-city sites and because of this EV+A resembled large European shows
which negotiate the discursive terrain of 'site' and location. However
this trajectory was not a priority but rather was arrived at by default.
In the catalogue we were told that "this is due to the unavailability of
Limerick City Gallery's Carnegie Building on Pery Square". Originally the
show was to be brought to Pery Square but this was not possible because
of building delays. The potential of 'off site' art practice collided with
conceptions of how art works function in traditional art spaces at EV+A
98, sometimes to good effect and sometimes not.
Discussing the works' pattern of
dispersal around the city, Paul O'Reilly writes that it is "...a pattern
that has no single dominant gallery presence". Unfortunately this was not
the case; the dominant gallery presence was in evidence and located at
City Hall. There are a number of reasons for this, the most obvious being
that it was the location for the official opening. The main space in City
Hall was used to present a large selection of 'hangable' work and followed
a traditional conception and allegiance to how gallery spaces function.
Perhaps it might have been more interesting to challenge viewers' expectations.
This is not to ignore the pragmatic difficulties of finding space for the
amount of work to be shown but rather to remark on the consequences of
some of those pragmatic decisions.
On the application form of EV+A
98 there was a very definite call for 'lens-based media' which was unusual
in an Irish context and yet by the end this emphasis was disregarded by
the final call of "...And everything else". It is difficult to understand
the reasoning behind this besides a need to be inclusive, although arguably
this desire for inclusiveness can collapse everything to a certain level,
creating a compromise in which no one is satisfied. This is also worth
negotiating in terms of Paul O'Reilly's catalogue notes in which he situates
the dangerous implications of "...contemporary culture's visual bias".
O'Reilly opens up a potentially engaging discussion on the prioritisation
of the visual in consumer culture although there is a sense in which this
potential remains confined within the catalogue rather than a discursive
dialogue that flows through the works.
Referring back to City Hall as the
'dominant gallery space' there was a sense in which the discursive potentials
available between the various art works were not explored. The inter-relationships
between works suggest discussion and dialogue, but this was often so disrupted
that the spatial gaps emerged as gulfs, almost as if the works were ignoring
each other. This was especially obvious in work that negotiated a specifically
gender based discourse. Eliz Lagerstrom's installation 'Pain is a State
of Mind' which references some womens' position towards sadomasochism,
employing a combination of objects, photographs and text such as "...She
wears her bruises with Pride. Like trophies, like tattoos. Hidden under
her clothes. Her secret. Her game". This was shown in a small annex off
the main room and although employing cliched materials such as rubber,
buckles, belts etc it would have been more interesting to see what sort
of discussion, be it provocative or polemical, that the work would generate
if shown in closer proximity to, for example Dorothy Ann Daly's crocheted
wall drawing, or any of the more acceptably 'feminine' work shown in the
back room at City Hall. This back room was a difficult space in terms of
how the work was installed. This was unfortunate, especially in the case
of Elizabeth Byrne's 'The Insistence of furniture' where the conceptual
research of the installation involved confinement--the actual placing of
Paddy Jolley's VHS film loop 'Late
for the Train' was shown on a monitor at the end of a stairwell, a location
which suited the work, a figure in the New York Subway flat out on the
ground as trains on either side stopped at the station. As an installation
the stairwell had the right atmosphere or 'end of the line' quality about
The video installation 'Untitled
Unsigned Story' by Amanda Coogan in the main space was a video of a woman,
mostly in close up. Through a variety of facial expressions, tapping fingers
on her face, and guttural sounds, Coogan presented the frustration of failed
communication and mistranslation. Coogan writes: "Irish sign language has
been consistently and consciously oppressed" and in situating this Coogan
opens up an intriguing view of some of the socio-political relations of
a marginalised community. This video was installed in a wooden structure,
a cross between a house and furniture. It was difficult to figure the necessity
for this. The conceptual terrain of the video did not need any props to
support itself and the sculptural rhetoric of the wooden structure appeared
jaded in terms of the complexities of language being figured in the video.
The collaboration between Amelia
Stein and Barry McGovern 'Do You Love Me Cunt' employed Beckett's logic
although this was more an illustrative piece. This work comprised a black
and white photograph of Barry McGovern looking suitably aggressive/ angry
as he recites an excerpt from Beckett's 'How It Is'. Listening to this
extract as one looked at the photograph of McGovern, restricted the photograph's
possible readings to one of a 'character study' of the actor performing.
This made it difficult to know what this image was meant to mean. The installation
was located in a small corridor beside a lift and listening to the sound
piece it was hard to resist thinking how much better it would work in the
Within City Hall, the placing of
Andreas Gursky's large colour image 'Chicago Board of Trade' in the Council
Meeting Room was impressive. Gursky's image, of the stock exchange taken
from above, presenting the action on the floor as frantic and trivial at
the same time creating a strong dynamic with the discourses of power flowing
through this Council Room.
The performance of Fergus Byrne's
'Splint' took place on the Saturday in Cruises Street. Byrne with the help
of two assistants and behind the cover of a makeshift 'tent' was wrapped
up in roof slates, turning himself into a "vertical pillar". Byrne eventually
emerges from this architectural space by using physical pressure to break
the gaffer tape holding the slates in place. What made this particular
performance so nerve racking was the alternative performance it gave rise
to by a group of local teenagers. Besides the verbal abuse there were various
moments of risk for the artist and the people standing close by. As the
teenagers pushed into the tent as Byrne was being wrapped, the potential
for him to fall and get cut up by the slates became a tense build up. Cruises
Street on a Saturday afternoon is a great location for performance because
of the volume of people passing by, although the lack of an official EV+A
presence to aid Byrne was a mistake.
St Mary's Cathedral, offered a tomblike
location to view Karl Grimes' 'Blood Cell Memorial': A grid of 24 colour
images of blood cells together with others in alcoves or lying on pews,
so that there was the potential for them to get lost amongst the memorabilia
and artifacts in the Cathedral space.
The billboard of Mike FitzPatrick
'EV+A Not As Good As It Used To Be' required the collaboration of all EV+A's
open submission artists. The billboard containing photographs of the artists
with the above caption was, to use FitzPatrick's words "...an attempt to
test the ability of an institution like EV+A to resist censorship". As
an example of how effective this proposed 'institutional critique' was,
the billboard occupied a prominent location just outside City Hall.
FitzPatrick's artist's statement
continues "this work delivered in the format of a billboard, could act
as an incentive for people in general to be more conscious of, and engaged
with, an exhibition which is publicly funded and highly regarded by the
participating artists". FitzPatrick aspires to a 'discursive practice'
and yet the piece prioritises his intentions and perceived possibilities
of how the work "...could act". It is worth noting that artists who did
ask what the caption would be were not told.
There is also a problem here in
the simplification of specific audiences to a more general "people in general".
Who for example? EV+A as the largest art exhibition in Ireland, draws a
large percentage of the 'art community' in the country. There seems to
be an over simplification of 'art community' audience 'bad'; the 'people'
audience 'good'. This is not to discount the validity of a practice which
wishes to reach beyond a given 'art' audience. However, there is a political
myopia in operation when 'artists' become some homogenous targeted group.
FitzPatrick ends his statement with:
"I defend my actions on the grounds of freedom of artistic expression and
the broader social intent of the work". Unfortunately this follows a certain
cynical logic that falls into a heroic conception of the lone artist (male!)
battling to change the world no matter the personal cost.
Located in a tax office, Susan MacWilliam's
'The Last Person' is a strange and humorous reconstruction of the paranormal
events surrounding one Helen Duncan (1898-1956). The video is based on
Duncan's trial. A medium from Portsmouth, she "...was the last person to
be prosecuted under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735". The video uses
the court reports as a narrative, recounted by a monotone male voice. The
enigmatic qualities of MacWilliam's video were expanded by its setting
in the bureaucratic atmosphere of this '70s style Civil Service space.
Jonathan Horowitz's 'Bach's Two
Part Invention' situated in Maloney's Bookstore was an installation comprising
an audio track, a framed vintage photograph and text. The photograph is
of the 1974 Minnesota Music Teachers Association Piano Contest Recital
in which Horowitz took part. The text presents Horowitz's memories of the
contest; the fact that he forgot his piece and his subsequent disinterest
in the piano lessons which he was forced to take until he left the family
home. The sound accompanying this is of piano notes played randomly, resulting
in, not quite dissonance but more of a depressing but humorous pointlessness
which was totally in sync with Horrowitz's story of suburban mores in Minnesota
Two of the largest installations
in EV+A 98 were located in Glen House, Daphne Wrights's 'Looking for the
Home of the Sickness' and Brian Hand's 'Foam'. Wright's installation, comprises
rows of plaster rhododendrons which vertically frame horizontal rows of
miniature Georgian balustrades, which are torso height and again made in
plaster. Just behind the balustrades are miniature park land 'dead' trees
placed in a random pattern behind each one. The visual effect of this alludes
to a theatrical space the effect of which is intensified by the sound element
which is someone whistling a tune, which is vaguely familiar, reminiscent
of British music halls. I think the tune is a an Edwardian music hall song
"I don't want to play in your yard". With lines such as "I won't let you
pick my pansies, And you won't climb my apple tree, I don't want to play
in your yard if you won't be good to me".
'Looking for the Home of the Sickness'
as with Wright's other projects explores the cultural positions of Irish
Southern Protestantism. In this instance the 'Big House' of the Anglo Irish
Ascendancy is figured. The plaster while referencing the decorative qualities
of the interiors of these houses also creates a melancholic space, eerily
nostalgic accompanied by the whistling of this tune. What makes Wright's
installation so effective though, is that none of the things it alludes
to, the 'Big House' or the sense of nostalgia for example, are fixed in
terms of reading the work. Each element complements the others and promptly
runs off with its own network of associations--creating a complex and ambiguous
viewing space where all inherent 'essentialisms' are open to question.
Brian Hand's 'Foam' is an installation
comprising a slide dissolve of two images taken a minute apart of the Green
Isle, a trawler, being salvaged from Howth harbour after an arson attack
which resulted in the trawler sinking. The sound, coming from four different
speakers is of the first line of Sea Breeze, a poem by Stephane Mallarmé.
These four lines are synced to occupy the space together just as one slide
dissolves into another, creating a dissonant babble in the centre of the
space. This was said in French and three translations, one in Irish and
two in English. Two of the translations were by two Irish poets, Brian
Coffey and Denis Devlin. Both Coffey and Devlin were signalled by Samuel
Beckett as an emergent tradition more concerned with translation. In employing
them in this instance Hand, is in a sense indicating a different trajectory
of modernism in an Irish context, away from the 'originality' centredness
of Yeats & Co.
Hand's negotiation of translation
is also apparent in the use of images employed. The images show a group
of men observing a trawler being brought out of the water. On first viewing
it is difficult to see how the image has changed when the dissolve takes
place. Slowly different aspects of the image make themselves apparent,
one man disappears behind something while another emerges, a hand raised
in one image goes down in the next. Pursuing this emphasis on translation,
Hand misregisters the slides, so the dissolve is never smooth. Another
factor situating translation was the difficulty in deciding the location
of the image. As a place it has the look of some generic space in the States.
'Foam' was installed in an architects storage/archive space containing
shelving units stacked with architectural plans and files which surround
the installation with an abundance of texts and documents making the location
well suited to the conceptual space of 'Foam'.
One of the things that is interesting
about EV+A as an institution, especially in an Irish context, is the amount
of work, discussion and negotiation involved to make this multi-location
exhibition work. The amount of 'good will' required between different and
competing art spaces singles EV+A out as an institutional practice that
makes it highly specific to Limerick and to the people there who organise
it. I think it is important to state that as things stand in Dublin for
example, an exhibition of this size would not be contemplated, never mind
get off the ground. Whatever criticisms of EV+A 98 one might wish to pursue
or negotiate, its potential as a large 'event' and its potential to change
each year are aspects of EV+A which need to be put to the fore.
All quotes in the main text are
taken from the EV+A 98 Catalogue published by EV+A, Limerick City Gallery
of Art, Carnegie Building, Pery Square, Limerick, Ireland.
September 26th to October 3rd 1998,
London's Volcano Film Festival is
the nearest that Britain has to a lowbudget film festival that is truly
independent from both public and commercial sectors. This year it was organised,
without any public funding, by six London based 'underground' film groups.
Volcano has a critical edge and raw excitement that other festivals, from
the BBC's lifeless 'British Short Film Festival' to the ponderous 'London
Film Festival', can never hope to attain. This year it had box office attendance
of over 2500 people who went to 19 events over 8 days. 280 films and videos
were projected, plus dozens of performances and many installations. It
was international, with attending groups from Germany and New York. Perhaps
the most distinctive thing about this festival and the London underground
film scene generally is the way that film isn't isolated as a media. In
Volcano film co-existed with music, performance, clubculture, publications,
market stalls, cabaret, installations, debates, food and what have you.
The films themselves are also as diverse as the contributing groups which
range from the relatively upmarket Hallowe'en Society, which shares some
of the 'production values' of mainstream short film culture, to the Kung
Fu cultism and no-messing street-wise attitude of Shaolin.
This is the festival's third year
and the first time there has been a base for guest shows in a single venue.
The Oval House Theatre in South London provided serviced space, box office
and cafe facilities in exchange for a 20% cut on ticket sales and the beer
and food takings. We didn't make any profit but it was good to have the
luxury of a base for all the guest shows. The organising groups each put
on their own shows around London in venues of their own choice--some days
this meant that four shows were going on simultaneously.
The first Saturday night of the
festival was dedicated to a Jeff Keen retrospective. This Brighton based
film-maker is a master of the multiple exposure, along with animation and
studio based performance. Veering wildly in style from raunchy home-movies
to exquisitely composed drum rolls of coloured light and collaged form,
his Super 8 films oscillate between the lyrical and the banal--retinal roller
coasters. Keen, who has been making movies since the early '60s, appeared
looking somewhat awed by the adulation of the younger audience. His film
works were avoided by the film establishment in the '80s and '90s, perhaps
because of his occasional pop art use of naked women and soft porn icons.
This was his first show in London for over 10 years. His most recent work
was a live multiple projection using stock he had digitally recoloured.
It appeared to be attempting an escape from the limits of the screen--jittering,
flashing and jumping the frame like a cinematic demon. It was this latest
stuff that the younger audience seemed to like most.
The next day saw the 'Death of OMSK'
in Hoxton. A danceclub/cinema hybrid run simultaneously in three venues:
the roomy '333' club and two nearby pubs--OMSK is a place were 'anything
can happen'. The organiser Steven Eastwood had decided to put this project
aside for the next year and make a movie, so this was to be the last in
the series. It had over 800 people on a Sunday night--what a way to go!
Just about every type of artist had a slot in this extravaganza, from poets
to VJs, with inbuilt cinemas in each venue running alongside dance floor,
bars and chill-out spaces.
Down in deep South London, Real
Fiction's 'kinetic candlelit cabaret', organised by Paul Johnson, showed
fifteen Gothik films and four ethereal performances above a pub in Balham.
That same evening, at the base camp at Kennington Oval, lanky Ian White,
who has made a name running the Horse Hospitals' Kinoculture programme,
put on his own 'transgressive' evening of hyper-camp with The Divine David
and author Dennis Cooper.
Monday night saw the Hallowe'en
Society do their regular show at the glitzy Notre Dame Dance Hall off Leicester
Square. Philip and Tim do things properly, right down to projecting from
a Beta VCR rather than the VHS machines most of the groups make do with.
Each film is introduced by an MC--who also runs a quiz with daft prizes--while
the audience sit around tables drinking, diverted by the occasional cabaret
Back at the Oval, hot off a plane
from Havana, Robert Robinson was running the Renegade Arts show in the
upstairs theatre. Renegade is an international exchange of work with an
emphasis on what slips off the mass media menu. It shared the Oval with
a double bill by Jack Sargeant who has a couple of books out by Creation
Books and is an expert in the area of mainly US underground which is obsessed
with death, schlock horror and the so-called dark side.
Tuesday was the turn of the Exploding
Cinema--the only group with a firm open access/ no selection policy. The
Exploding crew had taken over one of their old haunts the George IV pub,
near the infamous prison on Brixton Hill, swathing the interior in lights
from a myriad of slide projectors and Super 8 loops. More uncomfortable,
raunchy, and unpredictable than the Hallowe'en Society they showed 16 works
including four by collective members. Back at the Oval, James Stevens,
proprietor of the open access cyberarts workshop Backspace, was running
his chaotic Blink show--apparently programmed and organised on the spur
of the moment. Backspace, situated on the riverside near London Bridge,
is home to the Volcano web site amongst others.
Attracting a more youthful audience,
Wednesday saw Ben and Jap of Shaolin do their show at The Foundry near
Fleet Street. Along with the showcase of obscure Kung Fu movies one of
the things that distinguishes Shaolin are the live computer fighting games
which are projected on a big screen. An amphitheatre of virtual combat;
is this some kind of nascent ritual resolution of male aggression...? At
the same time in the way-out South East, My Eyes! My Eyes! run by Clive,
Grace and Damian, ran a show of home-grown underground classics to a mostly
local audience, built-up in the last two or three years. Clive was the
layout whiz who had designed our slick poster/programme which had given
Volcano a high profile front-end reminiscent of the old Scala Cinema's
The main international guests were
the notorious Filmgruppen Chaos, (est. 1975), who had come over in force
with members of the Munich based ABGEDREHT. For their Wednesday night show
they decorated the passage to Oval's main theatre space with a variety
of environmental projections: Rotating mirrors threw images over the walls
and ceiling. A chattering face was projected onto a polystyrene head on
a high shelf creating a surreal illusion. Inside the theatre large Gothic
picture frames contained lurid loop projections. The main show, with three
presenters, was a quirky mix of animation, cryptic drama, collage and found
footage made all the more interesting by the lively presence of the film-makers.
The same night at the Oval, Philip
from Hallowe'en had programmed a selection of short film and video from
the USA in the theatre upstairs--saturation point! Audiences varied from
the local to the 'cult'. One way the underground might be defined is by
its diversity and inclusiveness, especially to outsiders.
From here on in the Oval became wilder
and wilder. Next evening was taken over by the Frank Chickens who are now
a broad London based collective of about 20 Japanese women, cultural refugees
who not only show films but also VJ, sing, dance and do uncategorisable
performances. In parallel with the Jap-chick madness downstairs Hallowe'en
Society presented Rocketfish, the quirky films of Mark Locke and Guy Powell
from Tamworth, Birmingham in the theatre upstairs. Lower class suburban
culture at its most idiosyncratic and fascinating.
There was also a debate set up by
Duncan of Exploding Cinema at the Lux in Hoxton on the Thursday evening.
This was meant to confront the radical establishment and funding agencies
of the so-called independent film and video. Film-makers turned up in force
but the establishment didn't. Nonetheless, with just a few of them there,
it was like trying to have a debate about political change with the police
in attendance. For a while it revolved around the question of labels and
especially the fluffy notion of 'independence', a category which has come
to include major features and even high-tech ads. By the time I stood up
to speak I found myself shaking with rage, frustration and incoherence.
My outburst was followed by several people who, in the presence of funders,
wished to distance themselves from any 'political' intentions. In spite
of the atmosphere of timidity a few good points were made from both sides.
The academic Jon Thompson pointed out the need for writers who could articulate
a critical and historicising discourse. Jennet Thomas, of Exploding Cinema
made a good point about how the rise of the professional curator had meant
that art was mediated by a professional caste and that artists rarely had
control of resources. This led to what Colette Rouhier called an 'exhibition
lock-down'. The historically pernicious nature of a professional or elite
third party management of culture was pointed out but unexplored.
To my mind both the organisation
and context of the proceedings was counter productive. Underlining our
incoherence rather than producing the conditions for constructive expression
and discourse. The Lux is a prestige building which, as Mark Saunders pointed
out, was put up as part of the property development of Hoxton in which
Art became integral to a strategy for raising property values. It manages
the mediation of underground culture and its history, inheriting the radical
kudos associated with the early Film Makers Co-op which was, in stark contrast,
artist controlled and democratic. This new institution now sucks in much
of the funding resources allocated for this area and controls the presentation
and historicisation of underground film in an antiseptic environment which
is beholden to state funding and interests. Autonomous discourses are certainly
required, but in this form of debate very few people can speak. Speakers
are expected to be calm and restrained and arguments can never flow dialogically
because of the queue of people wishing to speak.
Friday night at the Oval was a double
bill of Arthur Lager and VaVaVoom downstairs and Jane Gang's personally
presented selection from the New York underground upstairs. The VaVaVoom
evening had been set up by Colette of Exploding. This outfit is Brighton
based and is a kind of sleaze cocktailbar cabaret with swamp/ Goth undertones.
Lots of skulls and writhing around half naked. I'm not sure they were at
their best in the Oval theatre, as there was not enough room for a table
based audience, nonetheless they did provide the perfect environment for
Arthur Lager's first retrospective. Arthur is a kind of suburban greaseball
'90s version of Jeff Keen the beatnik. His Super 8 films also use goofy
pop imagery along with multi-layering and animation. There is a lot of
coarse and comical sex between unlikely creatures and seaside pier humour.
All of which comes at you like a luminous freight train sometimes accompanied
by live drumming. Arthur has been an Exploding favourite for years and
Colette's inspired programming with VaVaVoom made it an unforgettable occasion.
Nevertheless Mr Lager was, contrary to his presence on screen, his usual
surly nervous self. Upstairs, the tattooed lady, Jane Gang had her New
York 'Zipper' show. Two of the film makers had come over and where somewhat
shocked at our lack of basic hospitality for international visitors. US
underground festivals can be much better resourced although they don't
sound as much fun. Nor do they include the transmedia live dimension that
made Volcano so alive. The Zipper show, which was a 'best of' selection,
veered from the darkly comical to the horrifically vulgar. Annie Stanley
and Patty Chang produced 'Hub Cap' in which two women have sex in a motor
car. Cut! Their limp and naked bodies are draped across the seats. The
cops arrive. Horror enough? No way! A cop then proceeds with a variety
of graphic necrophilic acts. Too plainly unpleasant for any metaphorical
appreciation. But, well made. Oh God...
On the other hand, Mr Mean's 'Glamour
Puss: How to Keep Your Man Happy' was a delightful and funny celebration
of sexual seduction for the over seventies. Mrs Means enjoys trying a variety
of increasingly creative and hilarious seduction techniques on her newspaper
hugging spouse. Finally he cracks. Yippee!
Upstairs and down, this was a wild
night indeed. The large Oval cafe was packed and even had market stalls
selling wares which ranged from dominatrix bone china mugs to second-hand
super eight cameras. Sandwiched in this cacophony of commerce was Mark
Pawson with his lurid selection of publications and pop trash ephemera.
VaVaVoom had brought their own Techila cocktail bar and an inordinate amount
The final night's Aftershock was
curated by Grace of My Eyes! My Eyes! Every corner of the Oval House building
was used for installations and a continuous series of performances. The
range of work on show that night was mind boggling. In a dark room a weird
group, including a eight year old girl with a false beard, played cards
around a table bathed in red light. Behind them was an audience of rigid
(dead) rabbits seated on raked chairs. Very strange and unsettling. This
was 'Toolroom Salon'. Just around the corner Tim Flitcroft had a sound
lab in which recordings of the previous evening were transferred to film
mag stock which was looped and passed through a series of table mounted
professional film editing pick-up heads. The resulting sounds were then
modulated by a small team. An evocative electronic music experience which
seemed like it had come straight out of the '70s arts lab scene. And so
it went on, in every corner of the building, using the full firepower of
Volcano's combined projection resources. The ambience was of a cross between
some underworld street market and a primitive pagan festival of light.
This third Volcano was a milestone
for autonomous film distribution in London. Of the 280 movies shown at
Volcano 1998, and the 1200 works shown by the Exploding Cinema since 1991,
almost all are unavailable. Little of this rich body of work can be accessed
for study or pleasure. It will not be a part of film history and so anything
but the barest outline, understanding and representation of autonomous
grassroots film production will be lost. History is now a question of multiple
viewpoints not just the over bearing narrative of the high and mighty.
Counter to this is the view that the underground scene is an oral culture
defined by its very outsider status. A culture which relies for its immediacy
on a mythopoetic compositing of its past--whose organic traditions reside
in human form rather than in institutions.
from an undeclared war
Baader-Meinhof: Pictures on the
run 67-77 by Astrid Proll
From the mid 1970s until the early
'80s I visited Germany regularly. Those were different times, it has to
be said, and the Europe of 'no borders' was still some way off. On the
train from Brussels to Cologne burly German Border Police stalked the corridors,
pistols prominent on their robust hips, their intimidating manner impressive
and accomplished. They carried with them what looked for all the world
like outsized photograph albums. These they would flick through occasionally
as they travelled through the trains examining passports. I never quite
saw what was in those albums but imagined them to be full of photographs
of suspected guerrillas. I hoped fervently that none of those images bore
much resemblance to myself.
At the railway stations themselves
one got a hint of what might have been in those bulky snap albums carried
by the Border Guards. Everywhere there were posters, row on row of black
and white passport-sized photographs of young men and women, with a question
hanging over the ranks of faces: 'Have you seen these people?' There was
something chilling about wanted posters displayed so prominently in a modern
European state although a cursory glance would not have revealed quite
how chilling these posters were. A closer look revealed something odd,
indeed disturbing, about some of the photographs. Their subjects were dead.
I'm not sure how these images had been made, whether the corpses had been
photographed on mortuary slabs or had somehow been propped up for the camera.
Having looked once one tended not to look again.
And so here, in this the 'Model
Germany', the wunderkind of Post War capitalism, with its vorsprung durch
technik glitz reeking of all that was modern and efficient and liberal,
this proof incarnate that the barbarism of the first half of the century
had been swept away forever, here I was confronted with something that
seemed to be first cousin to the mediaeval custom of placing the heads
of traitors and vanquished enemies on stakes in public places; a kind of
salutary lesson to the potentially disaffected, perhaps, or a triumphalist
gesture akin to the display of sporting trophies before one's loyal support?
The cover of Astrid Proll's Baader
Meinhof, Pictures on the Run 67-77 appears to have been taken from one
such poster. There are the rows of young faces, serious, but in this case
healthy, the pictures now somehow reminiscent of one of those American
High School Yearbooks. You know the sort of thing; Holger Meins--Most Tenacious,
Ulrike Meinhof--Class President, and so on.
But death is never far away in these
photographs. There, at the very beginning of the book, is the dying Benno
Ohnesorg, shot by the police on June 2nd 1967 during a demonstration against
a visit by the Shah of Iran. This was the death that started all the other
deaths, the first move in the insane game of tit for tat that characterised
the years of the German guerrilla. Ohnesorg looking more like an accountant
who's put on his best casual clothing for a weekend barbecue than the martyr
who will inspire a movement, is a strangely peaceful corpse. He could be
sleeping. Another student, Fredericke Dollinger, is in the picture. She
is cradling Ohnesorg's head, her own head looking away from the corpse
and off into the distance; her eyes, fearful and angry, are a prophecy
of what is to come.
And there, in the final photograph
in the book, over ten years later, is the corpse of Andreas Baader. His
eyes are wide open. He too is staring at something above and beyond the
edges of the picture, his shattered head framed by an enormous halo of
In her introduction to her collection
of photographs Astrid Proll emphasises how young the guerrillas were. The
spirit of the early photographs is one of youthful exuberance. There is
one of Baader in the Kurfurstendamm, dancing with Dorothea Ridder, and
Rainer Langhans in drag. Baader's round face, and plump lips, give him
the appearance of an overgrown baby. In other photographs it is his eyes
which stand out: They are the clear and guileless eyes of a young child.
The thought arises when looking at these pictures that Baader's appearance
did him no favours. When placed against the Authorities' perception of
him as a cruel and dangerous terrorist, this incongruous infant quality
may have seemed quite terrifying.
Baader retained many of the same
physical qualities until his death, but transformation in terms of physical
appearance is another major theme to be traced in the book. Transformation
unto death. The most dramatic change in the book, and the most disturbing
corpse, is that of Holger Meins.
Early in 1967 we see the twenty-five
year old Meins as film student. He is handsome, clean cut and neatly dressed.
His hair is slightly long perhaps, but it is unlikely that any self respecting
bürger would have objected to Meins accompanying his daughter home
to discuss their future.
When we see him next he is standing
alone outside a block of flats in Frankfurt. His hands are raised to shoulder
level and he is staring at the police armoured car which is drawn up a
few feet in front of him. In the picture on the facing page the armoured
car has retreated about twenty feet and Meins is removing his trousers
having already divested himself of the clothes from the upper part of his
body. On the following page the near naked Meins is being taken away by
police, his arms held rigidly behind him, his mouth open in a scream: Whether
of pain or defiance it is impossible to tell. One of the policemen has
a small pistol clutched tightly in his right hand; a peculiar detail this,
in that his right arm appears to be participating in the arm locks being
operated on Meins and is therefore, presumably, not free to actually operate
the pistol should the need arise. Indeed he appears to be pointing the
pistol more or less at himself, a lapse one imagines to be indicative of
the fear of the guerrillas felt by their enemies.
Next we see mugshots of Meins and
Jan-Carl Raspe, taken on the same day in 1972. They are both wearing black
prison clothing resembling nothing less than the black pyjamas of the Viet
Cong; a curious symmetry this considering the inspirational role of the
Vietnamese guerrilla groups. The pair appear to be drugged: Their faces
are contorted unnaturally. Raspe looks to be having difficulty standing
up. In the close-up shots their faces are those of gargoyles; the once
dapper Meins looks to have aged fifteen years in the five years since the
film student photographs. His hair is straggly and he sports an unruly
moustache. Checking back and forth between these photographs and those
in the earlier part of the book it is impossible to be certain that they
are indeed the same man.
The final photograph of Meins was
taken in 1974. He is laid out in his coffin. His hair is long and he has
the beard of an Orthodox priest. Indeed if I had been presented with this
photograph out of context I might have taken it for an image of the corpse
of the murdered Rasputin. Having starved to death he is little more than
a skeleton with skin stretched over it. His eyes are sunk deep into their
sockets, the outline of the skeletal basin in which they sit being as prominent
as they are in a skull. Still in all it isn't a horrifying photograph.
Meins looks to be at peace, he is clothed in white and his winding-sheet
is lace trimmed. An ecclesiastical candle stands by the coffin. His hands
are folded over one another in front of him. There is a sense of order
about this image of Meins in death; it is as if despite the chaos of his
guerrilla years and the horror of his death, tranquillity of a sort has
I have seen another photograph of
Meins, not in this book, which is much harder to look at. His naked corpse
is laid out on a floor. From neck to groin there is a huge scar, roughly
sewn up after autopsy, a brutalisation, which although inflicted on a body
already dead, is peculiarly shocking. His head is huge in proportion to
his body which is no more than an assemblage of bones, the arms loosely
joined twigs ending in claw like hands, the pelvic girdle seems to somehow
loom above his torso, the iliac crests pointing upwards like thumbs raised
in a gesture of victory.
It is of this picture that Hans
Joachim Klein of the Revolutionary Cells, partner with Carlos in the kidnapping
of the OPEC oil ministers in 1975, said; "I have kept this picture with
me to keep my hatred sharp." It is seven years since the student photographs.
The history of the German guerrilla
has many shocking features to it, but the most shocking was the way in
which one catastrophic bloodletting led to another in a chain of action
and reaction that seems in retrospect to have been nothing less than a
blood feud. The day after the death of Holger Meins, the President of the
West Berlin Chamber Court, Gunten von Drenkmann, was shot dead.
Njal's Saga, perhaps the greatest
of the Icelandic sagas, tells the tale of a decades long succession of
murders committed in response to other murders which ends only when the
warring parties simply have no more energy to continue the struggle. The
German guerrilla was something like that. By the time Baader and the others
died in Stammheim another generation of guerrillas was already taking their
place. The link between the RAF of the early 1980s and that of the early
1970s was tenuous. Almost from the beginning the motivation of the guerrillas
was to release comrades or simply to strike back in retaliation. The German
State's reaction to what, in the early days, was comparatively mild opposition,
simply fed a monster. In turn the German establishment terrified itself
into perceiving a much greater threat than there ever was. The grandiose
ambitions of the guerrillas matched perfectly the State's perception of
the threat. Action and reaction grew in viciousness and desperation.
The escalation of violence turned
on the perception of the enemy as somehow inhuman. This perception is apparent
in the photographs. The corpse of Holger Meins seems gutted of humanity,
or even any trace of the identity of Meins the film student. The prison
clothing the captured guerrillas were forced to wear is a time honoured
means of depriving captives of their identity. Meinhof, forever anxious
in these photographs, could have been snapped in any number of penal innovations
from the earlier part of the century, from the Gulag to Buchenwald.
Enslinnn, dressed in the same type
of canvas wrap, attempts to resist dehumanisation. She smiles at the camera
or looks at it with her head tilted up in an almost flirtatious way. The
four photographs of her in prison clothing are placed side by side. She
is holding a piece of card on a string. The card has the number '1' printed
on it. Together the images form a bizarre catwalk model show: Gudrun is
wearing the latest in penitentiary fashion...
In an early photograph, a young
woman, Margrit Schiller, is being physically carried by a group of five
police persons. One, a woman has her head in an arm lock. Either side of
this woman are two uniformed men. One is looking towards Schiller's face,
the only one to do so, although her face is turned away. He wears an expression
of contempt or disgust. On the other side his colleague is looking away.
His expression is one of suppressed amusement. At her feet another man
in plainclothes is pulling her forward. His expression is more openly amused.
He is also looking away from Schiller as if the spectacle of her struggle
is too embarrassing to contemplate.
In the middle of the group a second
policewoman stands. She is looking at Schiller, but not at her face. She
appears instead to be looking at her stomach. Her expression too is one
of amusement and she has her left hand raised at Schiller's side, her fingers
poised in such a way as to suggest she is about to pinch or, possibly,
poke the prisoner. The demeanour of all of the police officers suggests
not that they are handling a human being but are dealing with something,
a rolled up carpet perhaps, an awkward load.
The caption tells us that Margrit
Schiller was being taken to face the Hamburg press. She was a suspect in
the murder of a policeman. She was never tried for the crime.
Then there are the photographs of
the guerrillas as victims. Peter Lorenz sits stone faced, the cardboard
notice pinned to his chest strangely reminiscent of the warning attached
to the young David Copperfield, in that, like the proclamation 'He bites',
this demonstration of young Lorenz's trophy status is essentially a humiliation.
The pictures of the doomed Hans
Martin Schleyer are a similar display. There are three of them, days and
weeks apart, and they c although they have their eyes fixed firmly on Klein
he is pointedly ignoring them.
Klein Was never a member of the
RAF but belonged to one of the other two armed groups, the 'Revolutionary
Cells' (the third group was 'The 2nd of June Movement'). Within weeks of
this picture being taken Klein participated in one of the most spectacular
actions of the European guerrilla, the kidnapping of the OPEC oil ministers
in Vienna, during which he was wounded in the stomach. Three years later
Klein emerged from the underground and gave a detailed interview with Liberation,
in which he rejected the armed struggle and criticised many of the actions
of the guerrillas. He clearly outlined his motivation and the motivation
of the guerrillas emphasising the extent to which retaliation played a
part. Each time the authorities acted against the guerrillas it produced
a desire for retaliation which drew more and more people into the armed
struggle: "First there's a vicious manhunt by the police and then there's
a vicious manhunt by the guerrillas." Proll makes much the same point in
her book. The chronology speaks for itself.
The other picture I have of Klein
is cut from The Independent of 13th September 1998. It sits beneath a headline
which reads: 'Village rues arrest of affable terrorist.' Twenty years after
he abandoned the armed struggle the State has caught up with Hans Joachim
Klein, who had apparently carved out an anonymous niche for himself in
a Normandy village the inhabitants of which are quoted as regretting his
arrest: 'He was a nice guy... He was a friend... He adored opera. We dreamed
of going to La Scala.' Daniel Cohn-Bendit is quoted as saying Klein was
about to give himself up anyway and that the Frankfurt prosecutor had been
cutting a deal with him before the arrest. About the whole affair there
is a strong whiff of official duplicity.
One is tempted to ask whose photograph
Klein's prosecutor kept by him to keep his, hatred sharp.
Proll had been a student of photography
when she became involved with the Baader-Enslinn circle. There is no sense
however in which this is a collection of art photographs. The sources of
the collection are diverse and include press photographs. Many of the photographs
are simply snapshots. A sequence taken in Paris in November 1969, when
the group had made the move into illegality and were on the run, is particularly
striking. Their high spirits jump out of the photos. This is a group of
young people, a group of friends, having fun. They have changed their appearance,
though not enough, I think, to fool anybody. The changes seemed designed
to make them look more Parisien. These could be stills from the set of
some Nouvelle Vague movie.
Narcissism is a major feature of
these early photographs. These are young people showing off. In the Paris
photographs Baader is wearing urban guerrilla chic. He stares moodily at
the camera, cigarette held loosely in his left hand, the collar of his
leather blouson turned up.
In another photograph Enslinn and
Baader stare into one another's eyes across a café table. Enslinn's
hand holds a cigarette poised above a Ricard ash tray. The photograph would
fit quite easily into any number of current advertisement campaigns; it's
black and white Calvin Klein chic avant la lettre. Such photographs raise
the question of the extent to which Bonnie and Clyde fantasies fuelled
the actions of the group--Young! Beautiful! In Love! And Armed to the Teeth!
Bommi Baumann, once of the group,
'2nd of June', described the RAF as having the reputation among the other
groups of being somewhat in love with the trappings of underground life--expensive
clothes, expensive flats and, above all, expensive cars. In his book, How
It All Began, he claims the other groups joked that the initials BMW stood
for Baader-Meinhof Wagon. And here, sure enough we have Baader and Enslinn
and others, standing beside a large white Mercedes in June 1969, with a
BMW parked alongside. They look like a rock group about to step into their
limo. Proll describes Enslinn and Baader as, 'little media stars for the
radical left' and the pictures appear to show them ready to carry out this
How readily style becomes substance.
The photographs of the group's 1968 trial for arson show them clowning
self consciously for the cameras. Thorwald Proll has a cigar stuck in his
mouth and looks rather like Groucho Marx. There is a sense in which, in
the early stages, the group is always dressing up, playing at different
roles like small children. This is evident even in Enslinn's prison photographs,
the catwalk pictures, of which Proll writes: 'Gudruun looks like a performing
child in a Nazi home'.
It was unfortunate really that this
was the role which stuck, that this was the costume she could not shed.
At Enslinn's funeral the photographers
crowd to the edge of the grave. Their lust for the telling image puts them
in danger of tumbling into the grave with her. The lenses of their Nikons,
Pentaxes and Leicas are black mouths gaping like the ever open maws of
hungry chicks. As we stare at this sordid avidity the open mouths stare
back at us becoming in the process huge black Cyclops eyes. They are defiant
and threatening and throw back at us the paranoiac's challenge, 'What are
you looking at?'
In the middle of this gaggle of
cameras stand a small group of mourners. The sight the photographers are
shamelessly devouring is too much for this group. No one will look into
the grave. Each has found their own neutral spot to stare at instead--the
ground, the horizon, the sky, a fellow mourner's shoulder. Central to this
group and the focus of this photograph is Pastor Enslinn. His head is held
high and he wears a mask of Stoic endurance. His chin juts forward and
his thin mouth is turned down by the strain of holding it there. He holds
his face in this immobile, sculpted position for fear, one suspects, that
if he let go for a minute it will simply dissolve or crumble into ruins.
He seems to be a figure from another time. His eyes are hooded and black
and stare at a spot beyond the grave and beyond the edges of the photograph.
We see this far gazing at other death scenes in this book, in Dollinger
and Baader, as if at the end, when confronted with the finality of death,
it is only possible to look away, beyond the confines of photographs and
mere images to search for whatever can transcend the sordidness of the
Perhaps this is a case for the airbrusher's
art. There must be still, somewhere in the ruins of the Soviet Empire,
persons skilled in eliminating the unwanted from history. Individuals whose
task it was to remove all traces of politically inconvenient images from
photographs which offered proof of their existence. Perhaps some merciful
millionaire could fund a project whereby all copies of this picture could
be recalled and the degraded hustle round the grave slowly brushed away,
until all the photographers and the sound men and the grim and stolid policemen
have vanished, leaving only the group of mourners finally alone with their
grief, and Gudruun Enslinn in her coffin, allowed, at last, the dignity
in death customarily afforded mere princesses, tyrants and torturers.
Ripples in the
Experimental electronic music
and audio arts at ISEA 98, 2--7 September, venues in Liverpool and Manchester
The annual symposium of the Inter-Society
of Electronic Arts, ISEA98, was billed as a critical event integrating
symposia and artists projects, spread over 6 days. It embodied the Revolution
Symposium in Liverpool, the Terror Symposium in Manchester and revolution98
artists projects, in venues from galleries to trains across both cities.
The annual ISEA symposium, now in its ninth incarnation, is a locus for
exploring innovation in the cultural use of electronic technology.
It is no mean feat to produce an
event of this scale and some excellent presentations did arise from among
the two hundred speakers (ranging from Coco Fusco to David Toop), and projects
by over 100 international artists. Sensitive and creative programming was
evident across the programme yet ISEA98 tripped on the overall scale and
focus of the event. The thrill of seeing such an event taking place in
the UK soon waned. Too many disappointing presentations and projects confused
by unfocused publicity and the overload of parallel presentations and events,
left delegates exhasted.
This appeared to stem from little
integration in the structure of the two conferences; the hosts, one came
to wonder, might rather not have worked together at all. A problem which
led to vast heaps of information and programmes that amalgamation would
have simplified. Unfortunately the high costs of this kind of event, despite
bursaries, and the combined time span of the two symposia, resulted in
some delegates attending only one. Add to that the travelling between venues
and the meetings and introductions that are an important part of international
projects. Events such as this are a focal point, a meeting place for artists,
curators, writers and researchers feeding into the local and national cultural
environment, it is vital they are accessible both in terms of cost and
It is not uncommon for digital art
(new media, or new technologies) survey exhibitions and festivals to suffer
from both the overload and the appearance of ill conceived, hastily constructed
work. Work that thinly packages a surface image of digital technology instead
of utilising it as a medium or a tool, views it as an end rather than a
means to an end. The overarching framework of digital art allowed projects
at ISEA to slip into a tedious celebration of the digital, leaving any
notion of critical reflection on the practice outside the door.
The tendency to hang a festival
beneath overarching themes and frameworks has become a common practice.
It can provide a timely and constructive forum for discussion and focus
on important issues; conversely it causes difficulties for artists and
curators trying to shape themselves to the theme, resulting in weak and
clumsily re-formed ideas. The apparent development of 'digital arts' as
a practice should take it beyond the simple problems of a theme. It becomes
a ghetto when it contributes to the rise of a situation where to gain funding
and visibility artists and curators label themselves as digital artists,
moulding their practice to the digital art framework. Artists whose practice
involves only a nod to the digital are in danger of being overshadowed.
The highlights of revolution98 were cases where technology was appropriate
to the work, where, simple as it sounds, the practice and the ideas had
not been led by the technology.
It was a breath of fresh air, then,
to find the audio programme attempting to embrace audio art/ experimental
music that not only uses or is influenced by electronic technology but
has itself been influential in the use and development of electronic technology.
Thus we saw a programme that predictably included Scanner and Audiorom,
but more surprisingly pioneer Keith Rowe and singer Diamandia Galas. Presentations
and performances included artists, inventors, academics, broadcasters and
pioneers in experimental electronic music. The programme investigated and
celebrated innovation and revolutionary work over the last century.
Sonic Boom, the one day audio arts
panel, curated by Colin Fallows, part of the Liverpool Revolution Symposium,
consisted a series of short presentations thoughtfully programmed to allow
ideas to resonate and develop from one speaker to the next. However, it
suffered from trying to pack too much in back to back. Although engaging,
the format of the day and quality of some of the presentations let interesting
ideas slip by without the discussion they merited. Zina Kaye's research
into articulating sound in the electronic vacuum, where real sound cannot
exist without air and architecture in which to resonate, where it cannot
reverberate through the existing land and soundscape, was one such instance.
An intriguing relationship grew
up between this and the explorations of Max Eastley's work. His creation
of synthesised organic objects that interact with the shifting, changing
environment, set up a symbiosis of natural and artificial. There is a rare
delicacy, and focused intensity to Eastley's work and it was a disappointment
and surprise to many that he was not performing at ISEA98. Eastley's work
sweeps to the edge of consciousness and recognition. Sounds flow in intricate
patterns reminiscent of the rhythm of life and the sounds of empty spaces,
the shuddering intensity of silence. His delicately constructed sculptures
into which he breathes a voice, his use of the human body and electronic
technology combine in a response to the existing, fluctuating environment.
Concerns echoed in the work and writing of Brandon Labbelle of California
based id Battery. Labelle's talk unfolded with the same poetic elegance
of his performances, which map a path through the sensual experience of
listening. Labelle articulated sound-making as a dialogue replying to the
soundscape of the physical world.
Performing with Loren Chasse as
id battery, Labelle continued this exploration. Id battery's instruments
constitute a landscape of found objects (leaves, stones, bricks) collected
electric and natural sounds, contact microphones and paper. Performing
Width of a membrane, they kneel on either side of a white paper screen.
Sounds are created from the collection as one traces on the screen while
the other appears to ignore it, lost in his own activity. Their action
indicates an urgent need to communicate to the other who cannot, or would
rather not, hear it. The obvious danger the screen might tear and all be
lost creates the same delicate balance at play in the sound, curling and
uncurling, concealing and revealing another uncertain sound upon sound.
Unrecognised, yet utterly familiar,
the sounds id battery weave vibrate against the membrane of recognition,
never piercing the surface. The combination of sound sources seems to be
reflecting, reacting to and reassessing the reverberating world that surrounds
us. The contact microphones, placed on surfaces to excavate the inner sounds
of rooms or objects, reveal sounds in the background of every day; the
sounds around us, behind us and underpinning silence. Id battery create
sounds of such enduring resonance they nearly assume a biological, organic
and evolving life and if left alone, you begin to wonder, might they just
continue to unfurl, insinuating themselves into the existing soundscape.
Following id battery, in the evening
programme at Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, and with similar sensibility,
was In Between Noise, Steve Roden, also California based, explored the
resonant qualities of a combination of found objects in helios flying (sound).
His palette includes broken, found, and toy instruments mixed with field
recordings, his voice and electronic manipulation. In Between Noise spins
delicate strands of sound from air and holds them, expanding their complexity
and volume as if teasing out some delicate invisible filament. An insane
inventor on a quest to create life Roden seems increasingly frustrated,
as if restraining himself from grinding the instrument to dust. Projecting,
haunting and meandering narratives, at times tightly twisted and sharp
then massaged by the deeply personal shadow of a human voice.
In a performance programme that
ranged from Keith Rowe to Audiorom it was the two programmes at Liverpool
Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA), that proved the most inspiring. Except
for the critically acclaimed Skyray, the majority of the programme was
the listening revelation it set itself up to be. Skyray's inclusion in
a programme of experimental electronic music was incongruous to begin with,
without placing him after id battery, In Between Noise and Keith Rowe.
Although it is a genuine pleasure to drift away on this music with its
French ambient techno and funk flourishes reminiscent of Air and French
musician/ producer Etienne de Crecy, it is neither experimental sound nor
is it experimental in terms of its own genre of electronic music. It would
have made more sense in an evening devoted to the far reaching influence
of electronic music and digital technology in contemporary culture and
the club scene.
The second half of the programme
at LIPA veered into the final frontier, the tractor beams, transformers
and dilithium crystals; yesterday's utopian vision of tomorrow's technology.
At some point the words "The shields are useless against it captain" came
to mind. These performances were as intense as they were witty and I hope
the pun on the popular science fiction of the '60s and '70s was intentional.
Janek Schaefer, in a luminous white suit, performed Tri-phonic Revolutions,
amidst the flotsam and jetsam of another decade's technology and the Tri-phonic
turntable, invented in his bedroom in 1997. He appeared so intensely involved
in the performance, so oblivious to his surroundings that you'd have been
forgiven for thinking he was mad. I almost felt a voyeur for watching the
extremely private creation of this wonderful true cacophony that famously
reverses Dr Who and stutters T S Eliot.
It eventually faded revealing the
deeply disturbing, obsessive, concentration of Data Rape 2000 by EAR (Experimental
Audio research). EAR's Pete Kember uses a process called circuit bending
which involved doctoring the circuitry of sound making toys and combining
this with recorded sounds of the sonic vocabulary of human existence: from
insects to humans. In contrast Project Dark's Excited by Gramophones featured
Kirsten Reynold's and Ashley Davies' records made from steel, hair, vinyl,
glass, sandpaper and pyrotechnics creating an explosive, shuddering, assault
of sound and rhythm. Finally Blast: Mount Vernon Arts Lab's stretching
and testing of Theramins, Turbine Generators, Random Analogue Sequencers
purpose built and connected with interacting circuitry, finished a combustible
evening. Fire alarms set off during the previous performance, resulted
in the evacuation of the building and delayed Blast. It was an evening
of performances, reminiscent of all those movies we grew up on. To hear
the flickering sound of the future coming back from the past, through the
performances, was to wonder again about the utopian dreams and nightmare
visions of the technology of the future.
Why do we find performers like id
battery and Max Eastley at a symposium on electronic art? What relevance
has their work to innovation in digital arts; with its unusual and minimal
use of electronic technology, its physical relationship to the instruments
and to the sound itself? It is precisely this relationship with the evidence
of the human, the touch, the voice, the natural materials and the irreverent
approach to technology that is necessary to explore and question our relationship
with electronic technology. This innovative and radical work is not at
the established forefront of technology development because it is radical
in its approach which challenge assumptions and expectations. It deliberately
blurs the boundaries that allow us to separate "artificial" from "real".
Our approach to digital technology is built on our historical relationship
with computers and video technology. Part of our understanding of computer
technology is that of order, control and precise measurement. We are entrenched
in material, architectural visions of digital space such as Robert Longo's
1995 visualisation of the Internet 2021, in the film of William Gibbon's
book Johnny Mnemonic. Against this, many of the artists above push their
use of technology into an area where control is lost, opening up space
for natural phenomena and chance. Away from the screen and the visual,
away from the linear, structured visions of digital space. Artists such
as Max Eastley, id battery, Steve Roden and Pete Kember offer alternative
approaches to understanding digital space and strategies for exploring
id battery cds are available from
PO Box 931124, Los Angeles, CA 90093 and In Between Noise from Steve Roden
Box 50261 Pasadena CA 91115.
Mainstream, Mainstream Alternatives:
The viability of the artist-led
On Saturday 6th February, Variant
held a discussion in the Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast, under the title
'Alternative, Mainstream, Mainstream Alternatives: The Viability of the
Artist-Led Initiatives'. The publicity material for the discussion raised
the extensive gentrification schemes undertaken in Dublin's Temple Bar,
and now underway in the Laganside area of Belfast. Both have been sustained,
at least in part, by co-opting a 'cultural' agenda. Mindful of the contemporary
position of the artist as agent in social processes, we provided a platform
for artists and artist-led initiatives to debate the assisting of such
property speculators through their activities, examining the viability
of an 'alternative/ mainstream' dichotomy, in a climate of supposed consensus
The discussion was chaired by
Val Connor, Visual Arts Director of the Project Arts Centre in Dublin.
The three featured speakers were: Orla Ryan, Dublin based artist and writer;
Toby Dennett, public art consultant and former committee member of Catalyst
Arts, Belfast; and Martin McCabe, lecturer and founder of Critical Access,
Dublin. The discussion was organised by Daniel Jewesbury who is based in
Belfast. What follows is an edited transcript of the event.
Toby Dennett: Looking at the
events that led to the setting up of artist-run spaces in Belfast, there
was a feeling that if the platforms needed were not in place, and the opportunities
were not coming through the channels that should have been supplying them,
then we had to create these for ourselves. This moved on quickly and became
a realisation of the potential of initiating our own agenda. This was a
sustainable option which wasn't just about the provision of appropriate
places to platform contemporary art. There was a shift from the feeling
of obligation to the realisation of the potential to effect a much wider
arena, the whole issue of actually making art.
Another important element of artist-run
spaces has been the ability to curate with a lot more insight and vision--artists
are, in most cases, going to be two steps ahead of the average gallery,
curator or programmer, and could take more risks and be more ambitious.
They're not up against the constraints that conventional galleries are
up against. The concerns that are relevant to artists and their working
practice can be examined by them curating, opening up an extra dimension
to the avenues of their work as an artist. There is, however, a potential
problem. When the control that an artist has in their own work, setting
their own agenda, is employed in their work as a curator, the individual
elements of other artists' work, which you're trying to platform, can be
smothered. The work or the show can simply become a readymade for the artist-curator.
On the question of sustainability,
artist-run spaces are becoming more and more mainstream, and that's being
picked up as a kind of cultural branding, especially with 'arts and culture'
now seen as a viable economic option. I'm referring specifically to some
of the gentrification schemes currently underway, particularly Laganside's
adoption of Cathedral Quarter [an area of Belfast, where Catalyst Arts
is situated] and the extent to which artists and artist groups should or
could co-operate with this. I don't think we should see Laganside as a
threat just because they're big business; the real fear is of losing autonomy
and having your reputation let down by a surface gloss that does not reflect
reality, and being trampled in the process. I think artists have always
had ambitions that reach beyond their ability, due to funding constraints,
and would love to see major investment following on from the reputation
they have established in the area, but they fear it's all going pear-shaped
as has happened so often before.
Artist-run spaces need to look hard
at how they deal with this problem. The traditional methods of sticking
to your guns and fighting your corner by continuing to produce good projects,
as if this will in some way make Laganside sit back and say, wait a minute,
we should let these guys run the show, they seem to know what they are
doing--it simply won't happen that way. We're trying to lead by example,
saying, look this is what good practice is, this is a viable way of working.
This has worked to some extent and has been recognised in many quarters.
However, the private sector and public corporations seem quite uninformed.
Examples of good practice are only recognised at a surface level, and the
complexities that go to make that up aren't necessarily understood. So
the usual way of proving critics wrong, by showcasing good work, leading
by example, just doesn't apply here. It's also related to the fact that
these bodies, although seen as threats, are not critics of the way artist-run
spaces operate in any ideological sense. They only see them as commodities;
the whole area is seen as a single unit or industry. That is a worrying
point. No amount of good press is going to get you anywhere, it only increases
your value as a commodity.
Having said that Laganside can do
great things for Cathedral Quarter. Artist-run groups have been struggling
for years with financial problems, lack of audiences and a run-down environment.
They need the investment that the potential Laganside development can offer.
Laganside are not the real threat; they're not buying all the property
and pricing artists out of the area. They want to keep artists there because
they're an asset to the area. The danger is the developers that Laganside
are trying to encourage to take the area on; so the battle is to ensure
that some form of clause is inserted into the development contracts that
takes into account artists' needs.
The relevant groups would do well
to change their usual stance and act more as political-type lobby groups,
either by themselves or through the Visual Artists Association of Northern
Ireland (VANNI). It's a difficult situation, everyone's unpaid, and who
wants to take on that task of researching documents, going to meetings,
campaigning, lobbying. It's a shit job, but you have to play by their roles
if you really want to make any impact. At the end of the day, Laganside
are a public body and they're afraid of bad publicity, especially if it's
directed towards lack of accountability and lack of consultation, or not
fulfilling their statutory obligations. They spend a lot of money trying
to persuade people that this is not the case but unless someone spends
the time looking at this and investigating the channels through which decisions
are made, and acting on this, then the whole process is going to go on
without you. You have to get the people who matter on your side, to enlist
the Arts Council, the City Council, who unfortunately are also under pressure
to go for the grander plans and big publicity.
At the end of day, you do need Laganside.
The basic question is whether the artist-led organisations feel they have
the will and commitment to go down that road. Maybe they decide it's the
last thing they want to do and just carry on regardless, if need be relocate
to a new area, or use some other strategy for continuing to work. By definition
the nature of artist-run initiatives will constantly change as they respond
to the cultural/ political/ economic environment. That's their strength,
that's what artists created these platforms for in the first place.
I don't think organisations want
to be alternative for the sake of it. The mainstream has always wanted
to be alternative; films are marketed as cult-classics before they're even
released. That artist-run spaces are becoming more mainstream in terms
of getting recognition and acceptance, as being viable, almost enhances
the alternative slant they are being labelled with, but when you get into
that sort of arena it gets less to do with substance and an aspect of dumbing-down
comes into play. To avoid being tarnished with that artists may feel a
move towards a real alternative stance is needed.
Orla Ryan: The alignment of
alternative/ mainstream has a certain 'given-ness' about it, making it
highly suspect. Alternative to what? What mainstream? Is there just one?
As meta-narratives these terms are pretty useless unless we clarify the
theoretical ground from which we speak. How do we fit the artist into this
landscape? We're faced with the problem of defining 'artist'; we could
ask for example is an artist an 'artist' when she is curating a show, working
in an administrative role, as a social worker or critic? What is the reasoning
behind the artist subject-position being the over-riding role?
The handout for today's discussion
asks: "...How useful are terms like 'alternative' or 'avant-garde' in the
current climate, as yet another generation of artist-run projects become
elevated to the cultural 'mainstream'?". I would question the transparent
assumptions inherent in a term like 'generation'. The idea runs something
like this: young artists start off being idealistic, socially motivated
and 'alternative' until their careers take off and they are "elevated to
the cultural 'mainstream'". Such a linear conception of alternative practices
reduces the discursive potential of 'alternative'. We need to be reflexive
in asking whose interests are served by maintaining such a linear model?
I believe artists occupy a multitude
of different spaces, some 'mainstream' and some 'alternative', within a
process of to-ing and fro-ing. If you keep the discussion so close to an
idea of 'generation' what happens is in effect a collapsing; an artist
such as Martha Rosler, is canonically documented and therefore one could
argue is 'mainstream'. She shows work in a commercial gallery space in
SoHo, New York, again suitable for a positioning as 'mainstream', but within
'this' space she remains a distinctly alternative voice.
Accepting the 'artist' role as the
predominant indicator of difference, we should investigate whether that
role brings a different theoretical model or sensibility, that in some
way offers an 'alternative' approach to the 'singular' role of curator
or administrator. Does the crossover cause problems of interpretation,
creating a certain slipperiness that refuses the parameters of what 'artist'
is supposed to mean?
There have been many examples of
the cul de sacs that can arise when the artist enters different spaces
(institutional or otherwise), where the political/ social/ critical discourse
under negotiation is displaced by the artist as 'author'. Institutions
often seek to legitimise themselves by using particular artists for the
social issues they are seen to represent. That said, we have to distinguish
between an artist who incorporates the multitude of roles in their actual
art practice and those artists who occupy different roles but keep them,
in some way, separated.
It seems that artist-run spaces
are the particular initiatives being targeted in today's discussion, yet
this centring has a déjà vu quality to it. Is anybody in
any doubt, including the people involved, that these spaces are feeder
operations for the larger institutions? This emphasis also limits a critical
engagement with other recent artist-led initiatives, less upfront, who
silently align themselves with powerful or semi-powerful institutions.
I'm hopeful for a discussion on
artists as active agents who have what I would refer to as 'available knowledges'.
Depressingly in an Irish context there is always a sense of reinventing
the wheel; it is this historical amnesia which also allows artists, artist-led
initiatives, the larger institutions and the Arts Council off the hook.
The history of these power relations always remains an oral one and as
a result remain hidden.
One current example is Arthouse
and its origins five years ago. I really believe Arthouse does not know
where it's going and this has both positive and negative repercussions
for artists who work with time-based media. If Arthouse is an interface
between artists and industry, we need to take a look at what model of the
artist, if any, it is expounding.
To begin an analysis of the complex
relations and conflicts involved in Arthouse's establishment would necessarily
involve looking at artist-led initiatives such as Random Access, The Sculptors'
Society, the Artists' Association of Ireland (AAI) and Blue Funk; examining
also who was on the first board of Arthouse, not to mention who let the
architect away with that building! We might also want to ask when, if ever,
we will have the opportunity to read the report on Arthouse commissioned
by the Arts Council?
To conclude on the point of the
artist as 'double agent' in her relationships with various organisations,
I would ask whether artists' refusal, at present, is not the strongest
way to show up the structures and operation of power?
Martin McCabe: When Critical
Access came about, two local precedents were being discussed, Catalyst
in Belfast and Blue Funk in Dublin. They'd set out to do something not
necessarily remarkable, but certainly different in terms of the context
of the Irish art scene. We thought we could learn from them and their mistakes.
Looking back over the last four or five years, I see Critical Access as
being marked by partiality or failure, whereby any of the great ideals
which were set out initially have not really been delivered on. The reason
we came about as a small collective--generally of practising artists, with
people involved in management, administration and arts education--was our
experience dealing with a bigger,more professional, arts organisation,
the Sculptors' Society of Ireland. We wanted to move away and so hijacked
the Random Access project and took it with us. Morally we had ownership
of the project. We had to run it on our own without a space, an office,
phone or fax, and our contact address was constantly changing. Certain
members of the committee were well known personalities and had profiles
in the wider arts establishment; and slowly but surely we coalesced as
a group whose agenda was driven by the artist-run initiatives, certainly
not interested in looking at a space and having a stable reference point,
maybe sharing Blue Funk's ideological imperatives in terms of trying to
alter the co-ordinates on the Irish art scene, particularly in Dublin.
It was essentially a way of generating new types of art formations or opportunities
through dialogue and discourse around contemporary art practice. The importation
of what was happening in the UK and America seemed to be a way of throwing
what was happening locally to a wider international frame.
In order to receive funds from the
Arts Council we had to rigidify ourselves, incorporate ourselves as a legal
entity which presented itself as 'organised'. It was strange how the Arts
Council of Ireland was very interested in us, very attentive to our needs.
I don't think we had a huge problem with that, because there was certain
rhetoric identifiable in the Arts Council, a change in the understanding
of community and community arts; we fulfilled a bit of that because we
explicitly positioned ourselves on that edge between the gallery-based
system and the community arts situation. They gave us £12,000 to
begin with, to see through two projects that we had on paper.
At the same time we were working
in Temple Bar, doing public discussion and forums. Sometimes we'd go outside
Temple Bar; we were kind of playing a to-ing and fro-ing game, because
we were conscious that Temple Bar was quite amorphous, I think the Italians
call it a tangentopolis, a notion of an octopus which is willing to absorb
and co-opt groups of artists like ourselves, so we tried to skirt around
that. We were always looking for a place where we could site ourselves
momentarily. The bigger picture here is Temple Bar Properties, with their
gentrification, with their use of the gallery spaces, and the way Art House
So there's an historical narrative
taking place here but it keeps falling off the edge, it keeps failing.
Part of the deal there is generally the conditions, the determinants which
operate, in the widest frame of Irish culture, Irish politics, Irish art
at the end of the 20th century. More locally it was about that struggle
to set up something that was different from the mainstream. I think we
were conscious of the fact that we could be easily sidelined and marginalised
and yet at the same time we were trying to make a difference, to have some
notion of efficacy. Part of that is our interest in education and arts
pedagogy in particular, so we were running a programme of discussion forums
which were not really being facilitated by anyone else. Since that happened
it's been taken up by Temple Bar Galleries, because they've seen this audience
open up for that type of discourse.
One problem that needs to be marked
at this stage is that issue of personality difficulties, about amassing
of body of people together to organise, on top of other commitments, and
the division of labour between the committee themselves, and how to administrate
this. For instance, the Waiting Spaces project we did had nine public artworks
in a mental hospital, and two in social welfare offices in Dublin, at the
same time. It was a hugely ambitious project amongst six or seven people
who were doing it part-time and getting no pay, and were struggling enough
in their day to day living. I'm always awe-struck by the success that other
artist-groups have because they always manage to maintain themselves at
the same time as reaching some sort of critical audience, maintaining some
sort of dignity in the face of all of this, because behind the scenes things
are going haywire.
Another project was Articulate,
in Art House. It was about breaking open a hermetically understood notion
of art practice, we were trying to introduce other types of discourse,
from the legal, or medical, or social policy angle, in terms of the discussion
about rape and sexual abuse. This was very much a self-developmental thing,
it was about educating ourselves as to how we were going to investigate
the system in place.
Of course our last thing was the
Littoral in Ireland/ Critical Sites conference in Dun Laoghaire last September.
It was very much an effort to set up a stall that was outside the mainstream
in terms of the type of discussion that was being had, and yet we realised
when it was going on that it was something that the major arts administrators,
the major interest groups, the power blocks within the arts system, the
Arts Councils, were very interested in.
Val Conner: I'm interested
in the notion that an artist curating or administrating is more virtuous,
more of an 'honest broker' of power, money or information than, say, a
professional curator or art administrator; is that necessarily so? When
an artist curates or administrates, do they retain their originary identity
as an artist, does this act as an insurance policy against their new personality
as arts administrator, curator and so on? It's as if the artist occupies
an almost innocent place, and from there this person can then go forth
and role play, learn the inner workings of the administration and so on,
that otherwise are seen as in conflict with them as an artist.
I think it's interesting to talk
about this idea of leading by example, the notion of setting a good example,
whether as an artist or collective of artists, the idea that there is an
ethical, social role, to input into social and cultural policy. Can you
make deliberately aggravating public work, deliberately aggravate your
peers and deliberately say no? Orla talked about refusal; in any sort of
generally liberal democratic society, is this notion of complete refusal
at all possible?
On that idea of agents and agency,
it struck me with reference to Critical Access that the enthusiasm displayed
by the Arts Council in Dublin may have come from their recognising Critical
Access as an opportunity to invest in an educative agency.
Gavin Murphy: I'd like to
ask each member of the panel to describe what they think an alternative
or oppositional culture might look like, given that the mainstream in the
talk here, the Arts Council, seems more than willing to fund the projects
that you are talking about?
OR: I think that when the
Arts Council start pouring money into artist-run initiatives that's the
time to be self-reflexive.
Chris Bailey: Are you saying
then that the art has to exist without money?
OR: No, I'm not. I think you
can be alternative for particular moments, for particular situations, then
the thing disbands or moves on, and that way it can be really effective.
MMcC: It's important to remember
that whole point about working in terms of understanding local struggles,
certain sites, the notion of contingency; alternative in Warsaw, and alternative
in Tokyo, and alternative in Dublin are not the same thing. The notion
of an alternative art practice is not about medium, you could even argue
it's not about content, it's an understanding of where one is positioned
at any given time in terms of the nexus of different forces. I wouldn't
push the boat out in terms of Critical Access's activity being alternative,
but it was something extra, I don't think we had this banner which we huddled
VC: Is there a conflict between
ideas about being 'pro-active'--the term is thoroughly integrated into arts
planning and writing, to be most general about it--and notions of being
'reactive'? Now at the moment maybe there's a third term, 'non-active'.
Is the idea of the 'pro-active' one that still has any currency any more?
Have we lost sight of the possibility that a reactive practice does perhaps
enable you to have a sustainable activity, where you can shift from being
one thing to another, to dealing with various groups of various interests?
How do you manage a situation where you deal with very official funding
bodies or developers but on the other hand do work that is critical?
Daniel Jewesbury: Can we take
it that once you have set yourself up with any degree of permanence you
become an institution, is that the qualification of moving into this nebulous
thing that is the mainstream, that once you have any permanent kind of
funding you are an institution and that there is no differentiation between
institutions as such? I'm struck by what Martin just said, about Critical
Access existing as an extra thing, it's not necessarily always the case
that you are undermining the rigid and authoritarian structures that tower
above you, rather you're something supplemental.
MMcC: It's the notion of some
multiplicity or multiplication of possibilities rather than 'you're either
in or you're not'. Trying to function both as something that was contingent
and critical, and at the same time dealing with a funding body, was a task
we just couldn't forge. What Val was saying, about the notion of the artist
as the honest broker--to suggest that all artists are good people is crap,
obviously nobody's saying that, but the idea that an artist would respect
another artist is a little more difficult. We did try and do that, in our
dealings with artists. We tried in some way to address the issues, the
problems, so we saw ourselves as being a mediating layer between artists
and other institutions, and we thought we were artist-centred, we believed
we understood those terms.
Peter Richards: Catalyst continually
applies to funding bodies and it has a permanent base; but the people who
run it are in there to facilitate the organisation. You've talked about
individuals of Critical Access being prominent figures, and not having
a space, whereas in Catalyst the people were important, but not as important
as the organisation. So it was continually changing, the attitudes and
ideas were shifting, but it had a way of obtaining funding through its
MMcC: The brand.
PR: Yeah, it's a different
type of institution, it's not an alternative, it's different within the
same thing, a different approach to the institutional body.
OR: Critical Access, from
what I'm hearing, was trying to present a critical response to different
subjects. It's interesting that the Arts Council will fund that but if
you were presenting an institutional critique, of the structures of power
in culture in Irish society, would Critical Access have got funding for
a project like that? I doubt it. We can't think about the funding bodies
or the spaces we occupy as being neutral.
PR: How interested do you
think the Northern Irish Arts Council are in the reports and projects we
write up? I don't think they really look too much at what we write. I think
they just say, all right, same again, give you the cash they think they
can afford, let you get on with it, and then file your reports.
OR: As long as you don't rock
VC: We've talked about Catalyst
being more than just another place to have a show, that there's a discussion,
facilitating meeting between artists who are carrying out these functions
as well as making their own work. There's the notion of professionalism;
is that only permissible in the terms of what's now a recognisable format,
the artist-led initiative, that formal kind of structure that the Arts
Council would recognise, other artists would recognise.
Dan Shipsides: It has a perceived
feel-good factor about artists working with other artists, collaborating,
but that moves into your Euro-supercurators, who see themselves as working
with the artists, for example Manifesta, that's a kind of mainstream alternative
if you like. I don't think it's always a good thing, that perception of
artist-run spaces always being so 'benevolent' to the artist. In Catalyst,
you just work as a facilitator, whereas the artist can direct the shots.
If the mainstream is pseudo-alternative, Catalyst is like that on a small
Brian McAvera: There's a confusion
here about notions of change. Any movement that has traditionally been
described as avant-garde has actually changed the way we look at things,
it has brought some kind of new process in. That's totally different from
the kind of institutional changes that some of you are talking about which
is about the betterment of the artist's lot, the way in which the artist
can actually effect change in terms of their conditions. If you want to
improve artists' conditions, change is a very slow accumulative process,
and the only way to do that is through artist organisations. I would suggest,
especially to the Northern Irish artists who are here, that the one thing
that has kept them firmly under the thumb is the lack of a substantial
artist organisation which can actually have real weight. We do not have
in Northern Ireland an artists' organisation which has had the clout to
go and take on the government. What we had historically, and what I suggest
is quite deliberately organised in terms of the various structures which
are in place in Northern Ireland, is a fracturing of the artists into ever
smaller groups and cliques, and unless that process is reversed you'll
never get change.
Brian Hand: I think this is
a real problem about making art, about thinking about an audience, about
thinking about who's funding you and realising the totally conflictual
nature. I wouldn't take the sphere of art-making out of the context of
a social, economical, political sphere, they're intermeshed and I think
that the kind of abstract idealism of the autonomous transcendent artist
is very close to a free marketeer perspective, which is that the market
is some sort of regulatory body which doesn't need human agency, that we
can only fuck it up if humans get involved, the market can control itself.
Any of us who live in this society know it's a complete myth, that the
society is more extreme as years go by and nation states continually manipulate
markets; there's no such thing as public good. I think we live in a much
more at-each-others'-throats environment than most of us recognise, and
it should be okay to say that. Talking as a member of Blue Funk, trying
to get money from the Arts Council of Ireland was impossible and that's
not because we didn't make an effort. I don't think there's an easy linear
progression for artists out of this mess. I think we live in a mess and
maybe have to recognise the mess.
PR: Maybe I was being a bit
crass with what I said about the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. They
do give out money but there doesn't seem to be any particular strategy,
they don't particularly review what they give the money for. That's what
I was suggesting rather than that they just hand out Christmas presents.
BH: The role you are supposed
to fill, be it alternative, be it an artist-led initiative, that is a qualitative
statement of what you are. I think the quality issue of what the Arts Council
give the money for is the most difficult question to ask. How do they measure
it, what understanding do they have about quality, is it based on audience?
If you put that question to them they just collapse. They have no concept
of what the quality issue means.
TD: The situation isn't all
down to the problems with the Arts Council, they obviously only receive
so much budget per year and part of their major strategy is to support
places like the Ormeau Baths Gallery, and the amount of money that takes
up leaves a very small amount to be spread between a large amount of groups.
What can you do about that?
Eoghan McTigue: One of the
reasons why I think we're in a different situation here is because the
likes of Catalyst Arts first of all gets most of its money from Belfast
City Council and not from the Arts Council, that's a new initiative. The
City Council have become a lot more pro-active in funding spaces, projects,
organisations. You can go to the City Council and present them with a project,
it isn't already going to be valued or assessed under these problematic
criteria. I think there's a good relationship between artists and the City
Council where they're developing the City and you can find space to work
or run projects, it isn't always co-opted by the idea of regeneration.
I think if you start continually looking at where you're getting money
from you're going to run into a stalemate, where you can't move forward.
VC: Toby, could you tell us
a bit about the lobbying process because I think that's another potential.
To come together, to start to talk about a lobbying group, really shifts
the understanding of the politics of the situation and also makes it very
explicit. The Arts Council down in Dublin, as far as I know, still print
on their literature that they're resistant and impermeable to lobbying.
So you're already disenfranchised from making representations and asking
for the accountability that in every other aspect of our lives we're increasingly
told to expect.
TD: Your main source of funds
are the people you're trying to change; the City Council have been very
supportive. The purpose of lobbying is to make a change and then to change
the direction that funders might take. I think you've got to accept that
and you can't just say that you're becoming mainstream if the things that
you're lobbying for actually happen.
BMcA: I believe that artists
should lobby, but the general point I'm trying to make is that individual
artists lobbying on their own are simply played off against each other.
It's no accident the Arts Council continually give a little bit of money
to x,y and z because it buys them off. You have a lobbying organisation,
the AAI, you have another potential lobby in VAANI. I personally think
the two should be linked because it's lunacy on an island this size to
have two organisations which are theoretically fighting for the same thing.
That organisation, given a proper weight of members, is then in a position
to access money that does not come from the Arts Councils.
BH: What's their bargaining
BMcA: Their bargaining power
is the number of their members who are classed and employed as professional
BH: So they say, sorry we're
going to give it to the farmers, to the postmen, they're going on strike
tomorrow, you're not. That's the point.
BMcA: You're assuming that
one group is automatically played off against the other. What we should
pick up is the fact that artists, and culture in general, are amongst the
biggest contributors to the economy. There are statistics to this effect,
the Arts Council down south actually did a survey, demonstrating that money
going to artists and arts organisations created more jobs than any other
BH: Where does 'culture' begin
and end? You say culture, but what is it? Artists make spaces, they move
into parts of the city and within ten years that space will be redeveloped,
and there will be people who make millions of pounds and they're not lobbyists,
they go around with brown paper bags with money in them that they give
to politicians, they ensure that the whole thing is oiled.
Aisling O'Beirn: I think attention
is being drawn to it on our side because Temple Bar is marketed as a cultural
sector now, and it started off that artists moved in there because rents
and rates were cheaper than any other parts of the centre of Dublin. And
now it's a big cultural centre that's used for tourism.
BH: I can understand it as
a tourist sector but to understand it as a cultural sector is quite hard.
This phrase used today, the 'culture industry', is hilarious in my opinion.
This is a phrase that was invented in the 1950s as a totally damning critique
of what 'culture' was about, that it was an industry, it was systematised.
And yet the Arts Council and Temple Bar Properties came together in 1994
for this big conference called 'The Cultural Industry', and now you'll
hear this phrase used all the time. It's a nonsense.
MMcC: Can you set up a superstructure,
a representative body like the AAI, which can represent artists in all
their diversity, the people who want to work outside of the gallery system?
BMcA: You're missing the point.
The job of an organisation like the AAI is not to promote x,y or z, it's
to promote all artists and to get them the conditions, the money or what
BH: That 'culture' is totalising
and is used to efface the injustices, to efface the glaring conflicts,
that becomes more of an area of critique for artists; that culture itself
becomes the focus, where other spheres are using culture to mask their
own selfish profits, not that 'culture' wraps itself into a ball and then
goes off to government.
MMcC: You're quite right,
in that there are some artists practitioners who wish to dissipate or dissolve
that rigid, reified notion of professionalism that has been proposed, saying
let's dispute that concept, let's see culture in the much wider frame,
as the stuff of everyday life.
OR: There's this suggestion
that all artists have to stick together and support all artists, and I
have a problem with that. I don't want to support all artists, there's
work that I'd rather wasn't around. In terms of Temple Bar and Laganside,
I think that artists in Dublin had access to information about this gentrification
process through what happened in SoHo in New York; I don't think we're
all so closed off in Ireland that we didn't have access to the political
discussions that were going on in New York, so I find it hard to take in
Dublin when people say, "We didn't know it was going to turn into this".
I'm beginning to see that possibly the same thing is going to happen here
and it's very important to think about available knowledges when you're
wondering what these development agencies can do for you. What are you
actually going to create with it?
TD: The knowledge of the arts
which the development organisations have is very little, and the arts groups
can actually get in there and make these decisions.
DJ: I'm aware of the comparisons
between Belfast and Dublin, but it's worth remembering that Temple Bar
Properties owned all the buildings and land and have had millions coming
in from Europe from the start, whereas Laganside has an income of around
a million pounds a year and isn't a large property owner itself, so there
are some not so subtle differences between those developments. Belfast
City Council and the Arts Council here just issued a report they commissioned
on this issue, written by Maureen Macken, who was formerly involved with
the Arts Council. There are certain proposals/ recommendations put forward
concerning what the future of this sector is. It's not so much the fact
that there are direct comparisons between what happened in Temple Bar and
what happens up here, it's that the terminology is being borrowed from
Temple Bar in a completely unreflexive way. It's surprising to see that
language articulated again here and with such a tenuous basis for it.
BH: Why is that surprising?
Who owns this terminology? It's the easiest line of access to the market,
it's always the same language, it always follows the quickest course. It's
not going to go out of its way to do some massively expensive research;
it's always going to find the quickest route.
DJ: I accept that, but I'm
surprised that there's not even an attempt to cut it to any kind of cloth.
It's a totally borrowed terminology and a totally borrowed methodology
in terms of how the area can be developed and how 'culture' will fit into
that, bearing in mind the amount of debate that was generated by Temple
Bar. Maybe it's not debate that's out in the open, maybe to a large degree
it's suppressed or repressed.
TD: Maybe it works in that
there's people going into Temple Bar spending money. So that's why it's
VC: I'd like to recap on the
notion of a generational denotation of politics, as some kind of lifetime
time-line which goes from young to old, inexperience to experienced.
DJ: I accept absolutely the
criticisms Orla makes of that terminology, but I'd add the clause that
within the local situation, Belfast, there has always been an idea of a
generational division, and a selective amnesia about what existed five
years ago. That's potentially a problem with a group that sets itself up
as an artist-led space to exist for perpetuity. That selective amnesia
is very much here; if we look at the structure of the studios in Belfast,
and where Catalyst came from, the idea that Catalyst was the first thing
that had happened in Belfast is quite widespread, even amongst people who
have worked closely with Catalyst. It's an enormous problem if we're having
a debate that someone had 12 years ago.
VC: Is it impossible to suspend
disbelief for long enough to take an action that sees itself as a refusal,
as outside of the system? Can that kind of moment happen now? Will there
ever be such a moment? There are lots of revisits to notions of 1968 currently,
where it's represented as some special moment for revolution; whether it
was or wasn't, it's reproduced as a tourism of the imagination for everyone
that was never there. I'm still coming back to whether you must accept
BH: There has been progress
on one level. To take the term 'the culture industry,' when it was devised
by Adorno and Horkheimer it meant the entertainment industry; they valorised
avant garde modernist art practice that had never been contaminated by
'culture', they just turned a blind eye and played their end game: Rothko
would just never be appropriated. Now we're 50 years on we see this completely
turned on its head and I do think this sense of not being innocent anymore
is really pervasive. There is no innocent view, people couldn't have been
talking about this 30 years ago because so many things have happened, and
we can't deny that there are totalising projects that attempt to try and
move into our spaces of human freedom.
One of the big things not mentioned
here today is the whole audience question. That was a factor that came
out of 'Littoral', certainly from Grant Kester's paper. One of the most
interesting things he was trying to say was how to make a new paradigm
shift within an art practice that moves from an anti-discursive aesthetics
to an inter-discursive aesthetics.
MMcC: It suggests in terms
of the discussion here that there is a history to be written, which would
incorporate the political economy of visual culture, of visual arts in
Ireland in the '80s and '90s. It would talk about Temple Bar Properties
and the agenda there in terms of the pursuit of urban regeneration. It
may also include something of a discourse that we're having here in terms
of how artists have been positioned, at any given moment to accomplish
certain ends. Going back to the thing about SoHo and the way artists have
been used as the cutting edge of gentrification, it's well documented elsewhere,
but maybe now it's happening here we might need a localised version. Something
like that might be instructive and useful in how this thing will move forward.
There's a dearth of critical writings on these types of formations; it's
part and parcel of what we're living through at the moment.
Following this initial platform,
Variant is to establish an e-mail forum to further develop the discussion.
If you wish to participate in any way contact
"I was a ball
of nerves and sleepless paranoia (figuring that I might be next)..."
Terry Gilliam's film of Fear &
Loathing in Las Vegas and the publication of the early novel Rum Diary
late last year, indicate a retrospective interest in Hunter S. Thompson.
The reviews of the film (Screen, Variety) were consistently bad--in the
sense that they failed to understand anything of the work. Thompson's style
is taken for drug addled ranting, yet it provides scholarly and precise
insights into the period, blended with a real passion, humanity and commitment,
which are absent from conventional accounts.
Much of Thompson's work--certainly
that of the early '60s--is akin to the investigative journalism of the 'Muckrakers'
of some fifty years ago. The Proud Highway, another recent collection of
letters to and from Thompson, makes a comparison to Lincoln Steffens. Little
known now, Steffens together with Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair (who like
Thompson ran for office) wrote fearless, impartial and enormously popular
accounts of American cities rancid with corruption.1
Much of Thompson's early work for
the National Observer, particularly Democracy Dies in Peru But Few Seem
to Mourn its Passing, show him as a complete freelance, who with no resources
whatsoever, writing better analysis than the mainstream press: largely
because of his sheer involvement with the story. Discussion of Thompson
tends to focus on his lifestyle, which is largely born out of establishing
a way to operate without money. The person revealed in the Proud Highway
is one of astonishing self-reliance, determination and self-sufficiency.
Be that as it may, Fear and Loathing came about largely by accident and
desperation when he thought his career as a writer was over.
The film is a very faithful adaptation
of the book and of course the book is supposedly based on real events.2
It seems little-known or forgotten now, that Thompson wrote an introduction
to the early copies of Fear and Loathing which set out its real context:
the murder of Ruben Salazar in the Silver Dollar Cafe by the Los Angeles
County Sheriffs Department on August 29 1970.
While he worked on the Salazar story
(which appeared in Rolling Stone 81 on April 29 1971), around about dawn
in an effort to relax, Thompson would also work on the jumble of notes
and taped gibberish of what would become Fear & Loathing.3
So the two were written in tandem. Chronologically the events of the Salazar
killing precede the little holiday in Las Vagas, which happened in early
It was probably his most dangerous
story--caught between the enraged Chicanos who wanted to kill him on principle,
because he was white, and the police who were running amok, Thompson pried
radical lawyer, Oscar Acosta (his main contact on the story and an old
friend) away from the situation so that they could talk openly.
"Flashing across the desert at 110
in a big red convertible with the top down, there is not much danger of
being bugged or overheard...By the time I got back to the Rolling Stone
HQ. in San Francisco, the Salazar story was winding out at around 19,000
words, and the strange Vegas 'fantasy' was running on its own spaced energy
and pushing 5000 words--with no end in sight and no real reason to continue
working on it, except the pure pleasure of unwinding on paper."
Their dialogue on Salazar is not
directly recorded in the novel--the tone of it is. The two stories intermingle
on various levels. Suffice to say that both of them had stepped from a
situation where the world could have ended at any moment in the same fate
that met Salazar. It did for Acosta a few short years later. That factor
should be added to any reading of the stress of events in Las Vegas. The
two stories are collected in the Modern Library version of Fear and Loathing
and Other American Stories; which cruelly cuts out Acosta from its cover
photograph of the pair looking wide awake and abnormally normal in a casino
at three o'clock in the morning.
In his short life Ruben Salazar
became a nationally known professional journalist with ten years experience.
He had won prizes for work in Vietnam and was something of a veteran war
correspondent. Of Mexican American heritage himself, he was employed by
the Los Angeles Times to cover 'local issues':
"Within months, he had narrowed
his work for the Times down to a once-a-week column for the newspaper,
and signed on as news director for KMEX-TV--the 'Mexican American station',
which he quickly transformed into an energetic, aggressively political
voice for the whole Chicano community. His coverage of police activities
made the East Los Angeles Sheriffs Department so unhappy that they soon
found themselves in a sort of running private argument with this man Salazar,
this spic who refused to be reasonable. When Salazar got on to a routine
story like some worthless kid named Ramirez getting beaten to death in
a jail-fight, he was likely to come up with almost anything--including a
series of hard-hitting news commentaries strongly suggesting that the victim
had been beaten to death by the jailers. In the summer of 1970 Ruben Salazar
was warned three times, by the cops, to 'tone down his coverage'. And each
time he told them to fuck off." 4
Salazar was killed in the aftermath
of a huge riot caused by a police attack on a peaceful anti-Vietnam rally
in Laguna Park in east Los Angeles. Three people were killed and sixty
injured. Thompson's story works his way through the evasions of the Sheriff's
nervous mouthpiece as the police version of events collapses, even without
an attack by Chicano partisans. At this point the question he tries to
answer is are the police willing to kill anyone who seems to be annoying
Naturally the local press makes
itself available to the status quo, to spread red menace stories of outside
agitators. Thompson's assessment of the quality of the main paper the Los
Angeles Herald-Examiner still stands for most papers today and reminded
me of Glasgow's own Herald:5
"As one of the few remaining Hearst
organs, it serves a perverted purpose in its role as a monument to everything
cheap, corrupt and vicious in the realm of journalistic possibility. It
is hard to understand, in fact, how the shriveled Hearst management can
still find enough gimps, bigots and deranged Papists to staff a rotten
paper like the Herald."
As the case unfolds a photograph
of the Sheriff's deputy pointing a shotgun at the front door of the Silver
Dollar Cafe emerges as do eye-witness accounts by Salazar's fellow newscaster,
who was covering the riot with him and had joined him in the Cafe. When
the accounts of what happened are published in la Raza--a militant Chicano
newspaper--the police respond with more lunatic versions of events.
After the coroner's inquest the
police slip the hook. Tom Wilson, who finally admitted to firing the death
weapon evades any charges, moderate Chicano spokesmen ask for an investigation,
the militants call for an uprising and the cops do nothing. Thompson seems
convinced that the police were too inept to have actually conspired to
kill Salazar, but:
"The malignant reality of Ruben
Salazar's death is that he was murdered by angry cops for no reason at
all--and that the LA Sherif's Department was and still is prepared to defend
that murder on grounds that it was entirely justified. Salazar was killed,
they say, because he happened to be in a bar where police thought there
was also a 'man with a gun'. They gave him a chance, they say, by means
of a bullhorn warning...and when he didn't come out with his hands up,
they had no choice but to fire a tear gas bazooka into the bar...and his
head got in the way? Tough luck. But what was he doing in that place, anyway?
Lounging around a noisy Chicano bar in the middle of a communist riot?"
It is hard now to comprehend the
militancy of the times. The working title of Fear and Loathing was The
Death of the American Dream. Originally Thompson set out to write something
similar to Tom Wolfe's book on the Merry Prankster's Acid tests, but he
decided to study politics close at hand. In Chicago in '68 Thompson was
present at the five days of street fighting and eventual civil war with
the National Guard, outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel where the Democratic
Party Convention delegates and nominee, Hubert Humphrey, were staying:
"For me, that week in Chicago was
far worse than the worst acid trip I'd heard rumors about...It permanently
altered my brain chemistry, and my first new idea--when I finally calmed
down--was an absolute conviction there was no possibility for any personal
truce...in a nation that could hatch and be proud of a malignant monster
like Chicago. Suddenly it seemed imperative to get a grip on those who
had somehow slipped into power and caused the thing to happen."
The massive onslaught on the left
in America and the subsequent rise of Nixon saw Thompson retreat to Aspen
to narrowly lose in his 'Freak Power' campaign to run for Sheriff--it was
originally started as a joke and it was here he met Acosta. Thompson later
tried to initiate a platform which would mobilise 'the rock vote' for the
Democrats in their desperate attempts to be rid of Nixon. With his journey
alongside the Democratic Party Election campaign in '72 (which in those
days was like a Rolling Stones Tour) he became the political Junkie he
It was Acosta who tracked him down
and suggested involvement in the Salazar story. Acosta was then defending
six young Chicanos who had been arrested for trying to burn down the Biltmore
Hotel, while the then Governor, Ronald Reagan was delivering a speech.
He was also busy trying to subpoena all 109 Superior Court Judges in Los
Angeles County and cross-examine them at length, under oath, on the subject
The Salazar story ends with Thompson
outlining the brazen cover-up of the political upheavals of the area--the
denial of the political legitimacy of the Chicano struggle through racism.
The police attempts to present a public relations front are ripped to shreds
as Thompson phones pretending to be coming to town to cover events and
is told all manner of insanity contrary to what he has just witnessed.
Thompson's Salazar story and the
more 'conventional' work of the radical press, particularly magazines like
Ramparts, began to lift up the lid of the FBI Counter Intelligence Program
(COINTELPRO), a massive and widespread campaign to subvert left-wing organisations
involving agent provocateurs, harassment, phone taps, surveillance, informants,
framing of suspects and assassinations. COINTELPRO had followed on from
the anti-Communist crusades of the '50s. An engaging history of the American
Counter Culture and the influence of LSD is wrapped up very nicely in Martin
A Lee and Bruce Shalain's recent Acid Dreams, The Complete Social History
of LSD.6 The book seems an American import
published a few years ago and now available in the UK. It maps out the
early use of the drug by the East coast CIA-connected elite, mentioning
some extraordinary characters such as Captain Alfred M. Hubbard an early
Acid evangelist (he supplied several heads of state, ambassadors and Aldous
Huxley). We also find Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg as early acid guinea
pigs in medical experiments prior to the systematic demonisation of the
drug for political purposes. At times the book spirals off into the convoluted
intrigue of the times:
"The CIA was in cahoots with organised
crime; Agency personnel based in Southeast Asia were involved in the heroin
trade; for eight years the drug was smuggled inside returning corpses of
American servicemen who had died in Vietnam; and corrupt police pushed
junk in New York, Detroit, and other major urban ghettos."
That is pretty straight-forward
compared to the story of the Castle Bank, set up by the CIA as a money
wash to facilitate the hidden transfer of huge sums to finance subversion,
paramilitary operations, coup d' etats, Mob hit teams and so forth. Richard
Nixon was among the three hundred prominent Americans who used Castle to
deposit their cash (which included Tony Curtis, Hugh Hefner, Bob Guccione,
Chiang Kai-shek's daughter and Howard Huges). It also laundered money for
the Brotherhood of Eternal Love an organisation who distributed millions
of doses of LSD until they were penetrated by CIA agent Ron Stark, a truly
wierd individual whose connections included the Sicilian mafia, Shiite
warlords, the PLO, the Red Brigades and on and on through a hundred twists
Another progressive aspect of Thompson's
Journalistic style often ignored, is his use of technology, particularly
the tape recorder (which was still something of a novelty). This is from
the opening of Fear and Loathing:
"This blows my weekend, because
naturally I'll have to go with you--and we'll have to arm ourselves." "Why
not?" I said. "If a thing like this is worth doing at all, its worth doing
right. We'll need some decent equipment and plenty of cash on the line
if only for drugs and a super-sensitive tape recorder, for the sake
of a permanent record."
Thompson's other abiding interest
is in the technology to transfer his transcriptions, usually at the last
minute. He claims to be the chief exponent of the MOJO wire--a telefax machine.
In his home he set up a massive media monitoring station with the advent
of satellite technology. Access is as much one of his lusts as ice in large
quantities with Wild Turkey. Electric typewriters are as much of a fetish
as his gun lust. In the film there is an image of the tape recorder microphone
tapped to his head when he is tripping as if it had been grafted on.
The metaphorical core of Fear and
Loathing is a 'tape transcription' of their search for "the American dream"
in a "White Whale"7 with Thompson and Acosta
assuming their aliases of Dr. Gonzo and his Attorney. In the transcription
they ask a waitress in a diner about a "place called the American Dream."
Confused, people from behind the counter all try to help with directions
to a place down the road which was:
"The old Psychiatrist's Club on
Paradise...It was a discotheque place...but the only people who hang out
there are a bunch of pushers, peddlers, uppers and downer, and all that
stuff...it's a mental joint where all the dopers hang out."
The conversation spirals inward
like Kafka standing waiting at the final door of the castle. The transcription
ends because of garbled tape:
"There is a certain consistency
in the garbled sounds however, indicating that almost two hours later Dr.
Duke and his attorney finally located what was left of the "Old Psychiatrist's
Club" --a huge slab of cracked, scorched concrete in a vacant lot full of
tall weeds. The owner of a gas station across the road said the place had
"burned down about three years ago."
At first reading it appears that
the characters behind the counter are advising that the pair head 'that
little way further out west', quoting the constitution's advice of what
to do if you are tired of an oppressive government. This is a poetic subtext--or
at least an allusion to Thompson's notion of freedom. But it is more directly
related to his earlier description of his life at the height of the '60s
"My central memory of that time
seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights-- or very early mornings--when
I left the Filmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big
650 Lightning across the bay bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing
L.L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder's jacket...booming through the
Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkley and Richmond,
not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always
stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled
for change)...but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I would
come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt
The diner transcription--the search
for the freedom of the American Dream--is absent from the film. Instead
it picked out the preceding passages in the book which talk of the spirit
of the times through the music and drugs, principally LSD. It is here in
the film that Thompson himself makes an appearance as himself being remembered.
Gilliam's film touches on the freedom of the motorbike scene through the
narrative, ignoring it pictorially. It would have been very difficult to
"So now, less than five years later,
you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the
right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark--that place where
the wave finally broke and rolled back. "
The film leaves us (the camera pulls
out from Johnny Depp's head) with Thompson's monologue towards the close
of the book, which castigated Timothy Leary. Who, according to Acid Dreams,
turned State's Evidence while on trail, providing information on all manner
of people in the underground:
"We are all wired into a survival
trip now. No more of the speed that fueled the sixties. Uppers are going
out of style. This was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary's trip. He crashed around
America selling "consciousness expansion" without ever giving a thought
to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people
who took him too seriously. After West Point and the priesthood, LSD must
have seemed entirely logical to him...but there is not much satisfaction
in knowing that he blew it very badly for himself, because he took too
many others down with him. Not that they didn't deserve it: No doubt They
all Got What Was Coming To Them. All those pathetically eager acid freaks
who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit.
But their loss and failure is ours too. What Leary took down with him was
the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create ...
a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood
the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption
that somebody--or at least some force --is tending that Light at the end
of the tunnel."
Thompson is not part of the hippy
drop-out culture. Drugs are not extolled as a virtue. When the slaughter
of Vietnam and the war against dissent at home was passed off as order--rationality,
he like many others tried to resist it by any means necessary. A big--at
times dangerous--part of that was telling the truth.
1 According to The Muckrakers by
Arthur and Lila Weinberg (Capricorn 1964) the term was used pejoratively
by President Roosevelt: "He charged that the writers who were engaged in
the exposure of corruption were "muckrakers," and likened them to the man
with the muckrake in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress who could "look no way
but downward, with a muckrake in his hands; who was offered a celestial
crown for his muckrake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown
he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor."
The speech, to a club of newsmen was off the record and soon became common
2 One of the producers, Patrick
Cassavetti, has worked on a range of projects that have met with censorship
and/or attack for little other reason than their artistic merits, such
as Gilliam's Brazil and Alan Clarke's Made in Britain. He has also worked
with David Leland, Neil Jordan, Davis Hare, Stephen Friers, Ken Loach (in
Looks and Smiles) and Warren Beatty (in Reds).
3 This also outlined his concept
of 'Gonzo journalism' stating somewhat modestly that the book was "a victim
of its own conceptual schizophrenia, caught and finally crippled in that
vain, academic limbo between 'journalism' and 'fiction'. And then hoist
on its own petard of multiple felonies and enough flat-out crime to put
anybody who'd admit to this kind of stinking behavior in the Nevada State
Prison until 1984". The introduction which was never used as such
by the publishers was eventually published in "The Great Shark Hunt",
first published in the UK in 1980 by Picador. this also contains the Salazar
story "Strange Rumblings in Azltan."
Thompson stated to P. J O' Rourke:
"Right after Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises, he wrote a very small
book, not much noticed. And I remember reading that he said, "I wrote that
just to cool out after The Sun Also Rises." I was working on Salazar, an
ugly murder story. You know how you get. You get that, "Fuck, damn, where
shall we go now? Whose throat can I eat?" And when I got stuck out in that
Holiday Inn near the Santa Anita racetrack, outside Pasadena, I was there
to work on this murder story. That was work, boy, that was blood. And,
boy, that role got very, very tough. That's why I went to Las Vegas. And
when I came back from Las Vegas, I was still writing that story." Rolling
4 The owners of the station made
sure it reverted back into a more 'friendly' style after Salazar's murder.
5 Obviously without the Papists.
6 Thompson is featured intermittently
in Acid Dreams as are descriptions of what he was taking: "Owsley's product
first hit the streets in february 1965...He...was on hand to freak freely
at some wild parties hosted by Kesey...Owsley was obsessed with making
his product as pure as possible--even purer than Sandoz, which described
LSD in its scientific reports as a yellowish crystalline substance. As
he mastered his illicit craft, Owsley found a way to refine the crystal
so that it appeared blue-white under fluorescent lamp; moreover, if the
crystals were shaken, they emitted flashes of light, which meant that LSD
in its pure form was piezoluminescent a property shared by a very
small number of compounds." (p 146) It is interesting to compare Acid Dreams
to "Days in the Life" by Jonathon Green, where the British Underground
is defined as the hobbies of a few public school boys.
7 In addition to the references
to Melville's Moby Dick, Gilliam seemed to smuggle in a reference to Traven's
'The Death Ship'. Thompson has long struggled to write a book akin to Fitzgerald's
'The Great Gatsby'.
the Media, and the British Secret State
Just after the previous issue of
Variant appeared I talked with one of the editors and we agreed that I
would write something about the relationship between the secret state--the
spooks--and the media for this issue. It turned out to be one of those serendipitous
occasions, for since then there has been, by British standards, a veritable
torrent of information. But while I was thinking about the shape of this
essay Foreign Secretary Robin Cook presided over the publication of a Foreign
Office report on the notorious Zinoviev letter, which embodies many of
the issues; and it is with this that I begin.
In opposition politicians talk the
talk. It is always interesting to see if they can walk the walk when they
get into office. Robin Cook began life as a feisty Edinburgh MP who was
asking awkward questions about the role of Special Branch in the late 1970s.
He was asking some of the right questions about MI5 as the revelations
of Peter 'Spycatcher' Wright and Colin Wallace came to light in 1986/7;
and in the 1990s he was asking some of right questions about the entire
British intelligence complex in the wake of the publication of the Scott
Report on British arms sales to Iraq. For example, here's Cook in December
1986 in the first flush of the Peter Wright allegations about MI5 plotting
against the Wilson government. 'Today's security services are not pitted
against the KGB, they parallel it in the surveillance of their domestic
population.' Considering reform, he wondered 'whether it would not be simpler
merely to legislate for the abolition of the security services', especially
in light of Peter Wright's revelation 'that MI5 provides no discernible
service to the public, even in the intervals between swapping personnel
with the Russians and destabilising democratically elected governments.'
These are not the words of someone
who understands much about the security and intelligence services--very
few politicians do: The subject is complex and being interested in it is
rarely good for political careers--and though Cook never followed through
on any of these issues, the basic impulse was radical.
On 4 February this year as Foreign
Secretary, Cook made extravagant claims for the publication of an official
Foreign Office report on the notorious Zinoviev letter. In 1924, the minority
Labour Government lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, which
meant a general election. The next day the Foreign Office was sent a copy
of a letter, purporting to come from Grigori Zinoviev, the president of
the Soviet Union's international organisation, the Comintern, addressed
to the central committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The letter
urged the party to stir up the British proletariat in preparation for class
war. Just before the election the letter appeared in the Daily Mail 2
and helped the Labour Party lose the General Election.
Soon after becoming Foreign Secretary
Cook had been asked by a Liberal-Democrat MP if he would open the official
MI6 files on Zinoviev. He wouldn't, but he did commission the Foreign Office's
Official Historian to write a report on the matter. This report, claimed
Cook in the Guardian, was 'a remarkable exercise in openness'... a 'huge
amount of material [was put] into the public domain'. But only the official
historian of the Foreign Office is allowed to see the files and the 'huge
amount of material' consists merely of the report's 124 pages of text and
annexes. This pathetic, officially-filtered dribble of material from 75
years ago could only be described as 'remarkable' within the context of
the obsessive secrecy of the British state. Further, despite the fact that
the official report concludes that two MI6 officers were involved in passing
the fake to the Foreign Office, and the Foreign Office was provided with
'corroborative proofs by MI6 which have now been shown to be suspect'--i.e.
more forgeries to support the first one--the report concludes, and Cook
accepts, that 'there is no evidence of an organised conspiracy against
Labour by the intelligence agencies'. Quite what is being implied here
by the use of 'organised' is beyond me. A disorganised conspiracy?
The Zinoviev letter incident is
a kind of template for one aspect of the relationship between the British
secret state and sections of the British press: Intelligence officers give
disinformation to the Tory press to publish to damage the British left.
Zinoviev was the big stinky fact that the British secret state could never
quite dispose of when it denied running covert operations inside British
politics. Which is why, despite being 75 years old, it is still a sensitive
subject for Whitehall.
Patriots not sneaks?
In his Guardian piece on the Zinoviev
report Cook commented that it represents 'the maximum amount of material
into the public domain without betraying the trust of those who helped
Britain by co-operating with our intelligence services.' Home Secretary
Jack Straw has come up with the same line when resisting appeals to open
MI5 files. Speaking anonymously to David Aaronovitch in the Independent
on Sunday, Straw was asked when people like Aaronovitch--like Straw, a left-wing
student leader in his youth--would get to see their MI5 files.
'Never...you see, these informers,
no matter how you feel about them, were recruited on the basis that they
were doing a job for their country. As far as they were concerned they
were patriots not sneaks.' 3
Clearly this is Whitehall's first
line of defence against any possible Freedom of Information legislation
which might try to include the secret state. And it is, of course, baloney:
the 'trust' which is so important to our secret servants can easily be
preserved by doing what the Americans do, deleting the names of individuals
in the files. Just how far we are from anything resembling the kind of
openness to be found in the United States can be seen by comparing this
meagre, officially sanctioned and written report on Zinoviev, with the
publication, via the Freedom of Information Act, of the actual CIA documents
which began the CIA's operations against Chile in the 1970s which led to
the dictatorship of General Pinochet. 4
Until fairly recently the identification
of a journalist with the intelligence and security services was a news
story in itself--and something that would set the pigeons fluttering in
the secret sections of Whitehall. But things have changed. Gordon Brook-Shepherd
is a journalist who worked in the field of intelligence, chiefly for the
Telegraph. He is the author of a pair of books about intelligence history
which were obviously written with the assistance of the British secret
state, chiefly MI6--The Storm Birds and The Storm Petrels. In his latest
book, The Iron Maze: the Western Secret Services and the Bolsheviks (Macmillan
1998), he remarks on page 2 of his 'two volumes on Soviet defectors to
the West (a project also launched on my behalf by British intelligence)'
(emphasis added). The blurb on the book jacket says that after a war-time
career in military intelligence, ending up a Lieutenant-Colonel with the
Allied Commission in Vienna, Brook-Shepherd became a journalist.
'His first civil post-war post,
as head of the Daily Telegraph's Central and South-East European Bureau
during the Cold War Years, brought him again in touch with the Western
intelligence community. These contacts were renewed at intervals right
down to the war in Afghanistan, which he covered on the spot when Deputy
Editor of the Sunday Telegraph.'
Compare that with the autobiographical
blurb on his The Storm Petrels, published a decade earlier in 1988. Then
Brook-Shepherd was described as having 'a deep understanding of the world
of espionage' (wink, wink) and being a 'much-travelled foreign correspondent'.
The change has come about with the
end of the Cold War. But the change, though real, should not exaggerated.
Brook-Shepherd's book Iron Maze is a re-examination of certain intelligence
aspects of the invasion of the newly-born Soviet Union in 1919 by the combined
forces of the US, Japan, the UK and France. While he has had access to
newly opened French and Soviet intelligence files, in the UK he was given
a series of 'briefings' on the content of the British equivalent files.
Not even a long-term associate of MI6 is apparently to be trusted with
the British files.5
Though the spook-state relationship--and
the spook-state-Conservative Party relationship--can be clearly traced back
to the First World War, it expanded enormously after the Second. The psychological
warriors and intelligence officers who had worked against Hitler slipped
easily into similar roles against the Soviet Union. These changes were
formalised with the creation of propaganda wing of the secret state, the
Information Research Department (IRD), in 1948. Labour junior Foreign Minister
of the time, Christopher Mayhew, died recently thinking IRD was his creation6
but he merely adopted proposals which had already been agreed on within
Whitehall. The recent very important book by Lashmar and Oliver, Britain's
Secret Propaganda War (Sutton Publishing, Gloucestershire, 1998) tells
the story of IRD in unprecedented detail.
IRD began as Mayhew intended, as
the British contribution to the propaganda war then going on between the
West and the Soviet Union. But what began as an anti-Stalinist outfit slipped
naturally into being an anti-anyone-who-is-anti-British outfit--but using
the struggle with the Soviet Union as the framework.7
All nationalist and liberation struggles in the British empire in the post-war
years were portrayed by IRD as being aspects of a great global conflict
with the agents of international communism. IRD became the British enthusiasts
for the Great Communist Conspiracy Theory--and not just abroad. As Lashmar
and Oliver show, in 1956 they began running operations in the UK against
the British Communist Party; and eventually, absurdly, and unsuccessfully,
tried in the early 1970s to portray the Provisional IRA as somehow run
by Moscow. At the height of its operations, IRD was feeding secret briefings
to dozens of British journalists and hundreds world-wide--as, of course,
was the CIA and the KGB.8
IRD's massive briefing system was
the first really organised spin-doctoring of the British media in peace-time.
But MI5, MI6 and the Armed Forces also had journalists they could trust
to publish information and disinformation for them. The doyen of the Fleet
St. spook's conduits in the 1960s and '70s was Chapman Pincher at the Daily
Express,9 who was succeeded at the Express
by William Massie.10 In the 1980s the major
transmitter of secret state disinformation, mostly from MI5, was The Sunday
Times, among whose many disgraceful smear campaigns those against Arthur
Scargill and the unfortunate Carmen Proetta, who witnessed the SAS execution
of the three IRA members on Gibraltar, remain in the memory.
During the Cold War the British
intelligence and security services used the media as a source of cover
for agents abroad and as a vehicle for anti-Soviet and anti-left propaganda
and disinformation. With the end of the Cold War and with the collapse
of the British left and trade union movement as serious opponents of capital,
the intelligence and security 'game' has changed. MI5 is still doing its
best to generate domestic 'threats' to justify its continued existence;
but the green movement, the anti-roads and the animal welfare groups hardly
constitute an equivalent to the intelligence services of the Soviet bloc.
The spooks still have their media assets--as a quick perusal of the Sunday
Telegraph and Sunday Times will show--but these days, so does every other
government department. The Ministry of Defence currently employs 160 PR
staff,11 many of whom will have been through
the Army's psy-ops training courses. The line between active public relations,
spin-doctoring, and running psy-ops campaigns is so faint as to be invisible.
When the Foreign Office's Zinoviev
report appeared in early February this year the major media had forgotten--or
chose to ignore--the fact that it wasn't the first time since Prime Minister
Blair took office that the Zinoviev story had appeared. In August 1997,
just after Labour won the General Election, MI6 leaked material about Zinoviev
to a couple of friendly journalists, Patrick French ('Red letter day' in
the Sunday Times 10 August 1997) and Michael Smith ('The forgery, the election
and the MI6 spy' in the Daily Telegraph 13 August 1997). Both articles
were based on the release of certain documents from MI6's archives which
purported to throw light on the Zinoviev incident.
French's piece used a briefing about
the contents of the documents before they had been released. He argued
that they show that the 'red menace' depicted in the Zinoviev forgery was
real, and thus 'The Zinoviev letter did not need to be faked'. It was a
fake which described the real situation; and so, implicitly, was justified.12
Smith's article, written after the documents had been made available, argued
that the letter 'may have been forged to protect a British spy at the heart
of the Kremlin'--and so, implicitly, was justified.
In other words, the Zinoviev letter
not only described the real situation, it was produced to save a brave
British agent who had penetrated to the heart of the red menace pointing
at the heart of the British way of life. And which right-thinking person
could object to that?
These Zinoviev leaks from MI6 were
counter-balanced by one from MI5, the tale of Andy Carmichael who described
in the Sunday Times (27 July 1997) his 'five years as a fully salaried
MI5 agent' inside the National Front (NF). According to Carmichael, the
National Front, in the guise of National Democrats, had planned to disrupt
the Referendum Party's General Election campaign in the Midlands because
the Front believed that the Referendum Party would take votes from them
(standing as National Democrats). But the NF plot, we are told, 'unsettled
senior MI5 officers'. Interference with a British general election 'would
prove an enormous scandal' and Carmichael was told to 'pull the plug' on
the NF plot. In case we hadn't got the point, the author of the piece,
David Leppard, not noticeably critical of the British security and intelligence
services in the past, tells us that 'Shortly afterwards MI5 decided to
wind down its operations against all extremist parties'.
Patently designed to help persuade
the security and intelligence services' new political masters that they
had nothing to fear from their secret servants, these stories were crude
examples of a fairly recent phenomenon in British politics: The leaking
of secret information in the political and bureaucratic interests of the
secret services in the Whitehall 'game' of budgets and roles in the changed
circumstances of the post Cold War era.
Throughout 1994, for example, the
Metropolitan Police and MI5 waged a press war as MI5, sans the Red Menace,
tried to move in on areas hitherto the property of the police. For the
first time in this country the politics of intelligence and security agency
budgeting were being acted out--in part--in public. Even the Daily Telegraph,
was moved to comment on 5 November 1994 on 'a burst of activity among defence
institutions scurrying to identify new roles for themselves to justify
their budgets and bureaucracies.'13 Final
confirmation of this aspect of the contemporary spooks' relationship with
the media came from the former MI6 officer Richard Tomlinson, who told
us that '[MI6] devotes considerable resources to lobbying its position
in Whitehall, and has a specialised department whose role is to spin-doctor
the media by wining and dining favoured journalists and editors.'14
It was recently alleged that Dominic
Lawson, the editor of the Spectator, is a paid asset of MI6. Lawson and
MI6 have denied this but, if true, it would be an interesting example of
the changing world (alternatively, of declining standards.) For until fairly
recently the editor of a conservative (and Conservative magazine) like
the Spectator could have been relied upon to open his columns to (dis)information
from MI6 out of a sense of patriotism and duty. But with the Cold War over,
the empire gone, much of the City of London now foreign-owned, Britain
now merely a declining region of the European Union, the old discourse
of nation and state within which concepts like 'duty' and 'national interest'
were meaningful is in disarray. What is 'the national interest' these days?
Who is the enemy?15
1 New Statesman, 12 December 1986,
pp.7 & 7. Thanks to David Turner for the quotation.
2 Thus beginning that paper's reputation
which led Michael Foot always to refer to it as the Forgers' Gazette.
3 Independent on Sunday 9 April
1998. The unidentified Minister to whom Aaronovitch talked is obviously
4 The CIA documents are at:
5 He may have been an MI6 officer
under cover. There have been persistent rumours that in the 1950s and '60s
MI6 paid for the Telegraph's foreign news operation. Cf Brook-Shepherd's
'Central and South-East European Bureau' of the Telegraph.
6 Mayhew's memories of IRD in its
early days are to be found in his A War of Words: A Cold War Witness (I.B.
7 Even this had been prefigured
during the war. One of the bits of the story of WW2 which the official
British legend is reluctant to acknowledge is the massive campaign of propaganda,
smears and blackmail waged by the British state against the isolationists
in the United States in the period leading up to US entry into the war.
8 This is described in detail by
Lashmar and Oliver. The fact that so many of Britain's journalists and
newspapers were regurgitating unattributable briefings from IRD may explain
why this extremely important book has had virtually no reviews. To my knowledge
there is no single volume on the CIA's media operations but Carl Bernstein
(of Woodward and Bernstein fame) made a start in his piece 'The CIA and
the Media', in Rolling Stone, October 20 1977. I can't think of an equivalent
for the KGB that is worth reading.
9 Pincher's many books, notably
the 1978 Inside Story, are a testament to a career publishing material
given to him by the secret arms of state. In 1991 his The Truth about Dirty
Tricks contained a staggeringly inaccurate chapter on Colin Wallace which
Wallace himself demolished in Lobster 21 (May 1991).
10 Massie was prolific in the Daily
and especially the Sunday Express in the late 1980s. For perhaps the most
grotesque example of his use of spook information see the front page lead
in the Sunday Express of 14 February 1998, 'Labour MP and the girl reds',
which was based round a surveillance photograph of a Labour MP taken in
11 The Armour-Plated Ostrich, Tim
Webb, Comerford and Miller, West Wickham, Kent, 1998 p.82.
12 A new branch of historical research
suggests itself: history with the documents included which should have
been written but weren't.
13 For a couple of examples see
the Independent of 9 November 1994, which reported that 'MI5 ... and Special
Branch are vying to take the lead in representing Britain at Europol's
headquarters in The Hague. MI5 is making an aggressive bid to take-over
the European Liaison Unit of the Metropolitan Special Branch ...'; and
Computer Weekly of 10 November, 1994, which reported that 'The security
service MI5 is to offer advice to government IT managers on nearly all
computer security issues further diluting the role of Whitehall's dedicated
computer agency the CCTA.' MI5 successfully moved into both the above and
organised crime as well as taking over most of the Metropolitan Police's
anti-terrorist operations. MI6 moved into 'the war on drugs' as well as
international organised crime.
14 The Guardian 15 August 1998.
15 It is striking that in the 1980s
the US citizens, notably the senior CIA officer Aldrich Ames, who were
caught spying for the Soviet Union did it simply for money, not for ideology.