All Messed Up
Not so groovey
Playing with Fire
Comic and Zine Reviews
Who's Afraid of
Film & Video in Scotland
Socially Engaged Practice Forum
Dialogical Aesthetics:A Critical
Framework for Littoral Art
Living in the Margin
Tales of the Great
Signs of the Times
Something for Nothing?
Don't care in
A metaphor: At a ceremony concocted
by the Scottish Media Group (a local monopoly) and a Swiss Bank, Scotland's
first "politician of the year" was announced together with further endless
awards for all the new politicians. The same day a conference was held
by a new organisation set up in March, the Scottish Civic Forum "in the
wake of it being awarded £300,000 by the Scottish Executive." The
Forum will "encourage participation in the work of the Scottish Executive."
Its funding has been secured for three years. Its convener (a known hustler)
said "this is a step forward for making a difference to Scottish Government."
Although they do not know what they will do they've got the money to do
it. Organisations which question the Scottish Executive--and indeed their
relationship with Swiss banks and the media--receive no awards.
State support, in its broadest sense,
continues to be systematically politically allocated. This is disguised
in political language which mimicks that of self-empowerment groups. The
emphasis on individual 'self-help' puts the accent on the guilt of individual
failure and serves to relinquish the State of any culpability. As one of
our writers notes: mental handicap is now termed " learning disabilities",
largely because of the expediency of care in the community. Within bureaucratic
culture the shutters come down on any reality --any potential heresay--which
deviates from the culture imposed from above.
Public sector funding is administered
by people who have conditioned themselves to think that culture is a game:
they watch themselves lose their soul as petty bureaucrats obstruct and
fabricate conditions. In the arts inventing priorities has become inventing
basic exclusions. This year's qualifications are next year's disqualifications.
There is no leadership from these organisations, there is no direction.
Tough on Art -- Tough on the Causes
The political fixation with the
designated look, or designed reception of policy is discredited. The UK
government is set to sustain its concern with 'correctional facilities'
through its various obliging 'arms length' arts bureaucracies. Here this
self-help goes as far as doing-in what actually exists on the ground and
replacing it with a speculative clientele bidding. The effect on artists
and their practices as directed through the mechanisms of the public funding
system, and more importantly the communities and groups that are set to
be targeted, has become an attack on freedom of expression. There are too
many voices around and some of them are saying the wrong things for those
who seek to imprison the mind.
The zombification will come in handy.
We are being prepared--well bound and gagged--for the type of art which will
inhabit the galleries of the future. Most big cities are having their big
art spaces done up with Lottery money and if they are compliant enough...
as one reader writes:
"The Dome should be seen a forebear
of what we have to look forward to: nothing less than the monumental re-embodiment
of the State, a theme park to Civic pomposity. It is time for artists,
individually and through their organisations to get together and attack
the cowardice of the Arts Councils. Or you can apply for some money. That's
really what they are trying to make people think, that there is no sense
that you can influence policy, simply subserviently trail their money."
The government have their attempts
to control culture: their efforts are pathetic and deplorable. The meaning
of life is not contained within a government edict or a grant. Why should
we tolerate facile categorical imperatives imposed on freedom of expression,
they are humiliating and degrading--the end product of years of materialistic
priorities with entirely predictable inhuman outcomes. You can get a glimpse
of another time (before all those years of wallowing in the mire of sheer
ideological manipulation of the arts) by looking at what Roy Jenkins wrote
in the early '60s:
"First there is the need for the
State to do less to restrict personal freedom. Secondly there is the need
for the State to do more to encourage the arts, to create towns which are
worth living in, and to preserve a countryside which is worth looking at.
Thirdly there is the need independently of the State to create a climate
of opinion which is favourable to gaiety, tolerance, and beauty, and unfavourable
to puritanical restriction, to petty-minded disapproval, to hypocrisy and
to a dreary, ugly pattern of life. A determined drive in these three directions
would do as much to promote human happiness than all the 'political' legislation
which any government is likely to introduce... In the long run these things
will be more important than even the most perfect of economic policies."
The Labour Case (London, Penguin 1959)
Written some forty years ago (expressing
basic liberal attitudes) this stands as an indictment on the present state
of affairs. What progress has been made when people had greater freedom
in the past? The Welfare State was set up when Britain was at its poorest,
and owed millions, after a war which almost destroyed the country. What
existed then was the political will. Today affluence is everywhere yet
we are told we have less money. The result of all this is a worse quality
of life; the demise of the public sphere altogether. Politics becomes deals
done in a back room.
It is one thing to blame the ongoing
crimes of bureaucracy on one or two stupid individuals who make up the
rules as they go along; it is another to go along with it.
That which is termed responsible:
official 'Culture', and exposure to it has been routinely represented as
having a positive, corrective influence. Unfortunately today there is still
scant questioning, let alone discussion, of what and who compete to constitute
'acceptable' culture, and what exactly are its ideological values.
There is going to be a history of
this period and someone is going to write it. Who writes history has always
been the privilege of the victor but there can never be only one voice.
For if there is only one voice what need have we of truth.
An example of how the arts are
covered in Scotland
Pathetic non-stories, inflammatory
gibberish and a lascivious pouring over of weird fantasies are the hall-mark
of most tabloid press attempts to cover the arts.
The Scottish Media Group decided
in its Glasgow Evening Times to allege on its front cover that Lynn Ramsay's
film Ratcatcher was an "under-age sex movie". Ratcatcher (a work drawing
on many Scottish, UK and European film traditions) opened the Edinburgh
Film Festival. Instead of offering appreciation and encouragement to view
the work Scottish Media Group contrived a mindlessly salacious headline
implicating Lord Provost (Scotland's equivalent of a Mayor), Pat Lally,
his image appears on a TV set in the film.
Thus the headline "Pat in under
age sex movie" was part of an "exclusive" story dubiously written by Andy
Dougan. Above the headline is a picture of a "Bonnie Babies" winner and
below it is an advert for the "Ultimate Kids Play Area". News vendors were
giving away a free bar of chocolate with the paper. Underneath the story
on page four is one headlined "Boy's club sex fiend drops appeal". It is
a fairly standard example of how sick and pathetic coverage of the arts
has been in Scotland for as long as anyone can remember. It is also an
example of the Scottish Media Group's cultivation of an obsession with
The sub headings within the story
are "Lally's movie shocker" and "indecent". The story was a bizarre contrivance
made up to coincide with the film's premiere which opened the Edinburgh
Film Festival a few days later. It is hard to imagine why Dougan provides
such statements as: "The most explicit is one in which she frolics in a
bath with a 12-year old ..." One paragraph (in bold italics) is little
more than a parade of words such as full-frontal, young girl, topless.
The only point of the article apart from Dougan's own distorted self-indulgence
is to try to create/ test the waters for some kind of 'public outcry'.
There is a spurious quote from a
spokesman (sic) for the British Board of Film Classification who says:
"We cannot comment on a film before we have seen it. But we would always
look very closely at any film which involves children in such scenes."
[emphasis added] You can almost picture Dougan thinking "that'll do."
All Messed Up
All Dressed Up (the Sixties and
ISBN 0 - 7126-6523 - 4, £12.50
(Paperback 482 pages)
Well he says it himself even in the
"...the Sixties have joined those
other recent decades over which the survivors, decades past their prime,
are scrapping like mangy mongrels, each determining to impose their own,
sometimes self-serving vision upon history."
And, to echo the unoriginality by
quoting Ecclesiasties, he even provides a quick review:
"Whatever the phenomenon known as
the Sixties may have been, and however much that era would turn out to
change the world in general and Britain in particular, there was, as ever,
not that much new under the sun."
This particular mangy mongrel, Jonathon
Green's knowledge of "the 60s counter-culture" was mostly Oxford University,
then a very brief time with the British version of Rolling Stone magazine
in the 70s, (bankrolled by Mick Jagger and based in the luxurious setting
of Hanover Square). When all that collapsed a few friends moved down to
Portobello Road and started the whole process of making an underground
magazine/smoking dope all over again. Then the magazine produced there
collapsed, because the people behind it got more into making money out
of listings magazines. Green actually stopped someone beating up Richard
Branson and made minor contributions to Oz and International Times (IT)
as they went into decline. He is thought of as representing the less political,
more hedonistic end of hippydom.1 This does
not excuse his sarcastic dismissals of those who did actually try in their
daily lives to counter what they took to be repressive aspects of mainstream
When suggesting some antecedents
of "the sixties," he demonstrates his class bias:
"For the Teds, less cerebral than
those who followed them, it was a gut reaction to the denial of free choice.
Unimpressed by education, unlikely to transcend the low-grade jobs for
which they were destined, they sought release in the exploitation of their
He also believes the Teds "expanded
into the metropolis and thence to the provinces...they were, ultimately,
too prole, too mindlessly violent...inarticulate, lashing out at whatever
So the book is a familiar collection
of snippets from other books including his previous one, Days in the Life
(Voices from the English Underground). Why it bothered with the "English
Underground" when so many seminal figures (Alexander Trocchi, William Burroughs,
Allen Ginsberg, Tom McGrath and so forth) were not English, one can attribute
to the usual reasons.
Ideas are not limited by geographic
space, but this book would be properly subtitled--the tiny bits of London
counter culture. It is also difficult to say what exactly this adds to
Green's previous book which featured a list of quotes from various middle-class
chums, or indeed what it adds to the bibliography he cites at the end.
Mr Green is also--according to the first page in this book--"England's leading
lexicographer of slang". My opinion is he hasn't got a Scooby. 2
Most people would be better writers
if they were aware of their own bias. Should the 1968 'Night of the Barricades',
with 9 million on strike and most factories occupied have been given as
much attention as the invention of the trouser suit? Its all very well
for Green to say this is a personal account but does that mean bias and
distortions are allowed to come to the fore, is that objective history?
Are not huge gaps in his knowledge revealed?
There are very phoney comparisons
between the 'Angry Brigade' and the IRA:
"...and while the IRA campaigns
that would soon be getting under way in the wake of the renewed 'Troubles'
would be far more spectacular, this outbreak of what looked like a low
intensity urban guerrilla war was disturbing enough."
I don't really understand that,
but he immediately derides the Angry Brigade by saying they had a "Just
William" level of melodrama. There is just no comparison between the two.
The IRA are a highly disciplined and organised army which has held off
the worst the UK armed forces and intelligence agencies has flung at them.
To this day nobody seems to know who the Angry Brigade were or what they
were up to.
There are also problems of reversal
of perspective. During the 'Angry Brigade trial' we are told that the Evening
"The guerrillas are violent activists
of a revolution comprising, workers, students, trade unionists, homosexuals,
unemployed and women striving for liberation. They are all angry...Whenever
you see a demonstration, whenever you see a queue for strike pay, every
public library with a good stock of socialist literature...anywhere would
be a good place to look. In short there are no telling where they are."
The Angry Brigade should have been
using that as a press release--its better than anything they ever wrote.
Green himself wanted to break into Fleet Street, but couldn't get in, whereas
many of his friends now work in the upper echelons churning out much the
same shite the papers will forever print.3
Many of the later passages (very
little more than a re-hash of previously published writing) run out of
steam or have no focus. Passages on King Mob show him--the greatest lexicographer
in England--with no notion of where the name comes from (the mobile party);
others with no notion of the nature and history of Nihilism, which is simply
used as a pejorative term (he went to Oxford but he hasn't even read The
It is difficult not to see King
Mob's exploits as outdone by contemporary comedy:
..."A waterfall in the picturesque
lake district was to be dynamited and the slogan 'Peace in Vietnam' sprayed
on the rubble; Wordsworth's house, a shrine for literary tourists, was
to be blown up; in this case the caption would read 'Coleridge lives..."
And now for something completely
He States on page 286 that after
the police framed the Angry Brigade (AB):
"Within a very few years the police
would be steam-rollering through the trials of a variety of alleged IRA
bombers, using very similar tactics."
This and its extrapolation in the
text is weak writing. If he had read (and not just cited) Tony Bunyan's
"The History and Practice of the Political Police in Britain" he would
know that the Special Branch were originally named the Special Irish Branch.
Trials of Irish political dissent have a long history. The state's perversion
of the course of justice (where and when it was bothered with) with the
fabrication of evidence in political trials did not stem from the 70s,
but can be seen as a direct result of the creation of the Special Branch
(the clampdown on Liberalism and the dawning of the secret state at the
turn of the century). The Special Political Branch was the other name they
"This is not a political trial"
said the Judge in the AB trial and Green thinks he was fair. He could fucking
well afford to be. At the end (250,000 words) of his summing up of the
imaginary conspiracy he directed the jury:
"As long as you know what the agreement
is, then you are a conspirator. You needn't necessarily know your fellow
conspirators, nor need you be always active in the conspiracy. All you
need to know is the agreement. It can be effected by a wink or a nod without
a word being exchanged. It need have no particular time limit, no particular
form, no boundaries."
One can imagine some stoned freak
in the public gallery suddenly leaping up and shouting: "Yeah man--the dude
in the wig's right on--I wanna be a part of that shit--lets do it!" And the
judge's words could by extension be imagined to refer to implementation
of the class system, the old boy network; and they are a great interpretation
of the mood (what it was to be part of) of the counter-culture. But Green
doesn't pick up on any of this--guess why?
He has obviously put a lot of work
into it--but there are just so many annoyances that its strength as a resource
and reminder--in these days when people are falling over themselves to utterly
comply with the dictates of the status quo--of 'utopian thought' is overshadowed.
So many figures such as Arnold Wesker were (and probably still are) derided
for what was utter common sense:
"Centre 42 will be a cultural hub
which, by its approach and work, will destroy the mystique and snobbery
associated with the arts. A place where artists are in control of their
own means of expression and their own channels of distribution; where the
highest standards of professional work will be maintained in an atmosphere
of informality; where the artist is brought into closer contact with his
audience enabling the public to see that artistic activity is a natural
part of their daily lives."
When was the last time you heard
someone talking about de-mystifying the arts in a meaningful way? Due to
reluctance and conservatism on the part of the art elite the project--which
centred on the Roundhouse--did not fully come to fruition... how different
things were in the 60s.
The place was used by IT for an
"All-Night Rave Pop Op Costume Masque Drag Ball Et Al", ten bob on the
door. As with many figures he mentions (coupled here with no analysis of
the event's significance or spontaneity), Green indulges in comments which
are poorly disguised jealousy. Jim Haynes, the organiser of the event is
"some escapee from a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland vehicle", a put down which
steps on the heart of the counter-culture.
His knowledge of art is thin, a
weak point. The Young Contemporaries show of 1961 included such figures
as R.B. Kitaj, Peter Phillips, Patrick Caulfield, Derek Boshier, David
Hockney and Allen Jones. Green in an allusion to how reactionary the response
to new work was cites one critic: "John Russell writing in 1969, who described
Pop art as 'classless commando...directed against the Establishment in
general and the art-Establishment in particular...'" There is no source
mentioned. This is a confused passage. Is Russell writing on the 61 exhibition,
It is important to understand the
hostility that progressive ideas will always receive from the poverty stricken
imagination. These days we have whole bureaucracies devoted to perverting
freedom of expression. If a press release arrived which said that the Arts
Council of England were starting a committee of Pharisees and Sadducees
would anyone notice anything?
With his account of Michael Abdul
Malik (p.298)--who is now considered a disreputable conman5--he
hides his personal involvement and transfers gullibility elsewhere to aid
a process of demonisation:
"The underground press, in particular,
was swamped with pro-Michael pieces. Friends offered a lengthy interview...with
nary a doubting syllable."
No mention anywhere in this book
that he was one of two or three guys working on Friends. This is just very
poor history. A bit dodgy, Johnboy. A big deal is made out of this contact
and promotion of Malik--who is presented here as the first dishonest man
he had ever met.
Now that Malik has been extremely
dead for about 25 years he feels safe to go on at length about how 'liberals'
(i.e. not him) were taken in by the big bogeyman Malik. Putting Colin McInnes
to the fore he scores some points from a distance of 30 years or more.
The passage on Malik gets progressively worse:
"Malik was a creature of the media".
If Green was on Friends when they
did the story then he was probably at the front of the queue boasting about
his paper getting in on it first, until it all turned sour:
"Like every hustler he was an actor,
relying heavily on the credulity of his audience..."
That kind of stuff cuts both ways.
For Green ripping off Notting Hill dope dealers and frightening hippies
who do underground mags are Malik's big crime--he casually mentions he was
hung for murder in Trinidad. Which makes him--to Green's likening--just yet
another lower class demon like those nasty Teddy Boys.
Friends office was on Portobello
Road. At the time Green lived with Rosie Boycott (who later started Spare
Rib and now edits one of the papers frequently cited here as an example
of atrocious journalism) and he subsidised his income producing pornography6.
One would have thought that porn would have been a bigger part of the book,
since it was a big part of the counter culture (then it wasn't, then it
was again in the mid 80s), there is not much left of Oz if you take away
the bare bums. And Green would have as much inside knowledge of it that
he has with the Underground Press.
1. I draw my remarks on him from
"Underground (The London Alternative Press 1966 - 74), Nigel Fountain,
2. How one would achieve the status
of "leading lexicographer" (note not even living lexicographer) beats me.
Did they all battle it out in a mud wrestling ring and he knocked out Ambrose
Bierce in a close-run final? The dictionary mind-set--encapsulation and
elocution--in that language is an expression of consciousness--and certainly
when written by one person, propel their makers towards a political orthodoxy,
with its disguised proscriptions and prohibitions. Green has compiled some
five dictionaries, one seems to be a dictionary of 'jargon', another is
a 'Dictionary of Dictionary makers. I suppose it passes the time.
3. He is quoted in Fountain's book
as saying: "my CV--had I had one--would have been completely meaningless
...as far as Fleet Street was concerned I'd never done anything. I was
writing 20,000 words a week for Friends and it was great and it ruined
me for ever, because it ruined me for editing." [emphasis in the original].
4. There is no mention of Time Out's
relation to the Agitprop Collective and the whole area of investigative
journalism which stems from the period. In both the USA and the UK, towards
the end of the '60s and into the early '70s as the counter culture lost
its earlier 'coherence', there was a noticeable move towards underground
newspapers concerning themselves with the issues of particular communities,
both geographically and interest wise. This had happened before, but with
the increased fragmentation of the counter culture, local concerns took
on a new importance. This can be seen more clearly with the rise of community
presses, as collectives formed throughout the UK. Community presses engaged
and mobilised around issues that affected their immediate community, within
a broader web of national and opposition media. Beyond London numerous
magazines/papers came into existence: such as Mole Express, Rap, Grass
Eye, the Liverpool Free Press, the Manchester Free Press, Grapevine, Mother
Grumble, Inside Out, the Aberdeen Free Press and the Brighton Voice. Even
my old home town of Easterhouse had 'The Voice'.
5. Many activists supported Malik
when he went on trial. This is not in Green's book but Darcus Howe stated
in Race Today that Malik "was denounced by the revolutionary movement in
Trinidad. He was lined up with government ministers and he was doing land
deals with them." "Two old members" of It published a souvenir programme
for his hanging.
6. Fountain page 191; "It left Green,
and others, in the curious situation of having to hustle for money from
skin mags. while his one-time partner Rosie Boycott worked for feminism
and Spare Rib, Green hit the typewriter, anonymously, for its diametric
opposite." I don't believe pornography is necessarily the opposite of feminism,
but the situation does resemble BBC 2's recent 'Hippies' programme.
Not so groovey,
Groovey Bob (The Life and Times
of Robert Fraser)
Faber & Faber, ISBN 0571196276
(317 pages, £20 hardback)
There is no explanation of who the
people who contribute to this book are--the majority of whom are not that
well known, this is a festschrift, a tribute by pals for other pals.
Robert Fraser was the son of a slightly
loopy banker. He failed at Eton and was thus sent into the King's African
Rifles (a soul destroying combination). He got into the art world by spending
his early days in the US where he visited the Betty Parsons gallery and
took a few notes. The sybaritic pleasures, were all the more tasty for
him when spending other people's money. As he grew sick of NY's early 60s
bondage bars, the idea came to him to start a new gallery in London and
punt fairly established US artists in the UK. A lot of the west coast and
east crowd hadn't then exhibited in Europe.
His father (a Christian Scientist)
offered uselessly lenient advice--and was talked into parting with the cash
for the gallery (an early white cube designed by Cedric Price--who said
he was the ideal client). He did seem to pay the money in those days, a
habit he would grow out of over the years as one turns the pages.
Enjoyment or interest in reading
this book is reliant upon the reader making their own amusement--at the
expense of the parade of various old hippies--but it has none of the art
of epistolary novels like Smollet's Humprey Clinker, although it does have
some connection to Stoker's Dracula. Early indications paint a cute picture
of him as a cross between the Fast Show's Swiss Tony and Rolley Birkin
QC. Later ones are not so funny as he descended into forms of abject depravity,
which would disgust and anger most people: including nights out with Gilbert
and George preying on young boys--or 'chicken' as they liked to call them.
The problem with unleashing a parade
of old roués regaling us with tales of their sad exploits and pathetic
existence--the cast of this book does lean towards Norma Desmond's old card
pals, and I know this is the London art world in all its glory--is that
as we are ultimately invited to smell waft after waft of their own emissions--they
all end up talking about themselves:
"Dave Medalla: there was a Picasso
exhibition at the Tate. I'd been acting pretty funny and got thoroughly
drunk, drinking all this red wine and sherry--I was so young! My uncle,
the ambassador, had taken me along to this big benefit supper. They wanted
to invoke Spain with flamenco dancers, so I jumped on the table and had
done an odd version of Flamenco. Robert had really loved it! he and Sir
Roland Penrose and his wife, the photographer Lee Miller. So I was just
zonked out of my head, that's all I remember."
That one gets worse--it's all just
such blundering bathos:
"Anita Pallenberg:...Whether the
drugs has anything to do with it I don't know".
"Jim Dine: I thought his views of
art were great, although I was never very clear what they were."
The period is thought of as one
of a lowering of class values--and Fraser is presented as an example of
this. The liberation was exclusive--reinforcing aristocratic values albeit
those of the Hell fire club.1
When Fraser's gallery closed down
as he awaited trial, a group of his artists got together in support to
stage an exhibition; and to bitch about not being paid. This is Richard
Hamilton (one fairly sensible voice throughout) talking to the Press (at
one point I thought it was on the invite):
"We are not going to have any kind
of statement sympathising with his habits. A number of artists have suffered
materially at his hands over the last year or so. Some of the exhibitors
have sworn never to show in the place again..."
Fraser influenced the cover of Sgt.
Pepper and Peter Blake's contributions tend towards telling us he is still
pissed off about not getting paid royalties which he was stupid enough
not to bother to negotiate properly at the time. Also it still rankles
him that it came out looking like a collage rather than a photograph of
a full size set. More than thirty years later he's still counting up imaginary
sums of money in his head like some Beckett character.
The author Harriet Vyner had a tenuous
alchohol relationship with Fraser and makes the pretty hopeless admission
"He didn't reminisce at all or talk
in depth about anything, but when I was with him there was an atmosphere
Right. And that through the haze
of booze has qualified her to lash this together.
The book has very little to offer
on Fraser and the 'Railing Stains' (as he no doubt referred to them) arrest
and subsequent trial2, it repeats chunks of
previous books, such as that of the Stone's em ...Substance Technician,
Spanish Tony. This is Keith Richard's memory of events:
"When you're on an acid you take
things in a different way...There's a great thundering at the door and
we're all relaxing in front of a big raring fire. George Harrison had just
only left. I think they were waiting for him to leave. It was some tip-off
from a chauffeur, a newspaper, shabby stuff.
Knock at the door. And we looked
through the window. There's all these little people, wearing the same clothes!
We took it with a sense of bemusement: 'Oh, do come in.' Then they read
the warrant. 'Yes, that's fine, OK, please do look around.'"
There are one or two passages which
are mildly related to the times, mildly informative if you flick around
and compare things. Malcolm McLaren after noting that it was Fraser who
encouraged the V&A to collect Punk memorabilia talks of the 80s:
"High culture was about to become
low culture. I think by the eighties it was ...if it wasn't a product that
was useful, it wasn't worth being on the block. That was the Thatcherite
philosophy or, in fact dare I say it, a fucking mandate. Suddenly art schools
were being closed down, suddenly you couldn't get grants to go to art schools.
You know, what's the point of studying art if you can't use it to get a
job? I could see that was having an effect. Bob was part of an old era
that was not wanted on location any more."
This comes a page after testimony
by the man running the system who obviously is no judge of character, old
"Lord Palumbo: I trusted him because
he was my friend, always someone I could talk to, to define/refine my own
tastes. He was wonderful from that point of view. He was ideal. If you
think of gallery owners of today, good though some of them are, none of
them have his taste, his eye, his instinct and ability to spot a trend
or a talent ten to fifteen years in advance of its time."
The UK didn't produce a really good
writer on, and who was part, of the counter-culture of the 60s (if it exists
I'd like to read it). Not someone who truly remained an outlaw. Some who
should reflect on the past are reluctant to be seen 're-living the past'
as if that was a sufficient definition of history.
1. Apologies to The Club, which
never really called itself the Hell-Fire Club. Its founder, Sir Francis
Dashwood termed it 'The Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe', or 'The Monks
of Medmenham', but seems to have attracted the 'Hell-Fire' label through
the organisation's reputation, echoing that of earlier groups. They were
a small group of selected members: Dashwood--a Member of Parliament being
the leader. Other members included Lord Sandwich (who at one point commanded
the Royal Navy), the politician John Wilkes, William Hogarth and poets
Charles Churchill, Paul Whitehead and Robert Lloyd. Benjamin Franklin doesn't
seem to have been at the core of any 'Hell-Fire' activities, despite the
more spurious books written about the Club. The current Sir Francis quotes
John Wilkes describing the group:
"A set of worthy, jolly fellows,
happy disciples of Venus and Bacchus, got occasionally together to celebrate
woman in wine and to give more zest to the festive meeting, they plucked
every luxurious idea from the ancients and enriched their own modern pleasures
with the tradition of classic luxury".
The Hell-Fire Club's Sir Francis
was also founder of the Dilettanti Society.
I draw these remarks mostly from
the wonderful Irish electronic magazine Blather devoted to the spirit of
2. Although some points (such as
the presence of all the Beatles) are disputed, there is an interesting
account of the punitive use of drug busts against the 'rock elite' and
the general development of drugs policy, in Steve Abrams "Hashish Fudge,
The Times Advertisement and the Wooten Report" (7 April 1993) which is
available on the net:
"The News of the World replied
to the article in the People by accusing the Rolling Stones of abusing
drugs. (February 3rd) The same night Mick Jagger appeared with Hogg on
the Eamon Andrews talk show. Jagger told Hogg that he too had been to university,
and seemed to get the better of him. Then, I thought, he got above himself
and announced, impulsively, that he would sue the News of the World for
libel. The newspaper panicked and went to the Scotland Yard Drug Squad.
The head of the Drug Squad, Chief Inspector Lynch later told me that he
refused to act. He said that he was not expected to stamp out cannabis,
but to keep its use under control. If he arrested Mick Jagger every lad
in the country would want to try some pot. He was, after all, head of the
drug squad, not head of the Lynch mob.
As is well known, the News of
the World had more success with the local police in West Wittering, where
Keith Richards lived. In the subsequent trial, Jagger's counsel, Michael
Havers (later Lord Havers, also Mrs. Thatcher's attorney general in the
"Spycatcher" case) alleged that the newspaper used an agent provocateur.
The arrests were made on February 12th, but the story did not break until
the 19th. Only the Telegraph named those arrested, Keith Richards, charged
with the absolute offence of permitting premises to be used for smoking
cannabis, and Mick Jagger, charged with possession of amphetamine. George
Harrison has said that the Beatles were at the party that was raided, but
the police waited until they left.
Perhaps the beginning of the
entire sequence of events was the arrest on cannabis charges on December
30th 1966 of... John Hopkins (Hoppy), a member of the editorial board of
the underground newspaper "International Times". The "underground" was
a literary and artistic avant garde with a large contingent from Oxford
and Cambridge. Hoppy, for example, was trained as a physicist at Cambridge.
The underground had found an enemy in Lord Goodman, Chairman of the Arts
Council, who went over the head of the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, and
appealed directly to the Director of Public Prosecutions to mount a police
raid on the Indica bookshop where International Times was edited. Goodman
had an animus against (Barry) Miles, co-proprietor of the bookshop with
Peter Asher, and also a member of the Editorial Board of IT. In December
1966 Eric White nominated Miles to serve on the Arts Council Literary Advisory
Panel. Goodman had been infuriated when his appointment was announced to
the press on January 30th, and had him thrown off."
Playing with Fire
Fire is a potent force. If we are
to believe in genetic memory then fire transports us back to our prehistoric
origin: to feel our primeval hairs stiffen as we are caught off balance
between primitivism and contemporary science and technology. For the artist,
fire is an element that can be immediately evocative and provocative. Its
magic lies in the alchemic fusion between destruction and creation. To
watch the unleashed force of destruction at work is thrilling. It is easy
to understand, therefore, why Stirling Council's Department of Leisure
and Cultural Services, when charged with the task of providing an appropriate
millennial spectacular, opted conveniently for fire to entertain and thrill
The Stirling Observer's : 'Blaze
Of Glory For Millennium' (9/6/99) was the first public announcement of
the Council's intentions that a 60 foot sculpture of Scottish hero Robert
The Bruce would be set ablaze at Stirling Castle as part of a £1.2m
programme of events. The idea had been commissioned from Regular Music,
project manager for Stirling Council's millennium events. Writer Fiona
Wilson explained that the origins of such hero worship-cum-sacrifice stem
from a Spanish tradition of fire festivals. Barry Wright, Regular Music's
impresario, said he hoped the idea would capture the imagination of the
people of Stirling. The Council's Chief Executive, Keith Yates, said the
festival is part of a two year programme aimed at involving everyone in
the marking of a new millennium. Most significantly, he hopes the event
will attract 20,000 visitors to Stirling and generate £2m.
Fire festivals are likely as old
as our upright passage on the Earth and the true origins of many fire customs
are long-since obscured. Such customs are believed to have their beginnings
in heathen times when our ancestors worshipped Bael, the Sun-god and Ashtoreth
(Astarte, Queen of heaven) with certain mystic observances chiefly connected
with fire. In Druidic times, there were four great fire festivals: May
day or Beltane deriving from Bel-tein: Bel in Gaelic signifying sun and
tein, fire; Midsummer's eve; Hallowe'en, 1st of November when all fires
were extinguished apart from those of the Druids, "from whose altars only
the holy fire must be purchased by the householders for a certain price":
and Yule. As soon as administrative hierarchies, whether Druid or town
councils, come onto the scene some sort of financial implication is brought
But folklore and customs belong
to the people who have developed them across the centuries. They are kept
alive through practice and commitment. Many of these were founded on basic
superstitions and beliefs that, with the rise of scientific knowledge,
have become out-moded. Who today would pass their children and cattle through
flames to protect them from disease, and who would kindle great bonfires
near to cornfields to secure a blessing on their crops?
Although many such practices have
died out some Scottish communities have kept their fire festivals blazing
and appear not to have relied upon town councils and bureaucracies in order
to do so. The potency of local customs is all the more intense when these
observances are perpetuated by people-power and not imposed by a higher
A rerun of the Fiona Wilson (11/6/99
Stirling Observer County Issue) piece printed a photograph of the two artists
commissioned to design a sculpture of Robert The Bruce for incineration.
Whatever the citizens of Stirling might have imagined a sculpture fit for
burning might actually look like they were probably surprised to discover
that the maquette for such a 60 ft structure was nothing more than a scale
model of the heroic bronze statue by Pilkington Jackson, which stands proud
on the site of The Battle of Bannockburn. The sculptors, Andrew Scott and
Alison Bell, were possibly breaking copyright laws by so-doing.
Another Observer piece by Fiona
Wilson (16/6/99 Town Issue) told us that there was, "concern amongst residents
who don't agree with the idea of setting a hero on fire." Surprisingly,
the first letters of disapproval did not appear within the Observer's pages,
but in the the (Glasgow) Herald. It may well be the case that if the Observer
is over-critical of Council policy it might lose the privilege of first
option on press releases. The first published letter--demonstrating that
The Herald might have an easier relationship with Stirling Council--came
from Ian Scott, Director of The Saltire Society, who was not only writing
on the behalf of incensed Society members but also personally: "At a time
when we have recovered a measure of control over our own affairs we should
be honouring those like the Bruce who helped create and sustain our identity
as a nation throughout our long history rather than allowing an ignorant
'mob' in Stirling to shame the rest of the country." Scott's prime objection
was a cultural one he told me, not a debate about modern art. There was,
he felt, a debate as to how The Burning should be handled. There is a fine
line, he explained, as to whether a drawing or illuminated image or outline
image created by fireworks might be more acceptable than a well-known embodiment
of a much-loved hero.
The next letter to appear in The
Herald of June 18th was from Alexander Stoddart of Paisley who is an established
Scottish sculptor. His statue of David Hulme was unveiled on Edinburgh's
Royal Mile earlier this year. Entitled, 'Revolting fiesta in Stirling',
Stoddart's letter was a passionate and angry response that might have been
improved by the writer taking more time to consider his argument and moderate
his use of emotive language. For the better informed dilettantes and observers
of the Scottish sculpture scene it is common knowledge that Stoddart had
proposed a large scale sculpture for Stirling Castle esplanade which was
vetoed by The Council in 1997. His letter could easily be interpreted as
coming from someone with an axe to grind. However, it did close by stating
a valid point: "the Bruce statue is more than a logo, or a sodding 'icon',
or any fun thing at all, and is rather a cherished component in a War Memorial,
placed on or near some blood-soaked ground."
The Battle of Bannockburn memorial
stands on a raised area hemmed in on three sides by urban development.
It was the threat of this encroaching housing that compelled a national
committee led by the 10th Earl of Elgin and Kincardineshire, head of the
Bruce family, to raise funds to purchase the 58 acre site in 1930. Arriving
by car one is met by a hideous 1967 visitor centre with 1980s additions
housing a shop of 'tasteful' souvenirs, the Bannockburn Cafe, and an interpretative
display. One then walks a short distance up to the site itself. This is
marked by a mish-mash of ill-placed shapes. The largest of these, a rotunda
approximately 35m in diameter, is composed of a continuous wooden beam
raised about 10 ft off the ground on steel pillars. Two sections of this
circle contain curved walls of ugly, uncompromising concrete blocks cemented
to a height of 8 ft. This 1962 rotunda encloses a flag pole (erected in
1870) flying The Saltire, and a dour-looking stone monument erected by
public subscription and inaugurated by the Merchant Guild of Stirling in
1957. Dwarfed by this arena and standing some 100 meters away is Pilkington
Jackson's larger than life-size bronze of The Bruce on horseback. The statue
is set valiantly high on a 12 ft plinth of granite blocks and stands about
25 ft in height. The whole being unveiled by the Queen on 24/6/64, the
650th anniversary of the battle.
A far more valid, and sustainable,
investment of £1.2m would have been a millennium project to redesign
the site of the Battle of Bannockburn retaining as its centre-piece Pilkington
Jackson's empowering, iconoclastic Bruce. What the sculptor would have
thought about his work being copied in wood at two times original scale
only to be set alight is anyone's guess--he died in 1973.
Andrew Scott of Scott Associates,
a business partnership of six sculptors based in Glasgow's Maryhill, defended
himself against Stoddart's accusations of dishonour and treachery through
The Herald's Letters Page. As protest gathered the Stirling Observer's
editorial made no comment. The front page of 23/6/99 did notice that: 'Outcry
grows over burning of King Bob'. Inside 'Feat of Flames' by Fiona Wilson
stated that the indifferent organisers are backing Bruce's burning. Stirling
Council's leader, Corrie McChord, acknowledged that the project would be
controversial but, "urged people not to be shy." In a display of mock heroics
he declared: "We are entering a new millennium. We have chosen this powerful
figure from our past to lead us into the future. Let's celebrate confidently."
McChord carried on in a more defensive tone. "The cost is certainly not
the £50,000 suggested in the press."
Andrew Scott informed me that his
cost to make the replica Bruce was £45,000 and that once fabrication
costs, labour, engineers' fees etc. had been subtracted the company would
be left with a 'tiny' profit. He implied that the project was being undertaken
for the fun of it and that his company had more important projects on its
books. On the subject of copyright he believed it was The Council's responsibility
to check the legal position as regards copying Jackson's work. In the Observer
of 23/6/99 he said, "It will be created with respect to honour the life
of Bruce and will be true to the original monument. It is a wonderful opportunity
for Scottish art to be showcased and to see Stirling join the ranks of
European cities like Barcelona and Paris famed for their bold public art
projects and celebratory events." A few lines further on Barry Wright was
exercising hyperbole: "The model that artists Andy Scott and Alison Bell
have created is breathtaking. What a tribute to Bruce, to the designer
of the original monument and to Stirling--home of Scottish kings." Maybe
some of Scotland's kings would have liked the symbolism, as for the citizens
of Stirling, they were venting their ire. In the same issue the letters
page was blazing.
A week later a letter from Bob McCutcheon,
historian, archivist and antiquarian book dealer, appeared condemning The
Council's "crass stupidity and total lack of sensitivity towards the history
of the area." "Scots do not burn effigies of their heroes" declared McCutcheon.
Had the Council taken pains to research the tradition of fire festivals
and burnings in Scotland they might have reached the same conclusion. The
Council's chief spokesmen during the debacle were very keen to point out
that they were emulating a Spanish tradition in Valencia where local heroes
are torched as part of Las Fallas. This popular fire festival had been
visited in March of the year by Barry Wright in the company of Alison Bell
of Scott Associates. Obviously they were over-awed by the spectacle that
they witnessed for, without cultural considerations, they automatically
presumed that it would transport to Stirling. What they failed to recognise
was Las Fallas had evolved as a folk art custom under particular cultural
circumstances that could not be transported with the same meaning--especially
to Scotland. It is a sad reflection that they did not think to develop
strands within Scotland's fire-rich tradition. Had they done so they might
have come up with a less offensive and more culturally acceptable concept.
Under the banner, 'Big Man, Big
Sword, Big Fun', Stirling Council had popularised history to mark the 700th
anniversary of Wallace's defeat of the English army at Stirling Bridge.
Evidently the millennial event was an excuse to similarly celebrate The
Bruce. The Council's distinctive trivialisation of history and heroes attracted
few supporters on this occasion. One letter only from an anonymous "working
artist" thought that the project was "wonderful".
By Wednesday July 7th Stirling Council
and Regular Music were looking desperately for friendly support. The Observer's
front page announced, "Bruce Backlash Forces Council To Rethink Fire Stunt".
An ally of Regular Music in the form of Chris Kane, DJ with Central FM,
who writes a weekly music review column in the Observer, cantered lamely
to the rescue. His attempt to place the Burning of Bruce in an historical
context was shallow and feeble: "Robert The Bruce disliked the government
of the day and decided to remove them. He was successful and today is our
most popular hero." Kane poses the question--were Guy Fawkes and Bruce all
that different? His final flurry is a pathetic attempt at patriotic spin,
"Bruce set the nation on fire 700 years ago. He lit a burning desire within
us to be free of oppression and that fire may have smouldered over the
years, but its never gone out. By setting fire to his image we are acknowledging
that the fire Bruce started has now done its job. Symbolically the fire
is healing the wounds of the last millennium and lighting the way forward
to the future." No one rallied to his cause, not even his teenage readership.
Next to attempt to turn the tide
of public disapproval by placing a letter in the Observer was Councillor
John Hendry, Deputy Leader of Stirling Council. He commenced thus, "When
the council agreed to proceed with a spectacular millennium celebration
centred on ancient Celtic traditions of fire festivals, we knew it would
provoke debate and discussion, but we were confident that Stirling was
mature enough to cope with it." He was surprised that "no-one has come
up with an alternative celebration." However, The Council's authoritarian
role as purveyor and designer of culture via an extravagant spectacle was
a clear, "we know best" message. Their arrogance being a declaration that
no one could, or was more equipped, to do it better. Hendry said: "Officers
have worked hard to provide the people of Stirling with the opportunity
to celebrate the millennium in spectacular style... The £100,000
Community Chest is already opening up to provide local organisations with
help to plan their own festivities." In a cack-handed way the Council was
trying to lavish money on the community and provide a service, but surely
the history of celebration is a complex intertwining of spontaneity and
custom brought about by community action and not through the agency of
Above Hendry's somewhat superior
letter appeared the first 'Editorial Opinion' on the subject by Colin Leslie,
Chief Sub-Editor, who adopted a similar tone: "Let sensible alternatives
now come forward from the public of the town, so that Stirling's millennium
party can give Scots something to be proud of--not ashamed of." The pages
of The Observer then went quiet in anticipation.
Monday 26th July: a critical day
for the Council who had obviously rallied and put a plan of action into
effect. That day a "planned" article by The (Glasgow) Herald's Arts Editor,
Keith Bruce, appeared adopting a matter-of-fact approach. He did little
more than asked of him and we must conclude that his heart wasn't really
into the scam that had been arranged at a more senior level within The
Herald and Stirling Council hierarchies. Bruce had been given 'access'
to key players so one can assume that what he reported was not word-of-mouth
rumour. There are "Other figures under consideration as the potential local
hero", he informed us. These being, "the legendary Wolf on the Craig, currently
used as a marketing symbol by the MacRobert Arts Centre at Stirling University,
and contemporary figures such as footballer Billy Bremner, rugby's Kenny
Logan, and actor Robbie Coltraine and actress Diana Rigg, who both live
locally." That same evening The Council held a 'private' meeting at their
headquarters which, in conjunction with Keith Bruce's limp article and
a 'briefed' interview by STV with Council Chief Executive Keith Yates afterwards,
was designed to turn the tide of public opinion. The next day "Coltraine
saves Robert the Bruce from fire" appeared in The Herald. It had been penned
by a local freelance who door-stepped the 'private' meeting on the behalf
of Central Scotland News Agency. It concluded, "A Stirling University spokesman
said [Diana] Rigg was filming in England." He added: "It must be April
Wednesday 28th July: The Observer
declared, "No U-Turn On Burning Bruce". Journalist Clare Grant tells us,
"Stirling Council are sticking to their guns". The indefatigable Keith
Yates once again came to the fore, "We had people from the BBC up on Friday
to discuss what we were doing here and they were delighted about it." Yates
then went on to "refute" the story that the Bruce could be replaced with
Diana Rigg, Kenny Logan etc. forgetting that he initiated the story in
his interviews with Keith Bruce and STV.
Bob McCutcheon, also in attendance
at the meeting was quoted, "Those who objected were more or less told that
they were being parochially minded." The Council were now playing that
tired old joker, the parochial card, setting themselves up as worldly sophisticates.
Parochialism is all too often interpreted as being narrow-minded, whereas
a more accurate meaning might be, defence of the parish. The Observer's
editor, Alan Rennie issued a timely warning, "I would advise the council
voluntarily to abandon their plan ...If they don't, public opinion will
stop this proposal in its tracks."
The Observer held a telephone poll
on Wednesday August 4th and a week later published the result: 32 were
in favour of Burning Bruce, 1076 were against. The parishioners had defended
Monday 9th August: the heavy artillery
arrives. The Saltire Society organises a 'public protest meeting' in Stirling's
Golden Lion Hotel to discuss the Council's decision to burn a wooden statue
of King Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland from 1306 to 1329. Our Scottish
hero could never be described as a paragon of virtue for on the 10th of
February 1306 he arranged a meeting with John 'The Red' Comyn, his only
rival to the throne, in Greyfriars' Church in Dumfries and, in circumstances
which have never been fully explained, murdered him in front of the altar.
Bruce's allegiance to Edward I likely cost William Wallace his life and
his own self-arranged coronation at Scone further divided Scotland making
it all the more vulnerable. The strong mix of hatred and love that The
Bruce invoked in Scots demonstrably contributed to his hero status. It
was this that the Saltire Society met together to protect. Although absent
Scotland's historical novelist, Nigel Tranter, sent a message: greatly
deploring the proposal. His sentiments were echoed by Dr Fiona Watson of
Stirling University and Professor Geoffrey Barrow who addressed the assembly
saying, "the burning of an effigy was meant to dishonour the name and reputation
of the person involved."
Forces were now gathering on all
fronts to discuss The Burning. Stirling Council held another 'private'
meeting on Wednesday 11th August. This time sculptor, Andrew Scott was
invited to assist Barry Wright in his presentation of the project and to
explain the full extent of the entertainments package. According to Scott
there was a very positive agreement to the overall event but a very negative
disapproval of burning The Bruce. Every one of the thirty community council
representatives present was against the action. Bob McCutcheon told me
that a petition raised at the close of The Saltire Society meeting was
signed by 100 people within 2 days at his bookshop alone and if the Council
had not backed off they would have received 75,000 emails in protest from
all over the world.
Friday 13th August: The Stirling
Observer, banner headline, "WE'VE WON".
The Battle of The Burning had been
a resounding victory for the democratic process or people power. Stirling
Council had been backed into a corner but Andrew Scott told me that no
formal contract to build a 60 ft copy of Pilkington Jackson's statue of
The Bruce had ever been confirmed.
Wednesday 25th August: Stirling
Observer, "Bruce Still Invited To Millennium Party!" Although it will definitely
not be burnt, the Council, in a comic display of mock heroics, decide to
go ahead with the construction anyway so that it can, "go on display at
the Stirling Castle esplanade where it will be illuminated and seen for
miles around." Astonishingly, Councillor John Hendry tells us that the
wooden Bruce "could be a prototype for a permanent statue after the millennium
Before the end of September Scott
Associates had been officially appointed by Stirling Council to produce
a large fire spectacular. The honour of replacing The Bruce was to go to
The Wolf on The Craig, an afore mentioned heraldic device. Local legend
has it, "One night, long ago, when Viking raiders were sneaking up on Stirling
they disturbed a wolf. The wolf howled, awoke the sleeping townspeople
and saved Stirling from attack." Now in a defiant and resolute display
of pyromania Stirling Council would thank that legendary guardian by burning
1. Old Scottish Customs by E. J.
Guthrie, published in 1885. A Miss Gordon Cumming is quoted.
Comic and Zine
First up in this issue's selection
of reading material you definitely won't find in the local W H Smiths is
Crap Hound--a picture book for discussion and activity, 92 pages
crammed-full of clip-art culled from innumerable sources and several decades
worth of graphic imagery. Crap Hound #6's themes are the inevitable--death,
the inescapable--Telephones, and the indispensable--scissors. For each theme
there's pages of painstakingly arranged image tableaux, not an inch of
valuable space has been wasted or left empty--look closer and you'll realise
that it's all assembled manually with scissors and glue --not a scanner
or Mac in sight, no wonder it took two years for this issue to see the
light of day. Crap Hound is the equivalent of a Dover pictorial Sourcebook
for the post-slacker zine-producing generation. Seeing Crap Hound for the
first time is a visual onslaught, I can imagine being totally overwhelmed
by it and being deterred from ever picking up scissors and a glue stick
again. Crap Hound is the image bankers' image bank, all your image requirements
are in here, leaving us to play spot-the-source. I'd advise buying three
copies, one to cut up and use, one to file away intact and another to lend
to friends which you'll never see again.
Book Happy and Comic Book
Heaven both take forgotten and neglected books of yester year for their
subject matter, they have lots of fun rescuing and rehabilitating old books
that most people would be happy to forget ever existed.
If you like the idea of discovering
cheap secondhand books, but are put off by dusty bookshops with strange
odours and equally strange proprietors, then help is at hand. Book Happy
is the latest publication from Donna 'Kooks' Kossy, your guide to the world
of incredibly strange books and loopy literature --none of which is ever
likely to appear in 'collectors price guides'. In Book Happy #4 Donna owns
up to her internet book auction addiction, she's reached the stage of checking
several times a day to see if she's still in the bidding, 'Epidemic of
Bad Drug Books' looks at the genre of 1950's and 1960's drugs education/exploitation
titles, there's a great article about Theodore L Shaw's thirty year war
against Art Critics, during which he published eight books with titles
such as 'Precious Rubbish' and 'That Obnoxious Fraud: The Art Critic'.
In 'Book Hell --where bad books go when they die' Dan Kelly tells how he
staked out and tracked down a cache of serial killer and true crime books.
There's plenty more on self-published autobiographies and the worst science
fiction novel ever written. Get Book Happy--where enjoying cheap books doesn't
mean getting the latest bestseller for 50% off at the local supermarket.
Comic Book Heaven celebrates
the world of weird and absurd comics from the '50s/ '60s. A fanzine that
revels in the sheer ridiculousness of these empty-headed entertainments!
This issue has Advice for Girls, some spurious Helpful Hints Ripped From
the Pages of Actual Romance Comics of the Fifties, a hilarious section
of plot summaries from some of the most bonkers comic book stories ever!
Facts about Commies is a collection of words of cold-war wisdom from fightin'
men in the comics.
The three page list of comics with
the word 'Death' in the title is wonderful found poetry, and deserves to
be heard recited --
Death Rides High!
Death rides the 5:15
Death Rides the Guided Missile
Death rides the Iron Horse!
Death Rides the Rails
Death Rides the Stagecoach!
Death Rides the Storm!
Death Rises Out of the Sea!
After two magazines devoted to old
books what next? How about two comic books about Art Students...
Art School Superstars by
Grennan & Sperandio and Meet the Art Students by Les Coleman
are both collections of art student portraits, they approach similar subject
matter from different continents and vastly different perspectives.
Grennan & Sperandio interviewed
students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and then selected
sound bites to represent them and accompany their portraits. The 28 privileged
SFMA students are happy and proud to tell us what they like and how long
they have been at the school, they're all-positive all the time. Grennan
& Sperandio's full page portraits of photogenic students, in flat bright
colours adorned with speech bubbles look like a collaboration between oral
historian Studs Terkel and Andy Warhol's portrait screenprints.
Les Coleman's caricature observations
are based on his 20 years lecturing experience in art colleges around the
UK. Drawn on endless train journeys to and from Newcastle and printed in
graphite grey on newsprint, they are partly intended as a critique of the
educational establishments funding cuts, his class of forty-eight are each
represented with a portrait, quote and title that gently mocks and sums
them up. Immediately recognisable characters include: 'inner conviction',
'traditional values', 'the new philistinism' and 'art rage'. Compared with
the Americans, British art students are mostly ambivalent, most of the
time. With his wobbly lines courtesy of British Rail rather then Grennan
& Sperandio's smooth-rough line style achieved via custom computer
software programme, Coleman's student portraits say much more in less space,
than Grennan & Sperandio's, and as inert and lacking motivation as
they are I somehow have more time for the hapless British Students than
the over-confident Americans, one of whom gladly admits "I'm studying Art
because I didn't do well in Physics".
Born out of Manhattan's lower east
side residents struggle for affordable housing and the right to exist free
from police and state oppression World War 3 Illustrated's commitment
and political agenda remains just as sharp and focussed as ever after a
decade of publishing. Issue #27's theme is Land and Liberty, with comic
strips and illustrated stories about Shell Oil in Nigeria, M11 Road Protests
in East London, the historical struggle over who controls the land in Mexico,
Reclaim the Streets New York style and the fight to keep a lower east side
neighbourhood community centre. Whilst the strongest work in WW3I will
always be the stark agitational graphics of founders Seth Tobocman and
Peter Kuper --equally suitable for a spraypainted wall or the printed page,
the editorial board put their beliefs into practice by setting up workshops
and playing an active part in community education programmes, thus nurturing
new artists and writers and providing a forum for them to see their work
Mentioned briefly last time, and
on comic shop shelves now is the reissued EC comic 'people searching
for peace of mind through Psychoanalysis', truly one of the
unlikeliest comics ever published. Each issue has three, long, inaction-packed
on the couch strips. Speech balloons take up so much of the frame that
the patients seem obliged to lie down on the psychiatrists couch at bottom
of the picture. Each session opens with 'The Psychiatrist', an archetypal
pipe-smoking authority figure whose name we never learn, opening the case
notes for a monthly session with one of his patients. How many therapy
sessions does it take? As many as the subject's problems take before they
are resolved when 'The Psychiatrist' pronounces "We've gone as far as we
can! You know the cure of your problem! You know the facts about yourself!
Do you think you can go ahead now without my help!" and then proceeds off
to write 'therapy completed' on the case notes and thus closes the file.
Psychoanalysis doesn't go so far as to have a big red star on the cover
saying "All-Freudian" but it may as well have done.
Robot Publishing Co put out a series
of two-dollar minicomics which they call 'lunchtime stories'. I've seen
two so far, The Envelope Licker and Binibus Barnabus--they're
both printed in stylish midnight blue, with oh-so-strokeable matt-laminated
The Envelope Licker by Ante
Vukojevich is a meandering tale of a family equally blessed and cursed
with talented tongues. After a wild youth the youngest settles down and
makes his fortune as a champion envelope licker, buys the company, then
looses it due to modern envelope-sealing technology, then he starts a new
life and finds love with a stamp-collector who works at the post office.
In Binibus Barnabus by Robert Goodin, we meet Binibus Barnabus an everyday
stevedore whose life revolves around working at the dock, the baseball
game, and dreams of a brand new cadillac. One day at work he sees a "mer-mare"
in the docks, falls in love and jumps into the water after her: turned
into a merman when they kiss, we leave them happily swimming off to a new
life together, far away from the docks of New York.
There's probably more 'lunchtime
stories' out by now, if they are as enjoyable as these two they're well
worth looking out for.
Beer Frame--the Journal of Inconspicuous
Comsumption, a consumer products review magazine that asks 'What the
heck is this? rather than just 'Which?' Raising product reviewing to an
artform, Paul Lukas searches for the most unlikely and superfluous products
he can find on supermarket shelves. In Beer Frame #9 we get a round up
of products with suggestive names: Mr Long Candy Bars, Cock Soup and Meat
Sticks --they're all real, with photos to prove it, this could easily turn
into a long-running feature. We also learn more than anyone really needs
to know about pizza box lid supports --those little white plastic three-legged
things that look like dollshouse coffee tables. Beer Frame celebrates their
status as functional yet innocuous items that we rarely pay attention to,
and warns they could disappear forever if pizza companies upgrade their
cardboard boxes. There's also a look at advertising characters who take
their responsibilities to the extreme, they don't just want to publicise
their products, they want to be eaten themselves! --think of the old Birds
Eye Country Club adverts with skinny peas and wrinkly runner beans being
turned away at the gates as buffed beans parade around inside.
(Reviewer's declaration of interest:
a Heinz Meat-Free Ravioli label which I sent to Beer Frame is mentioned
on page 9)
Very little is known about Mexican
Masked Wrestlers outside their homeland, From Parts Unknown, the
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of masked editors have plenty of fun putting their magazine together. From
Parts Unknown #5 has articles and interviews with Blue Demon, Zebra Kid
and Super Astro, there's a mexican tour diary, behind the scenes report
with the men who make the masks, japanese masked wrestlers, a comic art
gallery with some esteemed contributors and there's plenty on silver-masked
El Santo the most famous lucha libre star of all, veteran of innumerable
Z-grade films and his own series of photonovellas. From Parts Unknown keeps
the photonovella tradition alive and up to date with their Stacked Grapplers
Comic Book Heaven #1
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Crap Hound #6
A4 92pgs $6+p/p
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Book Happy #4
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Donna Kossy, PO Box 86663, Portland
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From Parts Unknown #5 A4 £2.95
PO Box 54-1133, Waltham, MA 02454-1133
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Beer Frame #9
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Meet the Art Students
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Who's Afraid of Film & Video
The Exhibition of Single-screen
Film & Video:
Cafe Flicker, Museum Magogo,
I would like to discuss a few recent
events involving the exhibition of single-screen film and video which have
sharply brought into focus for me, somewhat ironically, the lack of an
existing infrastructure for the presentation and dissemination of such
work in Scotland. The following introduction gives a concise outline of
circumstances that have contributed to the current drought of regular screenings.
It frames an urgent context for the appreciation of work and efforts that
do still prevail in spite of a funding climate characterised by erratic
and contradictory decision-making. I should say that my thoughts and feelings
expressed here, though subjective, are informed by my experience as an
artist/ producer of experimental film and video and as a voluntary co-ordinator
and curator for New Visions Film and Video Festival since 1993.
Scotland has never experienced a
continuing and stable level of commitment from arts funders in the film/
video sector, unlike our neighbours south who can boast a number of organisations
and agencies embedded and fully established in a wider cultural nexus.
Many temporary and longer term projects
and events have been initiated in Scotland and have actively and successfully
promoted film and video by Scottish-based and international artists over
the past ten to fifteen years. New Visions based in Glasgow, and Fringe
Film & Video Festival (FFVF) in Edinburgh, were two key organisations
with similar aims and objectives but differing histories and life spans.
Each undertook the organisation of international festivals of experimental
film and video art, the bulk of which comprised single-screen programmes
alongside installation and related events.
FFVF did this on an annual basis
and New Visions biennially as well as providing a series of regular screenings
and events. Each established a reputation on the circuit of international
festivals as well as a platform in Scotland for the support and promotion
of home-grown talent. I should say that my focus on these two organisations,
not intentionally at the expense of mentioning other projects and ventures,
serves the purpose of this introduction.
Speaking for New Visions, public
funding was never secure and less money was awarded for each subsequent
festival until our final festival in 1996 when we received nothing from
the Scottish Arts Council (SAC). The decision then from SAC was that Scotland's
two festivals of film and video were two too many, and a preference was
expressed for a single organisation with the insistence that FFVF and New
Visions go into talks about merging. In spite of our desire to continue
working seperately, this option was not made available to us and consequently
SAC and The Scottish Film Council (SFC, now Scottish Screen) ploughed £9,000
into two consultancies, the result of which were the reports produced in
August '97: 'The Strategic Development of Creative Video, Film & New
Media', undertaken by Positive Solutions, a private firm based in Liverpool;
and 'Equipment Technology Resource for Scotland', undertaken by Clive Gillman
and Eddie Berg of FACT.1 This consultancy
process was overseen by representatives from SAC, Scottish Screen, FFVF
and New Visions and managed by Paula Larkin of New Visions.
The report furnished by Positive
Solutions was built on the efforts of many, not least those artists, organisers
and educators who gave up time and energy, voluntarily, to contribute.
It took, as a springboard, the models of practice developed over the years
by both organisations and put forward a number of possible options for
the development of a single new organisation. These reports have since
been shelved, the funders under no obligation to act upon any of the key
recommendations. However, in true hypocritical fashion, they are able to
quote the reports and indeed SAC have done so, in my own experience, as
proof of their commitment to the issues they raise.
None of this surprises me, government
bodies govern and are themselves governed by their own constrictive discourses.
Arts Officers with changing agendas come and go and often fail to respond
to or nourish the forms of cultural challenge already in existence. Recognising
and acknowledging this makes for contestation. Neither am I surprised,
only disheartened and embarrassed, at the show of blatant self-interest
and divisiveness put on by a few individuals, who seem to be busy building
empires and carving out careers for themselves without acknowledgement
or respect for other people's efforts.
Within this scenario, the climate
has not been exactly ripe for the exhibition of challenging film and video
work. In spite of this however, new work can be viewed, though not always
in a concentrated form --events/ exhibitions occur in isolation as one-off
projects, poorly funded or not at all, often with film and video appearing
as an adjunctive element or token inclusion.
Three recent artist-initiative presentations
of film and video in Glasgow demonstrate different levels of interest and
commitment to this field of practice.
Cafe Flicker has been running since
around 1993 and has survived for that time without public funding. Its
long life-span is no doubt linked to this fact. The un-funded organisation
ethic was not a driving force unlike other groups springing up around the
same time e.g., Exploding Cinema in London. Flicker (as it was then known)
aimed to serve the community of makers in and around Glasgow by providing
an informal platform for the screening and importantly the discussion of
film and video work. Some events were pre-programmed but on the whole makers
turned up on the night with work in tow. All organising was and still is
done on a voluntary basis using ready resources of host venues (presently,
Glasgow Film & Video Workshop plays host with fully equipped screening
facilities). Flicker has evolved over the years with the efforts and vision
of numerous people including Shazz Kerr, Martha McCulloch, Paul Cameron,
Jim Rusk and presently Russell Henderson, Iain Piercey, John Fairbairn,
Abigail Hopkins and I - igo Garrido.
These days I - igo Garrido
takes a firm stance against funding, rejecting the restrictions and demands
it brings to bare on the creative freedom of an organisation. Although
Cafe Flicker has changed much since its seminal years, for him, its defining
qualities are its freshness, openness and most urgently its "low profile".2
Unlike other high profile organisations who find themselves inventing their
public and manufacturing evidence to justify public funding, Cafe Flicker
has no interest in serving any remit other than the provision of support
for the makers who pass through its doors.
Its atmosphere has swung from the
awkward formalities of the first screenings with few hesitant attendees
to the more convivial social night, replete with simulated cafe interior
and lots of audience interaction. It now sits comfortably between the two
extremes and is not as daunting for first time screeners tentative about
being grilled in public.
The standard of work varies constantly
and the range of styles and genres is limitless: Experimental film (which
means different things to different people), drama and documentary (in
all its mutant forms), comic, travelogue, home movies, found footage, video
art all from first time makers, seasoned enthusiasts, hobbyists and those
who call themselves artists and almost all produced on low or no budgets.
That said, the most recent screenings
I've attended have been dominated by the short, straight drama. The proliferation
of this genre is a reflection of Scottish Screen's overwrought focus on
The Industry as the mecca for new talent. The emphasis is firmly on entertainment
value; the formulaic mimicry of conventional cinema being embraced at the
expense of seeking out new, challenging forms of creativity expressed in
a more experimental, innovative approach to film and video production.
It is to Cafe Flicker's credit that
all works are screened on a first come, first served basis, irrespective
of style, genre, politics, and that criticism is constructive and genuinely
helpful. An ongoing database of every work exhibited dating back to 1995
is a valuable resource open to anyone researching this area. All visitors
passing through Glasgow on the first Wednesday of every month are always
welcome --bring your own bottle.3
Museum Magogo was a recent exhibition
of both pre-selected and open-entry work housed at the Glasgow Project
Room. Curated, or rather fashioned, by artists John Beagles and Graham
Ramsay, it showcased two hundred artworks, among them a cluster of works
on video. The Project Room is an open-submission, artist-run exhibition
space, self-sustained through a studio complex and premised on the basis
that it is somewhere for artists to try things out.
Museum Magogo saw the overall space,
not excessive in itself, divided by slim partition walls into smaller territories,
each area parodying an aspect of museological and curatorial drill --the
Sculpture Garden replete with grocers turf, the Lidl wing (the cheap-and-cheerful
rebuttal to the Tate's Sainsbury's wing), and, amongst others, the cuby
hole that was the Video Lounge.
Here, videotapes were shelved with
an accompanying list of titles and artists (running times and production
dates were not listed but could be found on some individual tapes) and
could be selected at random and viewed on the borrowed domestic monitor
and video set-up.
While excess rather than ease was
the order of the day, for me, this form of monitor presentation is not
always suitable. Here the artists' work suffered to some degree in comparison
with the other instantly viewable exhibits --the wanton cacophony of wall
embellishment in truth looking more spacious and deliberated. Spectatorship
and reception are, in these circumstances, entirely dependent on the effort
made by the viewer and although it doesn't take much to stick a cassette
in a player, in my experience few people bother to do so.
Overall, there has been a massive
upsurge in the use of video as an art medium over the past five years.
The proliferation in the use of loops and the projected image, with its
attendant seductive and monolithic qualities have allowed video easy entry
into the gallery site, a relatively clean, quick and easy space filler.
And the reverse of this being, since the gallery now accepts video in ways
it seldom did before, there is now more typecast production. Video, in
all its varied forms, has not been fully embraced by the gallery, and film
exhibition is virtually non-existent. Single screen work, i.e. that which
requires to be viewed from beginning to end, irrespective of style, genre,
format or running time seems to suffer most in this environment.
While some of the works in Museum
Magogo sat comfortably with the single screen label, notably Alan Currell's
dryly comic 'Lying About Myself in Order To Appear More Interesting', and
Tim Cullen's animation pieces which both suited this particular presentation
method, others did not fair so well. Cath Whippey's eccentric ten-second
animated loop 'Bear Tries on His New Bear Outfit', and 'Blue Moon Over
Alabama' by Geeta Griffith were two most obvious candidates. The 'Be Er
Monsta' compilation of '96 put together by Glasgow-based artists for pub
screenings is a record of activity at that time and it would have been
valuable to see it again as a one-off, sit-down screening in the environment
it was intended for. Chris Helson's 'Chat Show', a documentation of Orchardton
Television's live broadcast at the '98 Orchardton Arts Festival included
some quirky features and topical discussion but, at two hours in length,
proved impossible to view in the discomfort of the Museum Magogo set-up.
While Smith and Stewart's '97 piece 'Dual', a characteristically tense
play of performed action, and Wendy House's oddly anxious 'Untitled' were
compelling enough in entirety, I found myself losing patience and tiring
with the obvious lack of cohesion of works.
I am not advocating a strict approach
to the construction of "sense" as is witnessed in the curatorial obsession
with theme. Accounting for the curators' intentions, as I understand it,
the video works were treated no differently from the other exhibits --pre-selected
or gleaned from open-submission with an express aim of parodying the strictures
of the art institution, while perhaps at the same time bringing to the
fore a near-neurotic obsession of artists to exhibit at any opportunity,
regardless of circumstance. For me, though, this edge was lost in the Video
Booth, where the unnecessary effort required to view the works was questionably
as much a result of a real lack of available resources within the artistic
community as any intended irony.
The presentation of film and video
in or outwith the gallery must always be an issue and concern for those
choosing to exhibit such work, whether they be artists, curators, gallery
managers or attendants. In the case of Museum magogo, the small amount
of project funding they did acquire did not cover equipment hire and as
such cannot be ignored as a factor that impacted on the choice of presentation
--wishfuly slack or not. In fairness the resulting set-up, I'm sure, was
also partly due to the non-existent support network which the commissioned
reports, referred to above, identify as a prerequisite for the establishment
of an effective infrastructure for film and video exhibition in Scotland.
Choice and preferred options of
exhibition are all too often compromised, however there can be no excuse
for well funded galleries and organisations not addressing these consequential
Canadian Fall was a programme of
recent single-screen film/ video work from across Canada shown in a number
of Scottish venues in November and December. The project and tour was co-ordinated
by Paula Larkin of New Visions and the programme curated by video artist
Holger Mohaupt after a visit to Canada. In his words it is "an insight
into the anthropology of video creation in Canada."
It is the second leg of a loose
exchange initiated by Canadian video artist Nikki Forrest who, on a trip
to Scotland, compiled a selection of Scottish work, Video d'Ecosse, for
exhibition at the Articule Gallery, Montreal in 1998.
The curatorial slant in both programmes
reflects the notion of the chance meeting, the experience of being out
of sync in a foreign land, searching for signs of familiarity and shared
Scottish cultural links with Canada
stretch far historically, specifically the link with Quebec, where many
of the artists in this programme are based, in our common experience as
countries within nations and the struggles for independence.
This current exchange between artists
and enthusiasts looks set to continue with further projects and contact.
This is not purely by chance but is rather motivated by genuine interest
and the energies of individuals in both countries as opposed to the vagaries
of institutions with short-term agendas.
This energy was much in evidence
at the launch of Canadian Fall at Glasgow Film & Video Workshop. Nikki
Forrest and Nelson Henricks, accompanied by Cindra McDowell4
showed a selection of video work and gave a slide presentation and talk
on the Montreal scene, the flurry of artists' initiatives, galleries, video
workshops and distributors. Canada has a very rich history of independent
film and video activity stretching back to the introduction of video technology
in the seventies, with a solid infra-structure of organisations supported
by government money.
"If such an underpopulated country
produces an overabundance of video work, it is because a government obsessed
with communications technology chooses to sustain it, via arm's length
The issues pertaining to Scotland's
lack of that infrastructure are perhaps woven not only with the short-sightedness
of government-backed funders, but also, from a wider cultural perspective,
with our geographical position in relation to the United Kingdom as a whole
and the Westminster government. Now that we have a devolved parliament,
the rhetoric of Members of the Scottish Parliament abounds with optimism
and promise of cultural/political transformation. This rhetoric raises
serious questions concerning the concoction of a new, national identity.
Inane definitions of Scottishness, which we have long suffered, prevail
alongside prescriptive definitions of The Modern Scot. Coloured with a
new corporate cosmopolitanism, these discourses are extolled with the risk,
or even the aim, of smothering the indigenous voices of marginalised and
alienated communities, who also contribute to the landscape of Modern Scotland.
The struggle to retain some sense
of self tied to personal/ political histories un-limited by suspect nationalisms,
emerges recurrently in Canadian Fall. The thirteen works "tackle the question
of marginal identities from a position of instability"6,
that is with a tolerance and bias in favour of flexibility and nuance.
As a whole, the programme is a finely
balanced mix of styles and approaches and gives a good overview of production
methods characteristic to artists' film/video--a key requirement which benefits
audiences new to such work. This balance allows each work the space to
speak its own language and although the theme of identity is clearly a
concern, it is gradually emergent as opposed to definitive, as is the case
in many themed programmes.
Canadian Fall opened with Nikki
Forrest's Shift, a poetic expression of loss where perceptions of time
and place impress upon memory and the autobiographical to shift and de-stabilise
any sense of a unified self. Stravaig-Errance, also by Nikki Forrest, journies
through landscape and the city seeking this sense of self or a consciousness
of self and finds only, that with movement and passing time, the notion
of absence inscribes itself throughout. The treatment of time as an intrinsic
element of the video medium characterises both works by Nelson Henricks,
Window and Time Passes. Through a sensual manipulation of imagery, time
is condensed and moments of detail expanded as the artist creates impressions,
as opposed to clear-cut representations, of his personal interior and exterior
Though many of these works tell
stories of some sort, different approaches to narrative and the diaristic
form are evident in Ghislain Gagnon's Le Mouroir, Rhonda Buckley's Matter
Over Mind and Joan And Stephen by Monique Moumblow. Le Mouroir, which received
its world premiere in this programme, is a tragi-comic tale of a gay couple
who get stuck in a heat wave while working as cooks for a tree planting
camp in northern Canada. It has a beautifully dark, filmic quality which
contrasts nicely with the previous work Operetta by Laurel Woodcock, a
more conceptual video piece showing a close-up of a fly struggling to the
sounds of a crashing HAL from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Matter
Over Mind, Rhonda Buckley uses her own body to explore notions of seduction
and the representation of femininity as stereotype and Monique Moumblow
constructs for herself a fantasy involving a lover who lives inside her
Looking, as voyeur, and being looked
at form the basis of Paula Levine's three-minute Mirror Mirror. A male
figure, posing with naked torso is caught in slow motion returning our
expectant gaze as if to challenge our preconceptions. Steve Reinke's Excuse
of The Real, exposes, with sinister effect, the voyeuristic detachment
often deployed by the documentary film maker. A male voice speaking in
the first person is layered over repeat-cut home movie footage. He tells
of his interest in making a documentary about Aids and how this would involve
taking a "close personal look at a guy dying", concluding that his film
would not be complete without his death.
Yudi Sewraj's Rut lightens the tone
with its more humourous approach to the question of identity. We see a
man in a bear suit, entering a room and shaving his fur belly. Overlayed
text tells how he sees himself as a bear but how everyone else sees him
as a man in a bear suit! Finally Cathy Sisler's powerful Stagger Stories
is a personal account of her past alcohol and drug addiction and how she
came to surrender her fantasy that "deviance is necessarily an effective
form of resistance". We see her moving through busy city streets, staggering,
almost a danse macabre, as she asserts her right to difference, to be an
"alcoholic", to be "inconsistent", to be a "lesbian".
will hopefully create a demand for more single-screen, experimental film/
video throughout Scotland. Paula Larkin, who also initiated the tour, sees
it as a "prime opportunity to create links with new audiences who, whether
familiar or not with these methods of practice, are sophisticated enough
in their tastes to develop interest in such work and recognise its intrinsic
This article is a record of my experience
and interest at this point in time. It is, more importantly, a record and
assertion of the energies and unpaid efforts of many involved in short-term
projects whose histories end up lost and distorted or viewed in isolation,
in deference to a writing of history and culture that fails to take account
of the complexities and facts that comprise their making.
1. Both documents are available
2. I - igo Garrido--In the sense
that Cafe Flicker is not duty-bound by funders to market itself.
3. Cafe Flicker @ GFVW, 3rd Floor,
34 Albion Street, Glasgow G1, 7pm.
Works over 10 min. in length must
be pre-booked. Flicker database available for researchers. Call I - igo
0141 552 9936.
4. Cindra McDowell & Nelson
Henricks were also exhibiting at the Gallery of Modern Art as part of the
Glasgay festival alongside Steve Reinke and Tine Keane.
5. Nelson Henricks, Canadian Fall
7. For information and tour dates
contact 0141-5720958 or 0141-4243369
A Critical Framework For Littoral
Socially Engaged Practice
There is pressure through the
public funding system for the arts in the UK to create at least the allusion
of engaging a broader demographic of the population. The reasoning for
this is explained away as public funding shifts to an indirect yet local
and media promoted form of taxation through the Lottery, so Government
wishes to see--as much for its own PR as continuing Lottery sales--a publicly
visible correlation between where the income is generated and on what it
is being spent--'good causes'. This can be seen to be having not dissimilar
conservative repercussions on what receives public funding as happened
with the National Endowment for the Arts in the U.S.
One outcome has been the supporting
of art that adheres to promoting and cultivating 'Social Inclusion'. This
has placed the emphasis on artistic engagement as educational, or pedagogic,
in a way that attests to inclusion within society as an integrated whole.
At least superficially, this is espousing a shift in the terms of engagement
between artists and what were traditionally regarded as audiences, to a
more therapeutic or correctional interaction with an underscored group
However, expectations and shifts
in artistic practice are not a 'given' with legislative changes to government
funding priorities, but performative. If a shift is to occur at the point
of social engagement then it does not 'happen' coercively or in isolation
but as a direct effect of an informed choice shift in formations of artistic
practice in partnership with the people with which they work.
Within socially engaged approaches
to arts practices there are widely differing dispositions, from what can
be seen to be broadly in line with the Government's agenda--uni-directional
activity of cultivating what are effectively better 'citizens'/ consumers
where 'collaboration' is largely symbolic--to attempts at anaquality of
engagement, where art is seen as "a medium for discussion with social reality",
as artist Jay Koh puts it.
One description of the latter
has been 'Littoral' practice. "Littoral--adj. of or on the shore. --n. a
region lying along the shore." From its description it can be taken to
express a point of complimentary meeting, an inbetween space.
The UK Government's take and
emphasis on 'self-help' programmes has generated much scepticism with regard
to socially engaged art practices. While there may have been many managerial
conferences, effectively bolstering the position the Government is adopting,
there has been little to no indepth and critical discussion.
One conference that was established
to address issues of socially engaged practice was Critical Sites: Issues
in Critical Art Practice and Pedagogy held in the Institute of Art, Design
and Technology, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, September '98, organised by
Critical Access and Littoral in Ireland. At the conference Grant Kester,
assistant professor of contemporary art history and theory at Arizona State
University, delivered a paper: Socially Engaged Practice--Dialogical Aesthetics:
A Critical Framework For Littoral Art.
To raise and debate some of the
related issues Variant is hosting an on-line forum on Socially Engaged
Practice, commencing with the launch of this issue. Given his commitment
and work done to date in these areas, to initiate this dialogue we asked
Grant Kester to re-present his paper from the conference.
The Socially Engaged Art Practice
on-line forum--held in collaboration with the Environmental Art Department
of Glasgow School of Art--is at:
This includes an archive of all
messages, available to all list members, you can subscribe (at no cost)
to the list also from the above site.
Grant Kester's paper Socially
Engaged Practice--Dialogical Aesthetics: A Critical Framework For Littoral
Art is also available as a downloadable PDF file at the Variant site:
If you do not have access to
e-mail but wish to respond to Grant Kester's paper, or any issues related
to socially engaged practice, please post them to:
Variant, 1a Shamrock Street,
Glasgow, G4 9JZ
The resulting exchanges will
be subsequently documented at the Variant site and are intended to appear
as a dedicated supplement within the ensuing issue, Variant #10 (Spring/Summer
Dialogical Aesthetics: A Critical
Framework For Littoral Art
I. Defining Littoral Art
In this paper I'm going to outline
a framework for the critical analysis of "Littoral" or engaged art practices.
I start with two related caveats. First, my analysis is based primarily
on work that I am familiar with in the US and the UK. Thus, it is very
much a selective framework. And second, even within this geographically
limited context it is focused on a single aspect of these works which I
feel is of particular importance. Given the time and space limitations
there will be a number of complex questions which I will be unable to elaborate
sufficiently and others which I will be forced to bypass altogether. I
begin with the assumption that Littoral projects make very different demands
on the practitioner than do typical gallery or museum-based art works and
that they challenge on many levels the normative assumptions of conventional
art works. By the same token I would contend that Littoralist art requires
the development of a new critical framework and a new aesthetic paradigm.
There are aspects of Littoralist practice that simply can't be grasped
as relevant (or in some cases identified at all) by conventional art critical
Mainstream art criticism is organized
around two key elements. First, it is primarily concerned with the formal
appearance of physical objects, which are understood to possess an immanent
meaning. These meanings are then actualized as the object comes into contact
with a viewer. The object here remains the primary carrier of aesthetic
significance, whether in terms of a formal analysis or in terms of a speculative
phenomenology that attempts to re-construct a postulated viewer's interactions
with it. Second, the judgments produced through the critic's interaction
with the physical object are authorized by the writer's individual, pleasure-based
response. In The Scandal of Pleasure the American critic Wendy Steiner
argues that the primary organizing principle of criticism should be "subjective
preference" or what she terms the "I like" response.1
When contemporary critics confront
Littoral projects they often lack the analytic tools necessary to understand
the work on its own terms and instead simply project onto it a formal,
pleasure-based methodology that is entirely inappropriate.2
The results are not surprising: Littoral works are criticized for being
"unaesthetic" or are attacked for needlessly suppressing "visual gratification".
Because the critic is unable to gain any sensory stimulation or fails to
find the material in the work personally engaging it is dismissed as "failed"
art. This was the reaction of a number of U.S. critics to the most recent
Dokumenta exhibition. Ken Johnson of Art in America coined the term "post-retinal"
to describe much of the work in the show.3
Although Johnson intended this term as a mild pejorative, I feel it is
quite useful in capturing the ways in which many Littoral projects challenge
the tendency of contemporary visual art to function primarily on the level
of sensation. The reliance of contemporary criticism on the writer's personal
response also has the effect of treating subjectivity as an unquestioned,
a priori principle, rather than recognizing the extent to which the critic's
"personal" taste is structured by forms of identification and power based
on class, race, gender and sexuality. I would argue that the critic has
a responsibility to interrogate their own individuality; to ask how their
identity functions in relationship to other subjects and other social formations.
1. The Problem of Definition
The concept of a Littoral criticism
is important because it forces upon us the question of what Littoral "art"
might be, which in turn requires that we differentiate Littoral art from
other kinds of art (or other forms of cultural politics or activism for
that matter). I know that for myself most of these differences have remained
relatively intuitive or unconscious. The act of criticism requires that
we make these intuitive judgments more concrete and subject them to some
conceptual elaboration. The positive dimension of this activity is that
it can deepen our understanding of what makes Littoralist art effective.
The negative dimension is that it can lead to a hardening of categorical
definitions and distinctions. This brings us to a central question. There
is a long tradition of defining modernist art through its difference from
dominant cultural forms. Thus, Clive Bell and Roger Fry defined avant-garde
painting (and in particular, Postimpressionism) through its active suppression
of representation, which they associated with the populist realism of Victorian
genre painting; Greenberg, of course, contrasted authentic art with vulgar
"kitsch". In the 1970s critic Michael Fried differentiated the truly avant-garde
art of Anthony Caro and Frank Stella from the inauthentic "Literalist"
art of Donald Judd or Robert Smithson, based on its resistance to "theater".
That is, Caro's work was judged to be superior because it refused to incorporate
formal cues that would acknowledge the presence of a viewer.
This resistance to fixity can be
traced to the function of the aesthetic in early modern philosophy as a
force that is intended to absorb antagonisms created elsewhere in society.
Typically, as in the writings of Schiller, the aesthetic is conceived of
as therapeutic; its job is to ameliorate the fragmenting effects of a market-driven
society. This compensatory function needs to be understood within the context
of liberalism. The aesthetic provides us with a unique power to comprehend
and represent the totality of forces operating within society, and to envision
more progressive or humane alternatives, but this epistemological insight
is always joined with the requirement that the artist must never attempt
to realize these alternatives through direct action. The "poet", according
to Schiller, possesses a sovereign right only in the limitless domain of
the imagination. In a parallel manner, for Hegel, in The Philosophy of
Right, the "aesthetic state" can comprehend the deleterious social effects
of private property but it is prevented from intervening in the ostensibly
"natural" operations of the market. The resulting social tensions (poverty,
a growing gap between rich and poor, environmental destruction) will be
relieved, rather, by the expansion of the market and by the colonization
of what he terms "backwards" lands. These as yet unclaimed colonies are
defined, like the aesthetic imagination itself, as potentially boundless
and conceptually indeterminate. For Kant the destructive impact of social
stratification will be healed by the unfettered circulation of commerce
and knowledge (or "books and money"), leading to the gradual diffusion
of a spirit of harmonious Enlightenment. The aesthetic can thus be understood
as one of several related mechanisms that were developed within liberalism
to simultaneously regulate the threat posed by systematic forms of critique
and to compensate for the dysfunctional effects of the emergent capitalist
system. It must remain highly elastic and un-regulated, precisely because
it is being called upon to absorb a potentially infinite range of divisive
Under the influence of late nineteenth-century
critics such as Robert Vischer and Heinrich Wölfflin, this principle
of indeterminateness was transferred from a general condition of aesthetic
knowledge to a trait primarily associated with the experience of artworks.
Specifically, the capacity of the modernist work to continually complicate
or modify its own formal condition became an expression of its refusal
of determinant boundaries. Critics like Bell, Fry, and Greenberg then endowed
this idea of formal innovation with the specific motivation that modernist
art must constantly transform itself to avoid co-optation by popular culture.
This principle of indeterminateness remains with us today in the concept
of the art work that refuses the economic exchange of the market or that
resists translation into other forms of discourse or meaning (Adorno) or,
for that matter, in the belief that art schools should be experimental
and open-ended institutions.
In my remarks here I am, thus, working
somewhat against the grain of a long tradition that says we must not attempt
to limit or define art's potential meaning. In fact, I would argue that
one of the strengths of Littoral practice lies in its capacity to transgress
existing categories of knowledge. At the same time I want to stress the
importance of understanding indeterminateness in specific social and historical
contexts. Clearly we aren't talking about a generalized refusal of all
ontological boundaries. The question is, how has indeterminacy functioned
strategically over time? I would contend that, within the modernist tradition,
it has been constructed through a dialogue that oscillates between the
form of the work of art and its communicative function. And it is in this
question of discursivity that I will locate the basis for my definition
of Littoral art. It is necessary to consider the Littoralist work as a
process as well as a physical product, and specifically as a process rooted
in a discursively-mediated encounter in which the subject positions of
artist and viewer or artist and subject are openly thematized and can potentially
be challenged and transformed. I am particularly interested in a discursive
aesthetic based on the possibility of a dialogical relationship that breaks
down the conventional distinction between artist, art work and audience--a
relationship that allows the viewer to "speak back" to the artist in certain
ways, and in which this reply becomes in effect a part of the "work" itself.
2. Modern and Postmodern Anti-Discursivity
This approach is significant, I
think, because it stands in opposition to a long tradition of anti-discursivity
in modern art that associates communicability or discourse with fixity--the
generalized belief that art must define itself as different from other
forms of culture (popular culture, kitsch, Fried's theater) precisely by
being difficult to understand, shocking or disruptive (except now, contra
Schiller's return to "wholeness", a Lyotard-ian "ontological dislocation"
becomes the therapeutic antidote to a centered Cartesian subjectivity).
I would contend that the anti-discursive tendency in modern art hypostatizes
discourse and communication as inherently oppressive. It can't conceive
of a discursive form that is not contaminated by the problematic model
of "communication" embodied in advertising and mass-media.4
Notably, this attitude runs across
the historical and theoretical divide of modernism and postmodernism. Thus
Lyotard writes with real disdain of art which is based on the assumption
that the public "will recognize. . . will understand, what is signified."5
And both Greenberg and Lyotard postulate avant-garde art practice as the
antidote to kitsch. If kitsch traffics in reductive or simple concepts
and sensations then avant-garde art will be difficult and complex; if kitsch's
preferred mode is a viewer-friendly "realism" then avant-garde art will
be abstract, "opaque" and "unpresentable". In each case the anti-discursive
orientation of the avant-garde artwork, its inscrutability and resistance
to interpretation, is juxtaposed to a cultural form that is perceived as
easy or facile (advertising, kitsch, "theatrical" art, etc.). The condition
of this degraded cultural form is then seen as entirely exhausting the
possibilities of a populist art, thus forcing the artist to withdraw completely
from the field of discursive engagement.
What I am calling an "anti-discursive"
tradition in the modern avant-garde is defined by two seemingly opposed
moments. The first, which I have described elsewhere as an "orthopedic"
aesthetic, seeks to aggressively transform the viewer's consciousness (implicitly
defined as flawed or dulled) through an overwhelming encounter with the
work of art.6 This perspective is more accurately
thought of as counter-discursive in that it argues that the work of art
has the ability to operate on the viewer through a unique, non-discursive,
somatic power. Examples would include the "alienation" effect of the 1930's
Russian and German avant-garde and Walter Benjamin's concept of a "shock"
of critical awareness produced through the "dialectical" juxtaposition
of images. Although ambivalently positioned relative to discursive forms
of knowledge, these approaches provide an important framework for thinking
through a communicative aesthetic model. The positive recognition that
everyday language is always/ already ideologically prepared to interrupt
the formation of a critical consciousness, is combined with what I view
as a negative dimension: the positioning of the viewer as a passive subject
whose epistemological orientation to the world will be adjusted by the
work of art. The extent to which the commitment to shock (what we might
call the "naughty artist" paradigm) remains an almost unconscious reflex
can be seen in the recent controversy over the English art students who
claimed to use a grant to vacation at Costa del Sol while actually staying
in Leeds. Like some kind of dated Baudrillardian scenario the various characters
(the outraged press, the spluttering conservatives, and the clever art
students) played their roles almost as though they were working from a
script, and in a way they were.
The second view contends that the
artist, and the work of art, must remain entirely unconcerned with the
viewer. This is the basis of Michael Fried's distinction between authentic
and "theatrical" art. Fried insists that the artwork is under no obligation
whatsoever to acknowledge the viewer's presence--that is, to anticipate
or play off of the viewer's physical response, movement, or expectations
relative to a given piece.7 In its extreme
state this can take the form of the position that art is not a mode of
communication at all. In a classic expression of this view, we find the
painter Barnett Newman projecting an anti-discursive tendency into the
very mists of time: "Man's first expression, like his first dream," Newman
writes in 1947, "was an aesthetic one. Speech was a poetic outcry rather
than a demand for communication. . . an address to the unknowable."8
(Or to an ideal but currently unrealizable Sensus Communis.)
3. Modern Aesthetics and the
Problem of Universality
Greenberg's citation of Kant in
his "Modernist Painting" essay is widely taken as proof of the neo-Kantian
lineage of formalist art criticism. I would argue that we can draw very
different lessons about the meaning of art from early modern aesthetics.
The concept of the aesthetic that emerged in the work of philosophers such
as Kant, Schiller, Shaftesbury, and Hutcheson was centered on the relationship
between the individual (defined by sense-based or somatic knowledge) and
the social. This relationship was constructed through concepts such as
"taste" (which marks the fortuitous harmony between the autonomous individual
and a more objective standard of judgment). This work was only nominally
concerned with the form of the art object per se. A primary term of reference
was the concept of a sensus communis or Gemeinsinn, a common sense or knowledge
that marked a horizon of shared communicability. This opens out into a
whole area of debate in contemporary theory between Habermas, Foucault
and Lyotard, among others. Lyotard goes so far as to link the concept of
discourse and communicability in art with what he ominously terms a "call
to order" and the cultures of fascism and Stalinism. Habermas' claim that
art might expand from "questions of taste" to the exploration of "living
historical situations" is linked for Lyotard with a naive, nostalgic and
politically reactionary yearning after "unity" and the misguided attempt
to reconcile art and society into a mythic "organic whole".
Of course Lyotard's fears of a universalizing
discourse are well-founded. One does not have to look very far in the current
cultural landscape to find concrete examples, such as recent attacks on
the teaching of Spanish in California public schools (Proposition 227)
under the guise of a resurgent one-language Americanism that attempts to
define American identity through the negation of the complex cultures that
actually constitute that country today. Clearly, any model of discourse
or cultural identity that is founded on the violent suppression of difference
is oppressive. At the same time the vehemently anti-discursive tradition
within the modernist avant-garde has led to another kind of negation--an
indifference and in some cases an outright contempt towards the viewer.
"The artist," as sculptor David Smith insisted in 1952, "deserves to be
belligerent to the majority".9 I would argue,
however, that we don't have to choose between fascism and withdrawal into
a mute, monadic isolation. Littoralist art is concerned precisely with
exploring and negotiating the complexities of discursive inter-relationships,
with trying to create a discourse which minimizes negation.
4. Implications for the Analysis
I now want to outline three related
components of a discursive or dialogical art practice.
First, Littoral art is interdisciplinary.
It operates "between" discourses (art and activism, for example) and between
institutions (the gallery and the community center or the housing block).
This is opposed to traditional art that operates within both the discursive
presuppositions and the institutional sites of the "art world" and art
audiences and that is, moreover, often even further defined by its identification
with a specific art medium. Ian Hunter of Projects Environment uses the
term "interface" practices which I understand in two ways--first, the interface
between practitioners and other individuals or groups and second, the interface
that is created in Littoral works across disciplinary routines or bodies
of knowledge. (This relates to the argument that the formation of disciplinary
knowledge is both an empowering and a limiting activity, and that breakthroughs
occur in the disciplinary interstices, while consolidation occurs within
the disciplines themselves.)
Along with this interdisciplinarity
comes the need to learn as much as possible about the ways in which meaning
is produced in and through these other contexts. This interdisciplinarity,
the ability to draw on analytic resources from other areas such as critical
theory, social history or environmental science, and the ability to work
through alternative institutional sites, allows Littoral art to develop
a systematic critique that can be actualized through specific political
or social struggles. The Littoral artist, by "interfacing" with existing
sites of political and cultural resistance can challenge the disabling
political quietism of liberal aesthetics.
2. Multiple registers of meaning
vs. formal immanence
In Littoral art the "meaning" of
a given work is not centered in the physical locus of the object, or in
the imaginative capacity of the single viewer. Rather, it is dispersed
through multiple registers. These include a spatial-temporal register,
in which the work "means" differently in different locations and times,
as opposed to the immanence that is characteristic of modernist formalism.
The work also produces multiple levels of information at a given time and
space as it interacts with a myriad of other discursive systems (existing
belief systems, ideologies, the psychological make up of particular viewers
or participants, etc.). There is thus no single "work" to be judged in
a Littoralist criticism. This is what differentiates Littoral criticism
from conventional art criticism. The "work" is constituted as an ensemble
of effects and forces, which operate in numerous registers of signification
and discursive interaction.
3. Dialogical indeterminance vs.
The recognition that Littoral works
operate on multiple levels of meaning doesn't imply that meaning is entirely
indeterminate, however. It can be clearly analyzed at specific points,
and this capacity to ascertain meaning effects among particular viewers
or co-participants is an important part of the process of dialogical "feedback"
(e.g., Stephen Willats projects with housing estate residents). At the
same time, this doesn't make the work entirely fixed. Rather, the principle
of indeterminance that is registered in conventional art through formal
innovation is expressed in Littoral art through the open-ended process
of dialogical engagement, which produces new and unanticipated forms of
collaborative knowledge. I'm not saying that Littoral art works can't be
formally innovative, but that they don't depend on the principle of immanent
formal differentiation as the primary engine for their development.
II. Current Political and Cultural
In the second half of this talk I
want to use the concept of a dialogical aesthetic to outline some specific
conditions for the analysis and criticism of Littoral art. As I've argued,
one of the defining characteristics of Littoral art is its capacity for
interaction with other areas of social practice. The "interface" includes
more than just the "conversation" that takes place between practitioners
and their co-participants. It also encompasses the broader discursive context
within which a given Littoral project operates--for example, relevant public
policies and debates, corporate ideologies, images and narratives promulgated
by the mass media and numerous other sites which structure the political
and cultural meaning that a specific work is capable of producing, and
which are susceptible to being transformed by the work in turn. Two related
tendencies in contemporary cultural politics are particularly salient.
The first is the growing privatization of social life, linked with a corollary
embrace of the individual as the primary locus of political and cultural
authority. The second is the resistance to both theoretical and systematic
forms of analysis. These tendencies, although differentially articulated,
operate across a broad spectrum of cultural and political positions.
1. Individualism/ Privatization
In the U.S. we are witnessing the
widespread privatization of those domains of social life which were based
on the ideals (if not always the reality) of a shared commitment to a general
public good and a willingness to sacrifice some portion of one's self-interest
for the benefit of others. What might be termed the re-segregation of American
life is occurring at numerous points: public education is being replaced
by a system of selective "voucher" schools which often violate the separation
of church and state; fortified "gated communities" are proliferating among
the wealthy as a way to simultaneously express class privilege (and paranoia)
and to opt out of shared municipal services;10
with declining state and federal moneys "public" universities are becoming
research fiefdoms for major corporations; under the Republican congress
industry lobbyists are being invited to re-draft federal regulatory legislation
intended to protect the public from their own companies; and forms of collectively-financed
health care and social services are under attack by proposals to restrict
benefits to those least likely to need them.
Everywhere we see a retreat into
privatized enclaves along with a refusal to acknowledge the relationship
between economic privilege and consumption patterns here and lack of resources
and opportunity elsewhere. The withdrawal from a public commitment to these
programs is justified by the claim that they are inherently flawed. But
rather than recognizing the problems experienced by, for example, urban
high schools, as a result of an interconnected set of social and economic
forces (declining tax bases due to white flight, lack of job opportunities
as a result of a deliberate program of industrial disinvestment leading
to the proliferation of a drug-based economy, etc.) their problems are
attributed entirely to the failure of the poor as individuals; their lack
of moral fiber and personal initiative. The implication is clear: the only
effective public policies are those that function to transform the (failed)
individual; to provide them with a work ethic and a capacity for self-sacrifice.
The second, and related, tendency
I noted was an opposition to systematic forms of analysis. Conservatives
in the U.S. have undertaken a concerted effort to discredit any form of
political analysis that seek to explain poverty or criminality as the result
of economic and social inequality. This has involved in turn the adoption
of a triumphalist view of recent American history.11
In this view the last few decades have seen the elimination of all forms
of organized racism, classism or sexism in America such that women, the
poor and working class, and people of color have no impediments whatsoever
to competing in a fair and open way with economically privileged white
men in what Dinesh D'Souza calls the "foot race" of modern life.12
Having realized this liberal ideal through past political struggles over
civil rights, society is now understood to be composed of free individuals
whose success or failure is due solely to their personal efforts.13
If, in this meritocractic utopia, white upper-class men still seem to dominate
the most powerful positions in corporate and political life this certainly
can't be attributed to the fact that society continues to systematically
impede or limit the opportunities of women, the poor, or people of color.
Rather, we must seek some internal cause, located in the individual rather
than the social. Thus we have the pseudo-science of the Bell Curve, attributing
a genetic inferiority to blacks, and conservative attacks on the immorality
of the poor.14 I suspect that there are rough
corollaries for these views in the UK today as well.
In place of flawed public institutions
we find conservatives championing private philanthropy in which members
of the upper class choose to dispense some portion of their accumulated
wealth as a reflection of their own humanity and moral excellence. Social
programs are to be viewed as a form of noblesse oblige, rather than as
a collective recognition of inequalities that operate elsewhere in the
social order. The result is a neo-Victorian discourse that locates the
causes of poverty in personal failure. In line with the roots of early
reform in Evangelical Christianity, the act of dispensing charity is itself
intended to facilitate the moral transcendence of the giver, to demonstrate
their own capacity to reach across the boundaries of class and race privilege
on the basis of some putatively universal spiritual essence which they
are able to recognize and activate through their elevated capacity for
empathetic identification.15 There have been
numerous books published during the last several years (e.g., Marvin Olasky's
The Tragedy of American Compassion) in which conservatives argue that the
real problem in the U.S. today is a lack of moral character among individuals,
and that existing social problems can best be solved not by the state,
but by the efforts of private individuals and organizations that develop
programs focused on building the character of the poor.
3. Relationship to Art
In this brief outline I've discussed
the conservative world view in terms of a resistance to systematic or holistic
forms of analysis and a (fictive) construction of the subject as a radically
autonomous individual whose desires must be either unimpeded (as a middle-class
consumer) or rigorously policed (as a working-class producer). In general
terms both the anti-systematic orientation and the rampant individualism
of conservative thinking seek to detach a given subject, event or condition
from its imbededness within a network of causal factors; to abstract the
individual, as a product of social forces and discursive interrelationships
into an entirely self-contained and generative entity.
Two interconnected tendencies in
contemporary art critical discourse are of particular relevance here--the
widespread interest in the role of visual pleasure in aesthetic experience
and the consequent attack on theoretical or systematic analyses of art.
These tendencies first emerged as a reaction to the perceived didacticism
and theoretical excess of 1980's postmodernism. For critics in the U.S.
such as Mark van Proyen and David Hickey "theory" marks a retreat from
the unique somatic knowledge that is the special province of the artist.16
Theory is abstract and distanced; art is immediate and experiential. The
iron heel of mind-driven theory has attempted to quash the subtle but necessary
truths of the body over which the artist has a proprietary authority. Here
mind and body, dominative reason and a spiritually cultivated intuition
are juxtaposed in classic binary fashion. The assertion of "beauty" and
personal pleasure as the only legitimate basis of an art experience and
the reaction against "theory" (which is seen as contaminating the purity
of that experience) coalesce around the troubled figure of the "individual".
The artist (as an exemplary individual) becomes the final bunkered outpost
of resistant subjectivity against a whole array of "objective" and abstract
cognitive forces. The somatic or sensual experience that they register
through their works is understood as having an inherently progressive political
power, constituting a pre-social domain of personal autonomy and self-expression.
The "individual" marks an important
point of congruence with the conservative views I've already outlined.
The concept of the (bourgeois) individual constructed in conservative discourse
bears a striking resemblance to conventional notions of the artist, virulently
resisting any threat to the autonomy of personal expression or desire.
This is not to say that any artistic position on individual autonomy is
necessarily conservative. Further, it is clearly the case that the individual
body and the right of expression mark an important domain of political
struggle today. But the politics of the individual are not necessarily
a given; they have to be established in and through specific contexts--a
process that requires some form of analytic thinking.
The attack on theory in the arts
is part of a more general reaction against analytic systems of thought
that has been taken up across a range of cultural sites. The political
implications of the anti-theory stance are particularly evident in recent
debates in left journals such as The Nation. In a opinion column in May
of 1998 Nation editor Eric Alterman castigated what he called the "radical/
academic" left (a.k.a. the "Foucaultian" left) for its focus on theory
("theory and identity are everything") at the expense of "real" politics.17
Wallowing in its own elitism and irrelevance the "cultural left" blithely
assumes that "the higher the level of its abstraction the more subversive
it is." Where many contemporary critics bemoan the irrelevance of theory
to the actuality of art-making, Alterman contends that contemporary left
academics are out of touch with the average worker and incapable of "translating
theory into praxis in the real world of U.S. politics." In each case the
attack on "theory" is generated out of the claimed authenticity of "experience".
Although these debates, in art and
in contemporary political discourse, are being staged on very different
terrains they share some tendencies. First, they express a common desire
to bypass what is seen as the extraneous, abstract, or irrelevant discourse
of theory in order to regain contact with the "empirical" basis of a given
discipline or activity. They urge us to move closer to the object of study
or engagement, to collapse the distance (critical, physical, emotional)
between object and interlocutor, at the same time that they express a demand
to recover the "essence" of politics or art in response to the dangerous
forces of conservative attack and anarchic inter-disciplinary transgression.
This is a perspective that makes it increasingly difficult to recognize
the inter-connections among and between these various cultural and political
fields. It marks a retreat from the possibilities of a cultural politics
and from the possibility of a shared discourse among activists, artists,
critics, and others, and specifically, from the kinds of processes that
lie at the heart of Littoral practice.
III. Littoral Practice--Dialogical
If, as I am suggesting, the evaluative
framework for Littoral art is no longer centered on the physical object
then what is the new locus of judgment? I would contend that it can be
found in the condition and character of dialogical exchange itself. I would
define this as a pragmatic form of criticism to the extent that it is concerned
with the specific effects produced by these exchanges in a given context.
At the same time, it retains a nominal teleological orientation in that
it preserves some concept of an ideal discursive process that can act as
a benchmark against which to evaluate actual projects. It is necessary
to consider two conditions that are specific to the subject position of
the contemporary "artist", and which bear directly on the artist's capacity
for discursive engagement.
The first condition is ideological--the
tendency of artists to identify themselves with a highly individualized
concept of personal autonomy on the one hand, and with the capacity to
transcend self through their mastery of a universal aesthetic knowledge
on the other. The result is an often problematic mixture of traits: a failure
to engage in critical self-reflection (due to the belief that one's individuality
constitutes a redemptive, pre-ideological enclave) combined with the perceived
authority to heedlessly transgress boundaries of class, race, and privilege,
and to engage in discursive acts "on behalf of" any number of disenfranchised
"others". The potential correspondence between this view and the concepts
of privatized philanthropy that I outlined earlier is clear. The corollary
to the philanthropic middle-class subject who is able to make contact with,
and spiritually "improve", the racial or class Other is found in the long
tradition of regarding the artist or intellectual as a trans-cultural agent.
Thus we have St. Simon's "avant-garde", Coleridge's "Clerisy", and more
recently, descriptions of the artist as a Shamanistic healer which engage
in a problematic projection of archaic notions of "tribal" spirituality
onto a society that is highly stratified, even if not especially within
the arts. To the extent that Littoral projects involve this kind of cross-cultural
or cross-class negotiation (and when they do it is almost always the case
that the transgression is moving from a position of greater to lesser privilege),
this will remain a persistent area of tension.
The second condition that poses
a challenge to discursivity is institutional and logistical. It is what
we might call the problem of itinerancy. Discourse, and the trust necessary
for discursive interaction and identification, grow out of a sustained
relationship in time and space, the co-participation in specific material
conditions of existence. But the nature of contemporary art patronage and
production mitigates against this kind of sustained commitment. Artists
have to earn a living which may require regular re-location due to teaching
or other jobs, foundation grants are often oriented around singular projects
over a fixed time frame, and the art institutions that provide support
for Littoral work are accustomed to inviting a practitioner in from "the
outside" for a limited period of time. Many of the mechanisms of engaged
arts patronage function to reinforce the view of a given "community" or
constituency as an instrumentalized and fictively monolithic entity to
be "serviced" by the visiting artist. The British artist Stephen Willats
has negotiated the problem of itinerancy by returning to the same sites,
often tower blocks, over a period of several years. Another solution is
found in arts organizations that are located in, and build ongoing relationships
with, specific neighborhoods, as in the East Bay Institute for Urban Arts
in Oakland, California.
1. Discursive Determinism
Turning from the condition of the
artist to the concept of discourse itself I would identity two areas of
critical analysis. The first relates to the problem of discursive determinism--that
is, the replacement of a vulgar Marxist concept of economic determinism
by the equally reductive belief that "discourse" or dialogue in and of
itself has the power to radically transform social relations. This is problematic
for two reasons. First, because it overlooks the manifest differential
in power relations that pre-conditions participation in discourse long
before we get to the gallery, community center or meeting room. We can
attempt to minimize the effect of power on discourse, to point to its effects,
but we can't expect to eliminate it. Discursive determinism also overlooks
the extent to which political change takes place through forms of "discourse"
(such as violence or economic manipulation of the electoral system) that
are far from open and ideal. This tendency treats discourse as an abstract
and autonomous entity, but the essential mediating relationship between
discourse and mechanisms of political or social change is left undeveloped.
We might call this the "argue but obey" criticism of discourse, taken from
Kant's famous citation of Frederick the Great, who had no problem with
Prussia's intellectual class expressing any number of radical ideals in
written form so long as they did nothing to directly challenge his political
authority--"argue as much as you want, and about whatever you want, but
obey" (in "What is Enlightenment?"). "Discourse" becomes aesthetic, in
the sense that I have used the term previously, to the extent that it becomes
detached from mechanisms of political change and instead takes on a compensatory
or primarily symbolic role.
2. Empathy and Negation
The second axis of a discursive
aesthetic revolves around the related concepts of "empathy" and "negation".
The specific function of conventional aesthetic perception is to treat
the perceived object as an ensemble of stimuli to be registered on the
conscious mind of the artist. Everything that is outside of the perceiving
subject thus becomes a kind of raw material to be processed by the senses
and the mind in order to produce what we might call a "transcendence effect".
This process allows the subject to reflectively perceive the operations
of their own consciousness, and by extension to glimpse the potential cognitive
ground of a universal basis of communication. The transcendence effect
is most pronounced when the material being experienced is treated as a
mere representation, thus insulating the meditative perceiver from any
direct contact with the viewed object which might distract them from the
process of self-reflection. This is typically expressed in the early to
mid-twentieth century concept of a formalist, self-referential art practice.
The effect, then, is to negate the
specific identity of those objects around you (and people can easily function
as objects), and instead to treat them as instrumentalized material. In
contrast, a dialogical aesthetic would locate meaning "outside" the self;
in the exchange that takes place, via discourse, between two subjects.
Moreover, the identities of these subjects are not entirely set, but rather,
are formed and transformed through the process of dialogical exchange.
In the traditional view I've just outlined aesthetic experience prepares
the subject to participate in intersubjective exchange by giving them mastery
over a universal discursive form. They function as an already fixed enunciative
agent who merely makes use of discourse to express the a priori "content"
of their internal being. In the model that I'm outlining the subject is
literally produced in and through dialogical exchange.
One way in which the instrumentalizing
tendency of traditional aesthetic experience has been negotiated is through
the concept of empathy (e.g., Burke and Lessing). Empathy is a relationship
to others that at least potentially allows us to experience the world not
as a transcendent eyeball searching out aesthetic stimulation, but as a
discursively integrated subject willing to sacrifice some sense of autonomy
in order to imaginatively inhabit, learn from (and be transformed by) another
subject's material condition and world view. Politically resistant communities
are typically formed by people who share lived experience and interests
in ways that a Littoral practitioner may not. Yet, the problems of universality
notwithstanding, we must retain some concept of an intersubjective common
ground that would allow for the possibility of shared discourse, and that
would allow the practitioner to bridge the gap of difference between themselves
and their co-participants.
At the same time, empathy is susceptible
to a kind of ethical/ epistemological abuse in which the very act of empathetic
identification is used to negate the specific identity of the other subject.
It is simply not the case that "we" are all "the same"--we are differentially
positioned relative to material, cultural, and economic interests. And,
historically, it is precisely in crossing these kind of objective divisions
that "empathy" is most often evoked. Empathy can become an excuse to deny
our own privilege and the real differences between ourselves and others,
and to subject them instead to an instrumentalizing aestheticization. It
is notable that in philosophical terms empathy has been constructed as
non-discursive relationship. In Lessing's Laocoön essay he defines
empathy in part through the restrained silence of Laocoön himself,
even as he is attacked by poisonous snakes. The empathized subject is not
expected to answer back, only to bear the marks of their suffering and
to thereby elicit our emotive identification. Moreover, empathy is the
product of distance, which guarantees that we cannot be "existentially
implicated in the tragic event".18 Thus both
Lessing and Burke associate empathy with pity and with a quasi-pleasurable
aesthetic response. I'm reminded here of a friend who worked developing
art-based therapy in an Alzheimer's care facility. After some time she
grew to be rather unpopular with the regular care-givers who resented what
they saw as her tendency to romanticize dementia as liberating the creative
child within. There is of course a long history of artists tortured by
the desire to "do good" or be useful. Van Gogh's transition from Evangelical
minister to the miners of Belgium, where he even began to physically mimic
their impoverished lifestyle, to painting solemn scenes of peasant culture
is exemplary of the tendency to treat the other as a material to be converted
by the well-intentioned artist, or as a "representational" resource.
To make this point somewhat clearer
relative to Littoral practice I want to briefly re-visit a project that
I discussed in some detail at the Salford Littoral conference in 1994.
The project is called Soul Shadows: Urban Warrior Myths and was produced
by an artist from New Orleans named Dawn Dedeaux in 1993. It began as part
of an "art in the prisons" program in Louisiana and eventually mushroomed
into a travelling multi-media installation with sculptural elements, multiple
video monitors, fabricated rooms, large photo-based images, a sound track
and so on. In this form it toured from New Orleans to a number of major
cities including Baltimore and Los Angeles. The project was subject to
some criticism, especially by African American writers, because it presented
provocative images of one of Dedeaux's chief subjects, a convicted crack
dealer and gang leader named Wayne Hardy, half dressed, holding a spear,
a shield and in one case a target. Although there are many "voices" in
the installation, in fact a cacophony of audio and video tapes ran constantly,
the dominant narrative "voice" of the piece was that of Dedeaux herself,
who planned and orchestrated the project with some minimal "collaboration"
from Wayne Hardy regarding the staging of his life size portraits. Dedeaux
sought to help white viewers "empathize" with the conditions faced by young
black men, at the same time that she hoped the piece would act as a kind
of moral prophylactic for young black men who came to see it, who would
presumably mend their ways after witnessing the contrition expressed by
a number of imprisoned figures.
Dedeaux, who is from a white, upper-class
New Orleans family, spoke of the project as a way to overcome her fear
of young black men after being mugged in the French quarter. The young
black men she worked with thus served as the vehicle for a kind of immersion
therapy that allowed her to transcend her own painfully self-conscious
whiteness. At the same time, Dedeaux's project positioned her subjects
as ciphers of black criminality (they are always viewed in the context
of prison and of discussions about their crimes) by failing to locate their
relentlessly foregrounded "criminality" in the broader context of the current
urban political economy. Images of young black men in prison circulate
widely in U.S. culture and their interpretation is heavily influenced by
a broad network of presuppositions largely dominated by conservative policy
statements, books, op-ed pieces and so on. These images cannot simply be
re-circulated in an art context without taking that a priori discursive
network into consideration, and without taking the artist's own position
vis-a-vis these images into account. I certainly don't hold Dedeaux accountable
for conservative policies on race and crime, but they constituted one of
the most significant discursive interfaces for this project and, assuming
that she didn't find herself in agreement with them, she should have devised
some representational strategy to resist the assimilation of her project
to these views.
Since this project was widely covered
several years ago there have been two interesting addenda. First, in 1996
one of Dedeaux's subjects, Paul Hardy, was arrested for the murder of a
police witness and, in order to build its case against him the FBI raided
Dedeaux's studio, seizing interviews and videotapes. These images, which
Dedeaux had collected and catalogued in her studio, are not simply a representational
resource, they are in a very real way linked to the lives of her subjects,
with immediate and profound consequences. The second addendum is provided
by Dedeaux herself, who presented a mocking "self-portrait" (Self-Portrait,
Rome) in a 1997 issue of the journal Art Papers which featured her in smiling
black-face make-up with the phrase "Do You Like Me Better Now?" written
on the palm of her hand. It is probably safe to assume that this image
was intended as a response to those critics (possibly including myself)
who raised questions about the position she took up in the Soul Shadows
project. She seems to be suggesting here that the only reason she was criticized
was because she was white.
Of course Dedeaux's easy accommodation
to conservative views about black crime and poverty is not simply a matter
of her race. At the same time, if she was black herself it is unlikely
that the experience of being mugged would have made her fearful of all
black men, and led her to produce a piece that is so problematically related
to questions of difference, access, and mastery. Dedeaux's whiteness is
not simply a question of skin color but of her imaginative orientation
to racial identity and Otherness itself. While her class and racial background
and her resulting isolation relative to poor and working class black communities
might predispose her to reinforce these views, it doesn't predetermine
it. This image is made more problematic by the fact that it is, presumably,
meant as an indirect citation of David Hammons' billboard "How You like
me Now?" which was installed on the streets of Washington, D.C. as part
of the Blues Aesthetic exhibition in 1989. The billboard featured Jackson
in whiteface and was meant as a critique of those Democrats who feared
that Jackson's "Rainbow Coalition" would split the black vote. As the billboard
was being installed several black passersby found the image of a white-faced
Jackson, being erected by an all-white crew, insulting. They returned with
sledge-hammers and destroyed the piece.
This project provides an instructive
example of the ways in which a discursively-based Littoral practice differs
from gallery-based strategies, which assume that the physical object "in
and of itself" carries sufficient meaning. There was no attempt by the
sponsoring institution at discursive interaction with the "public" on whom
this billboard would be imposed. Part of the difficulty lies in the ambiguity
of Hammons' piece. "How you like me now?" could be a way of saying that
Jackson was an "Uncle Tom" who was willing to play white to gain Democratic
support just as easily as it could be taken as a criticism of Democrats
who feared Jackson's blackness. On the streets of a formerly black DC neighborhood
which was undergoing gentrification (in part encouraged by the activities
of white artists and arts institutions), the fact that it was perceived
as a provocation is hardly surprising. This makes Dedeaux's citation of
the work in her image all the more questionable. Dedeaux displays an almost
instinctive affinity for conservative views on race. Here she transforms
Hammons' image, which was intended as an indictment of the suppressed racism
of the Democratic party, into a caustic lamentation on the effects of reverse
racism, in which she portrays herself as the oppressed victim of mean-spirited
critics who attacked her solely on the basis of her skin color.
3. Critical Pedagogy and the
Politically Coherent Community
As I've suggested, the antinomy
between empathy and negation can be at least partially resolved by recourse
to a discursive aesthetic which conceives of the artist primarily as a
collaborator in dialogue rather than an expressive agent. Here the artist's
identity is tested and transformed by intersubjective experience, rather
than being fortified against it. The "artist" occupies a socially constructed
position of privileged subjectivity, reinforced by both institutional sponsorship
and deeply imbedded cultural connotations. It is the achievement of Littoral
practitioners to work to mitigate the effects of these associations as
much as possible, and to open up and equalize the process of dialogical
exchange. This process is most easily facilitated in those cases in which
the artist collaborates with a politically coherent community, that is,
with a community or collectivity that has, through its own internal processes,
achieved some degree of coherence, and a sense of its own political interests,
and is able to enter into a discursive collaboration on more equal footing.
This is perhaps the most effective way in which to avoid the problems posed
by the "salvage" paradigm in which the artist takes on the task of "improving"
the implicitly flawed subject. My intention here is not to idealize "community"
per se. As I have written elsewhere, any process of community formation
is based on some degree of violence and negation (of those individual characteristics
that are seen as extraneous to a given community's common values or ideals).19
Further, it is by now something of a commonplace to define "community"
as an ongoing process, rather than a fixed and closed entity. But my question
here is less theoretical than strategic; what role does the artist, as
a singularly privileged cultural figure, play relative to this process?
It is precisely the belief that the artist can somehow "create" community
through a superior aesthetic power or relate to a given social or cultural
collective from a transcendent or aesthetically autonomous position, which
I would want to question.
Although artists can clearly function
as co-participants in the formation of specific communities, they are also
limited by the historical moment in which they live, and the extent to
which existing social and political circumstances favor or preclude this
formation. An exemplary case in this regard would be Peter Dunn and Loraine
Leeson's work during the 1980s with the Docklands Community Poster Project,
which they developed in direct consultation and collaboration with tenants
action groups, local councils and so on. This work was produced during
a period of widespread political mobilization in response to Thatcherite
programs for economic "redevelopment" that posed a serious threat to poor
and working class neighborhoods in East London. This period also coincided,
fortuitously, with the development of extremely innovative forms of arts
patronage through the Greater London Council. The fact that the larger
battle against Docklands development failed is less relevant here than
the fact that the structural conditions for an activist cultural practice
existed at the time that made it possible for Dunn and Leeson to produce
works through a process of ongoing collaborative dialogue with a wide range
of community groups.
Unfortunately the last fifteen years
have seen a drastic change in activist politics in the U.S. and England.
We live in a period of diminishing expectations, in which left organizations
have in many cases taken up an accomodationist relationship to conservative
policies, and in which the imaginative reach of activist politics has been
severely restricted. The system of public support for activist work has
been seriously eroded in the U.S., and a growing number of artists interested
in Littoralist practices have to rely on private foundation support, or
alliances with private sector institutions. It is difficult, if not impossible,
to survive as an artist working primarily through grass-roots political
organizations. Increasingly artists are forced to develop strategic relationships
with ancillary institutions such as public schools, prisons, and economic
redevelopment agencies. Obviously these institutions are far more ambivalently
positioned relative to the collective interests of poor or working class
communities. Specifically, they function by defining community members
through regulatory categories such as "at risk youth", "drug addicts",
or "the homeless" which implicate the artist in a highly problematic chain
of associations about their culpability as political and cultural agents.
A typical example of this tendency
is seen in Jim Hubbard's peripatetic Shooting Back project, which began
in 1988 with ex-UPI photographer Hubbard working with homeless children
in the Washington, D.C. area to "document their lived experience as a means
of personal empowerment." The project has been transported into a variety
of other sites, including, in 1994, the Shooting Back From the Reservation
series produced with Native American children in the west and southwest.
Hubbard's press release for this project begins with a series of shocking
statistics regarding unemployment rates among Native Americans and ends
with a reference to the high incidence of alcoholism and suicide among
reservations populations. Lurking just beneath the surface of Hubbard's
description is the assumption that Native Americans exist in a classic
"culture of poverty" in which the most significant barrier to their advancement
isn't the absence of jobs, substandard schools or poor housing, but their
lack of self-esteem, evidenced by their recourse to suicide and alcoholism.
Hubbard himself substantiates this view. When he asked why he teaches children
how to use cameras when what they really need is shelter his response was:
"Housing won't be enough. Self-esteem is a big issue, particularly with
children. Mastering the camera and seeing their own images in print have
boosted their confidence." The project's effects are consistently described
in terms of its remedial effect on truant youth. Thus, according to a press
release: "children who experienced problems in regular school classrooms.
. . are showing improvement in school work habits" due to the Shooting
Back program. Or alternately, "children have been motivated to be productive
in other school activities" because the Shooting Back program "contributes
to their sense of self-confidence and accomplishment." Instead of addressing
the structural conditions of Native American poverty Hubbard will "empower"
them with the "self-esteem" necessary to succeed in the work-place by allowing
them to temporarily inhabit the privileged subjectivity of the artist documenting
the world around them.
It is necessary to bear in mind
here the increasingly conflictive role played by the public school system
in the U.S. as a training ground for service sector and low-level technology
employers. In northern Idaho, where I lived for the last two years, plans
are under way to eliminate world history, geography, reading and even computer
class requirements from the high school curriculum so that students can
have more "flexibility for career-oriented electives." According to curriculum
director Hazel Bauman, "What we are hearing from business and industry
is that the large majority of kids who do not get baccalaureate degrees
need to come out of high school with a good basis in technical skills."
A plan currently being developed by the Coeur d'Alene Chamber of Commerce
involves having local public school teachers spend their summer vacations
working as "interns" at local businesses, like fast food restaurants or
mines, in order to help them understand what these businesses need in students.
According to band teacher Kevin Cope, "We're getting our students ready
to go out and work for these corporations. We need to know what to teach
The Shooting Back project takes
for granted the fatalistic political horizons of current conservative rhetoric;
the best that can be hoped is to give Native American children the "self
esteem" needed to stay sober and get to MacDonalds on time in the morning.
Clearly there is nothing wrong with teaching kids how to use a camera.
But why can't these technical skills be joined with some form of pedagogy
which would help to encourage the formation of a critical consciousness
of their situation within the current political economy? One of the most
important characteristics of the aesthetic lies in its power to critically
comprehend a cultural or social totality, and to think beyond its limitations.
There is no sense of this kind of vision in Hubbard's project--no sense
that he is conscious of working in and through an ideological apparatus
that is precisely intended to circumvent the formation of a collective
political identity among young Native Americans. Hubbard's decision to
work with children is justified on the basis that they represent the "future"
of Native American culture, but children are also far less likely to challenge
Hubbard's own presuppositions regarding their own poverty. Children are
typically selected by artists such as Dedeaux and Hubbard because they
present themselves as more malleable subjects, less resistant to the impress
of the artists' transformative power. But this is hardly a relationship
that is likely to encourage any significant discursive equity or exchange.
We see this same failure of self-reflection
in the recent National Endowment for the Arts' "American Canvas" report
which attempts to insulate the NEA from future conservative attack by aligning
it with programs designed to improve the poor and working class. In some
of the more unintentionally amusing passages in the report Richard Deasy,
director of the "Goals 2000 Arts Education Partnership", evokes the image
of a rigorous, hard-headed art that isn't afraid to roll up its shirt sleeves
and get things done. Deasy calls for an art based on "mastery" and "substantive,
disciplined study." This "muscular" art can provide America's disadvantaged
with the "self-esteem" that they are so obviously lacking, and can help
them build the "workplace skills needed to ensure their own employability
and their ability to make solid economic contributions to their communities."
Having jettisoned its sissified ways on the cultural Nordic Track this
manly art will "suffuse" itself "throughout the civic structure," according
to Olson, "finding a home in a variety of community service and economic
These calls for a socially-engaged
art are combined with a palpable fear among many of the contributors of
calling too much attention to the political implications of this stance.
In this context, the un-self-consciousness with which a number of participants
in the public "American Canvas Forums" spoke of establishing friendly "partnerships"
with the criminal justice system, urban renewal and economic redevelopment
agencies, Enterprise Zones, and proponents of "cultural tourism" was truly
astounding. The compromised function of these various institutions, relative
to the interests of the poor, the working class, and people of color has,
one would think, been well established, yet they are here viewed as nothing
more than politically neutral vehicles for a pragmatic and non-ideological
form of cultural activism.
In addition to their widely advertised
positive effects, projects such as Hubbard's have the effect of encouraging
children to believe that self-motivation and determination are the necessary
conditions for progress; that it is "up to them" to succeed through the
personal spark of creativity that will be unleashed by the art-making experience.
When Hubbard's students are unable to start careers as UPI photographers
who will be at fault? The project doesn't give them a way to understand
the contradictory nature of their own status as "underprivileged" subjects
in the first place--the very status that the artist depends on, and takes
for granted, in choosing to work with them. It does little to help them
develop a political critique of their own condition as "at risk youth"
which might lead them to ask why the reservation has to fight for the crumbs
of philanthropy and depend on well-intentioned artists to favor them with
their projects in the first place. There is, in short, little space left
open in these projects for the kind of emancipatory political vision that
is a central feature of Littoral practice.
This criticism brings us back to
the questions of individualism and anti-systematic thought that I outlined
earlier as part of the current political and cultural context. For me the
"indeterminateness" of a discursive aesthetic is not simply the condition
of open-ended dialog, it also refers to the ability to think beyond or
outside of the existing, constrained horizons of neo-liberal discourse
which takes global capitalism, economic inequality, an individualized moral
economy, "sustainable" levels of environmental destruction and so on as
given conditions. When compared to the political climate of the 1920's,
or even the 1960's this represents a deplorably impoverished range of options--the
"end of ideology" real politik of NAFTA and the IMF. The demise of the
USSR and the Berlin Wall is widely taken as a justification to dismiss
any form of systematic critique as inherently "Stalinist". Yet I would
contend that this is precisely where the transgressive powers of Littoral
practice, and of a dialogical aesthetic, are most needed today.
1 Wendy Steiner, The Scandal of
Pleasure: Art in an Age of Fundamentalism (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1995), p.7.
2 There are a few exceptions here,
including writings by Carol Becker, Hal Foster, Suzi Gablik, Suzanne Lacy
and Lucy Lippard, among others.
3 Ken Johnson, "A post-retinal documenta,"
Art in America, vol.85, no.10 (October 1997), pp.80-88.
4 Some of the ideas presented here
are taken from a forthcoming book project, Words that Hear: Discourse and
Counter-Discourse in Modern Art.
5 Jean-François Lyotard,
"What is Postmodernism?," The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p.76.
6 Grant Kester, "Rhetorical Questions:
The Alternative Arts Sector and the Imaginary Public" in Art, Activism
and Oppositionality: Essays from Afterimage, edited by Grant Kester (Durham,
North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1998).
7 See "Art and Objecthood" in Michael
Fried, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1998), pp.148-172.
8 Barnett Newman, "The First Man
was an Artist" (1947) reprinted in Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology
of Changing Ideas, Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, editors (Blackwell:
London, 1992), p.568.
9 David Smith, "Aesthetics, the
Artist and the Audience" (1952), reprinted in Art in Theory 1900-1990:
An Anthology of Changing Ideas, p.578.
10 According to David Dillon, in
the June 1994 issue of Planning, one-third of all new communities being
built in Southern California, Phoenix, Florida and the suburbs of Washington,
D.C. are "gated." Along with the gates come surveillance cameras, infrared
sensors, guard dogs, private police patrols and even barbed wire. These
communities frequently privatize many of the functions previously performed
by a local or municipal governments, such as trash collection, the provision
of utilities, and even education.
11 For a particularly egregious
example of this see a recent op-ed. piece by James K. Glassman a "fellow"
at the Conservative American Enterprise Institute. In "From War to Art"
(Washington Post, January 6, 1998), Glassman makes a virtue out of low
voter turn-outs and the media's failure to report on domestic policy (in
favor of stories such as Princess Diana's death and the "little girl in
Texas" who fell into a well), which he attributes to the fact that "lots
of people are happy" and thus don't really care about government anymore.
Although "poverty, ignorance and pathology" still exist (the latter perhaps
being a reference to arguments about the depraved or criminalized poor),
the majority of Americans are using their new-found happiness to "read,
listen to music and look at pictures". He cites as evidence the presence
of "enthusiastic crowds" at a recent Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at the
Whitney, praising Diebenkorn's "beautiful, sane and rhythmic" paintings.
12 Dinesh D'Souza, The End of Racism:
Principles for a Multiracial Society, (New York: Free Press, 1995).
13 The institutional expression
of this ethos is found in the privileged legal status granted to private
corporations in the U.S. as fictive "individuals", which was first established
by railroad monopolies in an 1886 Supreme Court decision (Santa Clara County
vs. Southern Pacific Railroad).
14 Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles
Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,
(New York: Free Press, 1994).
15 On the relationship between this
view and contemporary community-based art practices see Grant Kester, "Aesthetic
Evangelists: Conversion and Empowerment in Contemporary Art," Afterimage
22:6 (January 1995), pp.5-11.
16 See Dave Hickey, The Invisible
Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1993).
17 Eric Alterman, "Making One and
One Equal Two," The Nation, May 25, 1998, p.10.
18 David Wellbery, Lessing's Laocoön:
Semiotics and Aesthetics in the Age of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1984), p.165.
19 See the "Rhetorical Questions"
essay cited above (note 5).
Living in the margin
It was about nine years after the
closure of the old wards at Woodilee psychiatric hospital, while walking
in the disused grounds that I remembered and finally understood the words
of Wilbert Rideau "The Wall Is Strong". The wall is strong refers to the
metaphorical walls that psychologically incarcerate the human mind and
its will. Even though this institution had closed, its walls still held
its captives. The institutional wall was indeed strong, too strong for
The holed roofs and the bricked
up windows of the dilapidated hospital buildings did little to mask their
previous role, if at all, the buildings looked even more intimidating.
I sensed that the boarded window frames and sealed up doorways were a poor
attempt to silence the buildings' chaotic past. Continuing by these old
ward buildings I could still hear the sounds of daily life going on inside.
Having assessed the structure, taking account of its unworthy state, it
screamed at me for some reassurance for its uncertain future.
As a child my father would take
myself and my brother for Sunday walks in the nearby countryside. Across
from our house was the "Wudlie" as folk called it. Our walk would start
by passing through the massive green gates that acted as a sign of demarcation
and announced; you are entering a hospital.
On every walk we quickly detoured
to avoid the main hospital, I would break away and climb up a steep embankment,
which would bring me to the RH wards. Creeping up slowly to the lime green
huts (everything in the hospital was green) and by skilfully stretching
myself an inch or two above the window, I was able to peer inside and steal
a glance at the forbidden world. As soon as I had done so, I was tearing
down the hill in fits of excitement and puzzlement. "Dad" I asked, "why
are all those beds in the same room? Who lives here?" I could not understand
why everything I had just seen was identical. The beds, pillows, sheets
and towels, even the lockers were positioned uniformly. My brother and
I were identical twins; we also shared the same bedroom. I can remember
my side of the room looked so different from Stuarts. I thought to myself
that the people in that grey room must have been all the same.
Strolling home, we gazed at the
regimented façade of the main hospital complex. Flanking the stolid
buildings and running the entire length of the hospital grounds was a sea
of rhododendron bushes, which the whole hospital appeared to float upon.
We never stopped nor spoke with
those who lived within. On the brief occasions I did see the people, they
looked terribly sad. I wondered if it was because of where they lived,
not having things like houses, shops, cars, children, cats and dogs; all
the things that I knew so well. I thought that if I had to live here without
these things, I too would be sad.
As I grew older, the Wudlie and
its people remained frozen as if in a time capsule. It stayed like a film
set of a late 19th century town: an institutional municipality.
When Erving Goffman wrote Asylums
(essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates) in
1961, the "mental hospital" was already over 200 years old. In its various
shapes and forms the "total institution" has in time become the stalwart
appliance of the mental health profession. Hidden from sight and rarely
spoken of, the institution has become symbolic of society's failings: the
ultimate deviation from the norm. For the men women and children whose
lives were shaped by physical/ mental disablement and mental illness or
whose social circumstances made them disadvantaged; an institutional life
would reinforce the stigma felt by many against those with a prevalent
social disposition and disability.
To truly understand the institutional
system we must examine the ideology of those who created them. In medico-social
history, the path walked by those diagnosed with a mental handicap or a
mental illness has often been traumatic. The ancestry of the intentions
in those charged with the care of the "afflicted" have long been rooted
in fear and mistrust. Within our hieracachial, social spectrum, some of
the most excluded groups were those labelled as mentally handicapped or
mentally ill*. The negative attitudes, mostly homogenous in nature have
been transferred down through the ages by social interaction. Cultures
at any period in history, have in some manner or form, abused those who
have a mental or physical disability.
Few of us are familiar with the
internal system and workings of a total institution. The majority of us
would not be comfortable in an institution because we would not recognise
it for the world we know. To understand the institution and its ways, one
must ask; where did the hospital institutions originate and why were they
Towards the middle of the nineteenth
century the ruling (Victorian) classes began to feel some responsibility
towards those misfortunate in society. As society in general continued
to progress, the need for social institutions to facilitate this advance
became apparent. Government legitimised a wave of social reform bills and
in tune with this development two principals of welfare legislation were
created, which in turn would have a lasting effect on the fortunes of mental
welfare provision. In August 1845 the Scottish poor relief laws were amended
by Parliament to give new Parochial Boards authority to build pauper lunatic
poorhouses. In England Lord Shaftsbury introduced a series of bills (1845),
which paved the way for the erection of lunatic asylums throughout the
counties. With its dual role, the poorhouse asylums, unable to cope with
the demands of both the destitute and the lunatic, had by 1855 fallen into
disrepute. A Royal Commission report drew attention to the inadequacy of
all Parochial Board asylums. In 1857, the Lunacy (Scotland) Act set up
a General Board of Commissioners. The General Board of Commissioners along
with the Poor law Guardians in England, decided that separated and specialised
asylum were required for the care of the mentally ill. From the 1870s onwards,
institutional lunatic asylums were built outside most major cities. This
offer of fervency was not all that it seemed. Hidden behind the pretext
of assistance to the vulnerable, was the desire by the elite to control
and eliminate the weak from society. The state viewed these lower classes,
especially the physically deformed and the destitute insane, as the vehicle
to penury, poverty and madness. As with all diseases, if allowed to spread
it would in time contaminate the decent man. The institutions, an extension
of the dreaded workhouse, now began to fill up with those deemed unfit
to live in society.
The Victorians' use of ideological
purity to justify a conviction to punish imperfection had more than laid
the foundations for the lasting institutional matrices; upon which mental-health
care would develop its role. Shortly before his death, the ailing Lord
Shaftsbury, who had tirelessly campaigned for the rights of the individual,
was politically overpowered. Lord Salisbury, aided by powerful governmental
allies introduced the Lunacy Act of 1890, which, claims an historian of
the lunacy laws, "was to hamper the mental health movement for nearly seventy
Its important for us to have an
insight into the origins of the institution for this allows us to further
question: why have we retained a system which today is over a hundred years
old and has its legitimacy firmly attached to the exclusion of certain
social groups? Did the institutional system work so well as a medical model,
that a lasting example remains apparent today?
When I first began to research the
subject of psychiatric/ mental handicap hospitals, I had expected the project
to revolve around a main theme, that of the individual. The reality of
institutional life I have so far discovered is about control. Controlling
minds, bodies and lives. It is this simple. The politics of a whole organisation
which will take you, from birth if need be, and throughout your life, whilst
overseeing every single experience you have, has at its heart the need
On arriving at the institution,
and in an attempt to arouse the opposition. I looked at every corner of
the building. As an individual with my own identity and my own personality,
I felt no match for the institution's multi-faceted disposition. As I approached
a psychological confrontation ensued. "Can I protect myself?" I find reassurance
in the fact that I'm six feet tall and around thirteen stone. The door
to the dentist at Woodilee hospital is around eighteen feet high and half
as wide again. One gets the impression that the institution remains at
all times larger than the individual.
I was directed by a sign, which
told me which way to go to find the wards. "What if I don't want to go
this way, what if I chose my own route?" The institution reminded me to
follow the sign. I conformed and followed the sign, as if the whole world
depended on it. Standing in front of a red brick building, I felt menaced
by its small, square, uniform windows, which like numerous suspicious eyes
seemed constantly aware. The building's architecture was confused. From
the front it looked like an army barracks, but the sides resembled a church.
I later found out it was the patients' cinema.
This was such a large institution
even walking quickly around its perimeter would take over an hour. All
the buildings looked so identical, it must have been really difficult to
remember exactly which ward was which. At night with no one around it would
have been deadly quiet. A shout or a cry probably would not have received
an answer, yet if one had searched the darkness, eight buildings stood
back to back like mirror images.
I thought about this and a wave
of immense detachment swept over me. The weather was poor, and as the rain
started, the hill side mist had also lowered to enshrine the institution
completing its isolation. The only comfort now was the hospital's architecture.
Its dark flat shapes had receded into itself further, thus allowing its
architectural insincerity to become openly visible. To avoid the rain,
I entered a ward. The corridor of the ward was long and wide. Large swing
doors with safety glass segregated the many rooms, which branched off in
opposite directions. As I passed through the doors, my nostrils were filled
with a strange smell. It's not a human smell, as one would naturally expect.
This is the smell of an institution. It's the unique odour of a chequered
linoleum floor, which has been religiously polished. It's the starched
scent of the floral designed DHSS fire proofed curtains, which after treatment
in the hospital's laundry are often hung up in a different ward from whence
they came. It's the impenetrable, icky fullness of three daily meals, which
although dished in the servery, invade and occupy the dayroom like a constant
unwelcome smell. It's also the aroma of a human life contained within the
dry temperate limits of just four walls. Existence as a substitute for
a life, which now cornered, reverberates between the floor and the high
ceilings. All this, and the rest, is encapsulated by the institution, which
monitors the living space. These wards were not attached to the main hospital,
but seemed to exist as separate, subservient identities. By comparison,
Gartloch hospital had a maze of corridors, which branched out like bony
fingers reaching to infinity. I felt as if the real world itself has been
exiled from the premises, the clinic had taken over in its place. It was
sterile to the point that its totality had excluded all ordinary life.
Looking at the day room, with its
large square domain, lit up by a front facing panel of windows, it is here
that I remember, (how can I forget ?) the whole room packed with patients.
It was not Bedlam as you may have thought. There was no wailing or visible
distress in those that sat here. Instead around thirty adults with mental
and physical handicaps sat grouped together. It was a sea of chrome contraptions
illuminated in the summer sun. Walkers, wheelchairs, sticks, and other
specialist equipment, some I had never seen before. If a patient wished
to move around within the confines of the room, it was inevitable that
a collision would ensue. Those alone, not seeking companionship would pace
the passageways or attach themselves to their favourite nurse. Those who
could not walk sat. Those who could not sit down, because of agitation,
walked. Those who could not speak sat silent. Those who could not stay
silent made noise. It was a complete jumble of individuals with so many
varying degrees of needs, that it would appear difficult to direct any
form of constructive care towards them. And so the people sat, walked,
talked or did nothing that day and the next.
My mind moved quickly away from
this and I entered the bedroom. The male bedroom is on the left and the
female bedroom is on the right of the building. This was a single length
dormitory, divided into individual cubicles. Each bed space was separated
by a single partition to its right side. There was no screening to the
front. At night the inhabitants of the ward slept here. There was no privacy
and little peace and quiet. One's personal property would be borrowed,
moved, lost and stolen. The individual accommodation differed only in its
décor. The single wallpaper borders traced a multitudinous coloured
line that changed as it passed each bed. A metaphor of the system: one
of these bed spaces had fallen between a window; the partition allowed
each patient a half share of the window.
I now entered a locked ward, these
were located at the periphery of the hospital. After ringing the bell,
a face peers through the window of the inner security door. The door was
unlocked and I entered an environment, which did not conceal its gloominess.
The dim, glow from the ward lights were quickly evaporated by the dark,
blue carpet beneath. The corridor and day room were virtually empty, suggesting
they were sparsely furnished, would have been a total exaggeration. Not
even the reflection from the blue shiney walls created any stimulation.
There was little, if any feeling of human attachment in this place. It
was also deadly quiet.
I immediately noticed, sitting on
the floor, a young, "child like" woman who was naked from above the waist.
I didn't know whom to feel more embarrassed for, her or myself. The two
male members of staff were sitting smoking and talking, they seemed totally
unaware of this woman's predicament. Maybe she didn't want to wear clothes,
maybe they were tired of re-dressing her; maybe that's what she did: that
was her life. It seemed that everyone who entered the bare incarcerating
walls of this ward, would in time, like the ward, also become naked. The
metamorphosis of the medical paradigm was now complete, the individual
had become the institution.
Today the institution is empty of
the individuals it contained, if it could ever have been described as having
contained true "individuals".
This was where it happened. This
was where thousands and thousands of people over the last umpteen decades
were literally processed through a medical machine: diagnosed, prognosticated,
treated, cured or not cured, passed on to another institution, or just
kept for ten, twenty, thirty years or more. Ironically in a building sterilised
and bereft of emotions, today this is such an emotional place to be. There
are very few places that generate these types of emotions. Prisons and
concentration camps also contain this ambience of sadness and despair.
One can see the connection, it's all to do with people and the fact that
so many impersonal acts went on in here.
In bringing together so many people,
the one way to govern and regulate the life of the individual was via the
architecture of the institution. They were built to hold a lot of people
and they did contain a lot of people. The total institution was the unaccountable
authority, and the primary starting point from which every activity that
followed would catalyse. Contained within the institution, was an ideology.
It was this institutional ideology in which the system was contained. It
was an ideological system that far from representing the patient represented
its own identity. The institution was the authority and the authority was
contained within the institution.
During the early 1980s, the medical
profession knew that the institutional regime, being deficient, was failing
patients terribly. As the decade drew to a close, the system had progressively
deteriorated to the verge of near collapse. When the Government's large
financial life-lines ceased, the health service found itself disconnected.
It wasn't just the hospital services which had been left. Thousands of
patients languished in various institutional settings, which looked more
like antiquated country houses rather than modern hospitals. The reality
of the situation, which had been slowly lumbering up on the institutions,
finally delivered its blow around 1989.
The medical profession, like the
added transitional eras of the psychiatric and mental handicap hospital,
has finally, in partnership with the institution, turned in on itself.
The bureaucracy which once removed those with mental handicaps/ mental
illnesses, and who now returns the individual to society are one and the
same. Modern psychiatric and psychological medicine is telling us that
it does not have the answer. It tried, it failed and now it's someone else's
The new focus is on supported care
in the community. The contradiction in terms between living in one's own
home, with one's own identity or living as part of a NHS industry with
a shared identity could not be more opposed to each other. In saying that,
the concept of independence is heavily circumscribed in political manipulation:
community care was the cheaper alternative to the expensive and morally
bankrupt "total institution". The remaining hospital institutions now have
target datelines to decant or discharge as many patients as is practicable
before the hospitals close.
With this and other closures, an
exodus of institutional legacies will follow. Society will inherit thousands
of people who were products of a medicalized system. It was the hospital
institution which facilitated the opportunity for medicine to attempt to
create perfection. Housed in special units, the handicapped and the mentally
ill were tested and experimented on. From scientific research, and its
own generated hypotheses, medicine provided society with possible solutions.
In the future, the politics of social
control will be raised again. Society, no longer having the reliance of
the custodian institution, will look to the advancements of medical science
to perform these tasks. Through the harnessing of eugenics, physical and
mental disability resulting from a medical condition will now be socially
engineered out of existence. The new institutions will be laboratories,
the test tube and the petri dish replacing the hospital ward. Human genetic
matter, not human beings will be trained and controlled for life within
society. Society will be able to select the healthy and reject those it
does not desire.
As this century draws to a close,
the psychiatric/ mental handicap institutions will be quietly allowed to
slip away into history. It will be remembered by many for its levels of
dysfunction, substantiated by its inability to cope with the short falls
of its own model of pathology. A pathology model wholly obsessed with function
and illness, which turned people from real life individuals into curios
of nature and conditions in textbook references.
Today there are still mentally handicapped
and mentally ill adults shut away in the old style institutional hospital.
It is not a world they chose to be part of, but a world we have placed
them in. To be locked up in a world of one's own body or mind, is pain
enough. To be removed, locked up, and kept excluded from society is unforgivably
By the year 2002 the last of the
large institutions in Scotland (Lennox Castle Hospital) will have been
closed by order of the Secretary of State for Scotland.
*With the new culture of change
"mental hadicap" is now termed "learning disabilities".
Woodilee Hospital 125 years, Guthrie
Hutton Greater Glasgow Community And Mental Health Service 1997
Shaftesbury, G.F.A. Best, Chapter
2: The afflicted in mind, B.T Batsford LTD 1964
Pioneers Of Social Change, E. Royston
Pike, Chapter 10: The lunatics' friend Shaftesbury's fifty years of devoted
service, Barrie Books Ltd 1963
Report Of The Mental Welfare Commission
For Scotland, 1985: Deficiency of Care, 1986: Deficiency of Care, 1988:
Deficiency of Care-Lennox Castle Hospital.
I'm sitting on a plastic chair in
I can see lines of light around
where the windows are every time a draft makes the blackout blinds breath.
Every ten to fifteen seconds another
picture appears on the white painted wall ahead of me.
The pictures come from the whirring
projector on the stand behind my right shoulder. The projector makes a
ker-chunk noise with every new frame, another picture appears, cutting
a relief into the solid wall.
Reflected light falls back into
the room revealing a class of students all staring up at the makeshift
The students are in various states
of boredom, their heads are tilted up at the light but their bodies are
slouched individually into the comfiest positions their chairs afford,
positions as close to lying down as possible. One young man who is not
looking at the screen is intently doodling in a notepad on his chair's
fold down writing rest, the slide pictures are reflected in the two lenses
of his rectangular framed glasses.
Our tutor, Chris, is standing, occasionally
pacing, the remote control cord trails and flicks behind him in the way
a crooners microphone lead does as they amble around on stage waiting for
the instrumental to finish. His pacing and the droning projector fan provide
the only movement of air in the room, it is stifling hot and the drift
towards sleep is in earnest.
Chris, marking time with his carousel
of slides asks, 'what does anyone think of this?' The question casually
murmured into the airless dark slips through the vents between sleep and
waking. The words enter my consciousness as though spoken by the voice
in my head, echoing just out of reach in various remote chambers before
ringing alarm in my brow. I answer 'it's terrifying,' uncertain why I can
hear myself out loud.
'Yes it is, isn't it,' says Chris,
his voice rhythmic, emotional, soft, disturbed, suddenly tender...
'Is that someone falling?' I ask,
looking at the glowing wall.
The room is lit up by an old black
and white documentary photo from the American depression years. A horizontal
figure is mid way on a descent, five floors and more to the ground, flapping
clothes, skirt and jacket and the body lying so still in them. She is falling
past lines of regular blank windows outside an imposingly high and opulent
government building. My question is unnecessary, the answer is more than
evident, I feel a bit annoyed for stating the obvious, strangely it feels
disrespectful to her.
'Uh huh,' says Chris; he clicks
onto the next slide unwilling to indulge my feeble conversation further,
which is far more like him than his uncharacteristic confession of feeling
from a few seconds ago.
The class and I return to the dark,
it's still stifling hot and more than a few have closed their eyes.
Tales of the Great Unwashed
Make it a double then. It's for the
pain. The ankle's swole up awful bad so it is, that's three days now, I'm
telling you, it's getting worse before it's better, all that liquid in
there. It's a muscular thing, you know. Just as well I knew what was happening
right enough, how to fall right and all that, cos it could've been a lot
worse. No, that's not a rash, it's, well, it's a bit hard to explain how
it, well, thing is, see, right you are, cheers. Aye, well, it was this
Before I tell you, you know the
high road over to Southill? Know that bit where you come off the carriageway
and it goes into the country road for like two, maybe three mile along
by the golf course? Know the bit I mean? No streetlights, no nothing. You
could be right in the middle of the country there. Might as well be. There's
that bit right in the middle of that stretch where the road's like a roller-coaster
so it is, all those bumps, blinds hills and suchlike. That's where it was.
Well, way it was right, I was in
the town for the reunion. Well, we call it a reunion, but it's not the
likes of your formal set-up and that, it's just me and a few of the old
squad meet for a pint, and it's not even a regular thing, might be once
a year, might be twice in one year then nothing for three, you know the
score. And it's usually me that does the phoning and the chasing up and
that. Anyway, it was in the Halterneck, just down by the river there, aye,
well, you know what it's like Jack, I mean, I would, you know, if I could,
I would take the boys in here you know, cos there's a right few quid get
spent when the boys are out right enough, but it's just with the way they
get when they've had a few you know, cos sometimes they get the old squad
songs going and that you know, six-para, we're a bit boisterous when we
get together, even now you know, and it's not every crowd you can be doing
that in without someone taking offence you know, I mean it's all plenty
water under the proverbial now and all that, but it's just a wee trip you
know, nostalgia and that, doesn't mean to say we haven't grown up or that.
Still, it was in there for a few,
and that was alright, but I had to leave just a bit sharp to make sure
of that last bus cos you know what it's like if you miss it, I mean, that's
fifteen quid easy in a cab if you're after midnight you know, so I got
myself out and grabbed a sausage supper and off down to the bus stop, and
right busy it was too, loads of folk with the same idea as me, make sure
they get the last one, and wasn't the bastard late as ever, twenty minutes
by this time he was, I was shivering like that so I was, and the wind was
getting up too, so even when you're below the bit, you know, that canopy
over the Woolies there, the rain's coming right in so it was, and I was
getting wet as well. Pure drookit, so I was.
So the bus eventually turns up,
but there's only about ten or something get on it, and that was good cos
I always like getting a seat at the back if I can you know, I think it's
maybe a left-over from when I was in the forces you know, just that idea
that you always want to cover your back like and with being on the bus
you can sit at the back there, and it's a bit more secure. Even when I'm
out on the street or in the shops or that I'm always aware of what's happening
behind me, who's there you know, cos it never really leaves you, not once
you've been out there you know. So I got that seat at the back on the left
hand side, cos that way you can see who's coming on as well, see who's
on the street. And they're nice as well those new buses, you know, the
ones with the one deck but they've got the stair that goes down so folk
can get on easy, maybe if they're in the wheelchairs or that, and they're
right broad inside so they are, plenty of room to get up and down and that,
very nice, and the cloth seats too, none of that plastic, remember it was
always that plastic stuff that made your arse sweat?
So anyway, we gets to the end of
Alby Road, and it always stops there by the depot, so the Hector comes
on, but he doesn't even bother checking the tickets and that, he just has
a word with the driver, maybe about him running so late or whatever, I
don't know, but there's about fifteen get on there, and it's mostly women
you know, cos a lot of them must've been at the bingo down the road, and
by the time they get a couple after, they're waiting on the last one as
well, so they all pile on, but I've still got the back seat to myself you
know, and that's fine, cos sometimes these women come up and start gabbing
you know, and it's like when you get a few of them together and they've
a wee bead in them, you know they get a wee bit carried away, and with
me being a single man and all that, they can sometimes start giving you
the eye and all that, you know, I suppose they've got out for the night
and they see a guy on his own, so it's usually just patter and that but
I don't really like all that type of thing you know, much rather just sit
on my tod you know, with my own wee thoughts you know. But that's the bus
about half full anyway, so eventually the Hector gets off and we're away
again, and by this time the rain's really on for the night you know, really
pelting down, and it's that way you can feel the bus shifting a wee bit
with the wind cos it's strong now, but off we go, down by the park, and
then you're at the toll there, and it's the last stop before the Southill
I don't know what it was made me
sort of sit up a wee bit when we stopped at the Toll, but I knew right
away there was something up. It's just that way. I've never been able to
explain it, it's maybe likes of the veterans and them who go on about getting
a sixth sense from being in the field and that, I don't know, but there
was just something not right, and even before the bus stopped I was up
like that, you know, watching, and there's no-one in the bus shelter, but
just up from it there's these three guys standing up on a wee grass bank
sort of thing behind the shelter, and they're shouting the odds to this
someone that's on the pavement but you can't see who it is with the angle
of the bus, and with the rain being that heavy you can hardly make out
what's going on, but this one on the pavement must be shouting back, and
you can see the guys are giving it the viccy and all that, so the bus does
stop right enough, and on gets this woman.
Now, I'm not one to be talking folk
down and that without knowing anything about them, I mean, you know, going
by the old first impressions and all that, cos it's just not right, but
as soon as she got on you could tell right away she was bother you know,
she just had that kind of cut about her. She was a right big lass too,
not that tall mind, but broad and heavy, and one of those big big anoraks
on her like the weans wear, like it's a quilt you've picked up and wrapped
right round you, and the legs coming out the bottom with the sannies on
you know, the big sannies with the thick soles on them. And this big jacket's
like pure bright red, like not fluorescent or that, but dead dead bright
red, like blood, and all this white writing all over it, but funny words,
like maybe a german football team or something. I don't know where she
got it. She takes the hood down when she gets on right enough, and the
hair's short and blonde, all that spiky way cos she must've got wet before
she put the hood thing up, but a right red face on her too, maybe she must
have been running or that, but very puffed and flustered she looked anyway.
I don't know what sort of age she was, she had one of those faces you can't
really say age-wise, and with me not having the old specs on I really couldn't
say if she was fifty or thirty or whatever, but on she comes anyway and
then she's trying to get her face in the wee window bit to talk to the
driver, and you can hear him shouting eighty-five! eighty-five! and she's
giving it all this raking about cos she must have her change in her bag
or her pocket or whatever it is that's under the big jacket, so she's starting
hauling up the big jacket to try and get inside it, I don't know why she
didn't just unzip the thing and get into it like that, but she starts hauling
it up anyway, and you can see her legs and all that, and by this time the
boys outside have come down to the bus and they're still shouting the odds,
and honest to God, I couldn't even tell you the things these lads are coming
out with, I never heard the likes of that, even when I was in the paras,
you know, I mean, I know us lads get a bit of a reputation about the language
and the behaviour and all that, but as far as I ever saw there was nothing
like that when there was ladies in the company you know, or if there was,
then it wasn't what you would call normal female company if you get what
I'm saying, even then, it's not called for, its not right. But all credit
to the driver, I mean, it's a dodgy situation for him right, cos he can
either pap this woman off and leave her to these lads, and by the sounds
of what they've already been saying you wouldn't leave man nor beast to
them you know, so he shouts at her to make her mind up, and she starts
raking again, so the driver gets the doors shut, and that's like a signal
for these lads to start belting into the side of the bus, and they're like
jumping up and banging on the windows and that as the driver pulls away,
and he's only going slow at first right, cos this woman's still raking
about and she's not got a grip on anything, so if he just shoots straight
off she'll be on her arse, so he takes it easy, but they're up battering
at the door and you can see these other punters down the front are getting
a bit scared and kind of bowing down and away from the windows in case
they start trying to pan one of them in, cos that's happening all the time
you know, but when we get to the roundabout the lads have run out of pavement,
so that's us, we're away.
So you know where I am right, we're
just after the toll, and as soon as you're by past the roundabout you're
onto that dark road, the long one over to Southill, and that's when it
all started. I don't know what sparked it all off, it was maybe cos she
didn't pay the man, I don't know, but she starts making her way down to
get a seat, and you can hear the driver giving it ho ! missus ! and all
that, but she's not caring, you know, she's just that way she's probably
not even hearing the guy you know, and I was like that, oh ho I says, could
be in for a spot of bother here you know, cos this wee old yin down the
front, just a wee fella, maybe in his seventies or that, he sort of turns
and says something to her, and she turns towards him, and I couldn't hear
his voice but you could see him sort of pointing up towards the driver,
he must've been trying to say to her that she was still to pay and that,
but whatever it was, it sets her off right, and she starts shouting about
how they're all bastards and all that and she'll sort them, she'll no stand
for it and all that, and you can see the other biddies are starting to
talk to each other and shake their heads and all that, but this one isn't
bothering you know, and she moves further up, and it's like you can see
everyone pure shrinking away, you know, just praying she doesn't dump herself
down beside them, and you can hear the driver by this time kind of shouting,
he must be on his radio thing, and that's all we need you know, if the
cops are getting called and all that, but I'm not caring anyway just so
long as she doesn't sit by me, but she keeps coming right enough, heading
for the back, and by this time we're starting over the hilly part of the
road, and the driver's getting faster cos he must be thinking he just wants
her off altogether, and it's another two mile to the next stop, so he's
speeding up, and she's getting closer, by this time she's about halfway
down the aisle. You're all a shower! that's what she's shouting, youse
are nothing but a shower of this and that and all the names of the day,
but it's not like she's picking on anyone, it's just like she's shouting
at the world you know, then she starts hiking up the big thick jacket again,
and right away, I was like, oh ho, here we go, and the folk right beside
her is kind of pressing against each other, but there's nowhere for them
to go cos she's stopping them getting out their seats, and then she grabs
a grip of the seats either side of her and squats, and this is right when
we're going over one of those hills there, and your guts give a wee jump
when you go over them anyway, but she's got a grip there on either side,
and the big jacket's up round her hips like a big red safety belt sort
of thing, and, oh jeez, I can't even say it you know, but she does one
there right in the middle of the aisle, dead fast as well it was, and right
away, there's this wee wifie who's trapped right by the lassie, and she's
up screaming, standing up, and she starts climbing over the seat in front
of her trying to get away, and a fella on the other side further down,
he looks back and sees this wee jobby lying in the aisle so he's up like
a shot and makes for the front of the bus, and that starts everyone else,
and they're all shouting and trying to push by each other to get to the
front, and even the ones that was trapped with her standing there, they're
all over and away, and they're all shouting at the driver, she's done it!
she's done a mess on the floor driver ! and all that, and I swear the bus
started moving about, like it was ready to go off the road, but it was
maybe just with him speeding up more and the bodies all rushing to the
front like that, I don't know, but this one's back upright again and she's
coming forward again. So I was like that, looking about, and I says, oh
here, this isn't right this. How will I get by her, cos she's looking right
at me you know, and she's sort of smiling. It's all a bit hazy then, well,
not so much hazy, I mean, I can remember it all, but it all happened so
fast you know, it's like it's slow in my head cos I keep replaying it,
I just can't get it out my head you know, but she comes nearer, and I swear
she's looking right at me like she knows me or something, but I never clapped
eyes on her in my life right, and she's singing something, can't even guess
what it was, but she's trying to sing snatches of it, shutting her eyes
for a wee second, then opening them again and staring right at me, and
you can hear the driver down the front and he's shouting into the radio
about a code whatever it was, he's like I've got a code twenty-four! or
whatever it was, whatever the code is for there's someone done a jobby
on my bus, and the wifies are like crying and all that with the panic setting
in, and the old fella's shouting at the driver to open a window, and this
other one's shouting that he wants off right now and all that, and now
she's only about ten feet away, and she's still got her eyes locked on
me, and I see the steel handle beside me, and the emergency instructions,
not that I need the instructions mind, but I remember it dead clear, and
that's like my only way out unless I tackle her straight on, but I don't
fancy it at all, she just looks too mad, like she might do anything, and
then she's by the wee step that goes up to the back seats, only feet away
from me, so I slam down the handle and the wee emergency door flies open
like that, and the bus is fair tanking along by now so it is, and I swear
it was just like being back on a drop, the air blasting past the gap, the
darkness outside, the fear and the smell, it was just the same. Then she
grabs the handles again and starts making to do another squat, and the
old yin down the front is shouting, and you can hear the fear in his voice,
he shouts, watch it son, she's gonny do another one ! and he's maybe right
enough, so I grab my bag close, shuffle sideways, then I chuck myself out
and try to make myself into a wee ball.
Well, I don't know what speed he
must've been going cos it felt like ages before I slowed down, tumbling
and bouncing for, I don't know, fifty, a hundred yards maybe, but a good
landing it was, quite soft what with all the bushes and that, and when
I got up the bus was away over by the last hill before the interchange,
this wee set of lights way in the darkness, and you could still make out
a wee red blob where she was standing at the back of the bus, and the driver
had all the hazards on so he did.
It took me about an hour to walk
home, what with the ankle and that, but that wasn't too sore at the time
cos of the adrenalin you know, but it was a right long walk anyway with
the rain and the wind. Right state I was when I got in.
Aye, and the rash? It's not a rash
as such, it was from these wee like thorn things I had stuck all over me,
in my hair and my ears and all that, don't know what they were, but the
nurse says I must've been allergic to whatever it was, they came off the
bushes you know. They pulled out as many as they could you know, but they
says I've still got loads embedded in my scalp, so I've to keep putting
that cream on. Aye, it was some night right enough, I'll no forget it in
Aye, another double there. Cheers.
Signs of the times
"It's the economy, stupid."
'In economic and social policy,
the Government accepts wholeheartedly the so-called "Washington consensus"
--that deregulation, privatisation, hire-and-fire labour markets, balanced
budgets and low taxes are not only the key to policy success but unopposable.'
Editorial, The Observer 5 September
Britain exports more of its Gross
Domestic Product than any other country. We also import a great deal and
pay for it with the exports, of which something like 70% are earned by
the domestic manufacturing economy. Yet Labour has adopted economic policies,
which have nothing to do with the 'Washington consensus', which are damaging
that domestic manufacturing economy. That a Labour government, whose supporters,
roots and core constituencies are in the domestic manufacturing economy,
has done this is very odd indeed and needs explanation.
The origins of the government's
economic policies date back a decade to the period when the late John Smith
was shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. After the 1987 election defeat
Labour leader Neil Kinnock and John Smith decided that putting forward
alternative economic policies to those of the Conservative Party (on behalf
of the City of London) was futile and/or mistaken (it isn't clear to me
which). Smith and Marjorie 'Mo' Molam, who was then his deputy in the shadow
economics team, set off on what became known as the 'prawn cocktail offensive'
--touring the City of London's dining rooms telling the City's movers and
shakers that Labour was going to toe the line --their line.
It wasn't the 'Washington consensus'
Labour adopted: it was the City of London's consensus and that said, 'Leave
everything to us; we know what we are doing. We are the success story of
the British economy.'
In practice this meant Labour abandoning
all its plans to regulate the City and to attempt to manage the economy.
'The British economy', it is not
all of a piece. Different sectors of the economy serve the interests of
different groups --and benefit from different policies. A 'strong' pound
damages the makers and exporters of things but benefits the movers of money
(and importers). Mrs Thatcher destroyed about 20% of the British manufacturing
economy in the early 1980s with high interest rates, being 'tough' on inflation;
but the City of London --the financial sector --boomed like never before.
Regulating the economy solely by
using interest rates as the present government is trying to do, is what
the bankers always wanted because it makes them rich. They tried to 'bounce'
the Churchill government into accepting this in 1952 but were resisted,
notably by Harold Macmillan, who--accurately--described the proposals as
a bankers' ramp.
They tried again during Edward Heath's
years, and succeeded in selling to the Heath government the idea that removing
most of the regulations on banks would encourage 'competition' among the
banks. Thus the Competition and Credit Control changes of 1971, which were
implemented without political discussion as mere 'technical changes'. They
got competition--but not competition between the banks to be more efficient
or provide the best services. What they got was competition to see who
could create and lend the most money. Inflation began to rise. At that
point interest rates were supposed to rise to 'control inflation' --the
system we have in place now. But Prime Minister Heath, who appears to have
not understood any of this,1 refused to put
up interest rates. He was making the famous 'dash for growth' in the run-up
to joining the Common Market in 1973, and wanted an expanding economy.
The result was the boom of 1972/3. Inflation began to increase. It was
Heath's --and this country's --misfortune for his inflationary boom to be
in progress when the price of oil quadrupled, cranking up inflation and
disrupting the world's economy. Taking office in 1974 the Labour government
of Harold Wilson inherited inflation approaching 20% a year and rising.
The Labour governments of Wilson
and then Callaghan, who succeeded him in 1976, bore the brunt of the great
inflation created by the Heath government, the banks and the OPEC oil price
rise, and in 1979 another Tory government duly took office. Prime Minister
Thatcher and her Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe -- lawyers with
little understanding of economics -- proceeded to remove the controls reimposed
by the Labour governments of 1974-79 and gave the bankers one more thing
they wanted: the abolition of exchange controls, allowing the unhindered
flow of capital in and out of the UK. This was an extraordinary thing for
a government led by Thatcher and Howe to do because its economic policy
hinged on controlling the money supply; which the abolition of exchange
controls made impossible. It took nearly two years for this to dawn on
Thatcher and Howe, illustrating graphically their tenuous grasp of the
most elementary economic ideas.
Having got everything they had asked
for so far, the bankers began arguing in the late 1980s that what Britain
needed was a financial system completely free of restrictions, with the
Bank of England removed from government influence at its centre. This was
granted by Gordon Brown, to acclamation from the bankers, in his first
week in office.
Gordon Brown's camp are now saying
Brown got the idea from America (from whence, as we know, everything good
must now come); but the idea came from Germany. We are now supposed to
forget that in the 1980s it wasn't America whose economy Labour politicians
looked at with envy but Germany, which had higher growth, higher investment,
higher productivity, higher living standards --and an independent central
bank which controlled the interest rate, the central lever in a capitalist
economy. A decade or more later all that remains of the German model in
New Labour thinking is the one part of it which the City wanted --the independent
Using 'regulate' in its loosest
sense, the financial system regulates itself: the flow of credit is unchecked
(how many credit cards have you been offered this year?) and every once
in a while interest rates will be increased 'to control inflation' or 'dampen
down' the economy. This actually means the following: bankers can lend
as much as they can persuade us to borrow and when they --the lenders --decide
there is too much money in the economy, they put up the interest rates
on their loans. This is a racket which makes loan-sharking look refined.
However, Gordon Brown didn't go
quite as far as the bankers wished. He didn't just tell the Bank of England
to run interest rates: he appointed a Monetary Policy Committee, on which
the Bank of England has a majority, to decide them. And he gave them an
official job specification: using only interest rates, get inflation in
the UK down to 2.5% and keep it there.
The theory says that if prices are
rising too much (inflation), the solution is simple: raise interest rates.
We spend less and as demand falls prices fall --or don't increase. But life
isn't this simple. Raising interest rates also makes putting money in British
banks attractive to the world's financial speculators if the interest rates
in the UK are higher than elsewhere. The pound becomes a 'good buy' --demand
for sterling increases and up goes the value of the pound vis-a-vis other
currencies. This is a 'strong' pound. A 'strong' pound does two things
to the domestic economy: it makes imports cheaper and it makes exports
more expensive. As a result there is less demand for things made in Britain
and, ultimately, businesses cut back or close. Unemployment rises. The
unemployed have greatly reduced incomes and so demand in the economy falls
and prices fall.
The Labour government's official
economic policy consists of a promise to make people unemployed (and money-lenders
richer) if prices rise above two and a half per cent a year, the official
inflation target. And this does work. Creating unemployment will reduce
inflation --Mrs Thatcher showed this to be true in 1980/81. But it works
in a particular way: raising interest rates makes people unemployed in
the sector of the economy which makes and exports things.
The Monetary Policy Committee appointed
by Gordon Brown was initially dominated by inflation 'hawks' --that is,
people who are 'tough' on inflation. Running British interest rates at
approximately 2% more than the rest of Europe, the Committee has pushed
the value of the pound up to levels not seen since just before the UK joined
the Exchange Rate Mechanism at the beginning of the decade. Another swathe
of UK manufacturing jobs has gone as a result and the losses will continue
so long as the pound is at or near its current value.
In the last twenty years of economic
policy, since the arrival of Thatcher-Howe, the one near-constant factor
has been an over-valued ('strong') pound, creating prosperity for the City
and difficulties for virtually everyone in the UK economy but the City.
The last twenty years has proved
that if you give money-lenders control of economic policy they put interest
The covert aim of the theory of
controlling inflation using interest rates is to keep British interest
rates higher than that of other countries, benefiting the City of London.
It's still the economy, stupid
'The new intellectual and political
consensus is that manufacturing no longer matters. The future is the knowledge
economy and the service sector. Manufacturing is yesterday's story: very
Old Labour, very uncool Britannia...'
Will Hutton, The Observer May 1999
Hutton is correct that this is the
current consensus in New Labour leadership circles but it isn't new. These
attitudes first began to appear in the late 1970s when the scale of North
Sea oil revenues began to become clear. In 1980 the economist Frank Blackaby
quoted 'a senior Treasury official' saying, 'Perhaps we can either have
North Sea oil or manufacturing but not both.'3
The Treasury official was referring
to what was then seen as the potential problem created by Britain becoming
self-sufficient in oil in the 1980s. Not needing to import oil, and assuming
the British economy continued exporting as much as it had before oil, would
produce a trade surplus. In the absence of measures to counteract this,
such a surplus would, in theory, push up the value of the pound, which
would make British exports more expensive abroad and imports cheaper. British
exports and hence British manufacturing, which produced most of them, would
decline as oil pushed up the value of the pound.
This theory came into its own as
the rise in the value of sterling between 1979 and 1981 destroyed a quarter
of British manufacturing industry. Nothing to be done, said the financial
experts employed by the City. It is merely the mechanism through which
the balance of trade between this country and the rest of the world corrected
itself. Importing no oil, we needed less manufacturing output.4
Further, said the financial experts, the massive flight of capital from
this country after the abolition of exchange controls in 1980 was a good
thing. The outflows helped to balance the capital inflows from the North
Sea, preventing an even bigger trade surplus, an even higher pound, and
the destruction of even more British manufacturing! Senior Treasury official
at the time, Leo Pliatzky, wrote later, intending no irony that I can detect,
'It is understandable that people
are frustrated that more primitive (sic) countries which produce oil have
used the revenues from it to finance industrial and social development
while in Britain both have been cut back since the North Sea oil came on
The theory followed the money
What happened is that economic policy
and theory followed the money. This isn't supposed to happen. Economic
policy is supposed to be a rational business carried out by experts. But
that is what happened: the theory followed the money. Frank Blackaby noted
in 1980 that:
'just at the time when oil output
was building up, there was a major swing in fashion in thinking about the
exchange rate. Up to 1977, the doctrine had been to use the exchange rate
to preserve competitiveness [i.e. keep the pound relatively cheap] ...The
doctrine was then changed to assert that (a) there should be no exchange-rate
policy, and (b) that a high exchange rate was a good thing' (emphasis added).
Blackaby called this:
'one of those unfortunate accidents
which have so bedevilled British economic policy since the war' [emphasis
In the same year, the Guardian's
Victor Keegan asked:
'What happened to the oil revenues
which, five years ago, led people to expect the dawning of a new age of
prosperity? Most of it, in the supreme irony of economic history, has gone
to pay out unemployment to those who would not have lost their jobs if
we had not discovered it in the first place' [emphasis added].7
But wait a minute: we are supposed
to believe that these changes in 'doctrine' on the exchange rate which
led to the recession of 1981-3 and the loss of two millions jobs and the
boom in the City of London, were the result of an 'ironic accident'? In
fact these 'changes in doctrine' occurred in 1977, when, after some months
of debate in the economic press and the pages of The Times, 'the core institutional
nexus' --i.e. the City, the Treasury and the Bank of England --plumped for
oil rather than manufacturing and tried to persuade the Labour government
to do two things: allow the pound to rise and scrap exchange controls.
Both were refused by the Callaghan government; both were introduced by
Thatcher and Howe three years later. With exchange controls abolished,
interest rates jacked up and almost all of the remaining financial controls
scrapped, the pound soared and large chunks of manufacturing collapsed
--as the core financial nexus knew it would.
In reply to the protests from the
manufacturing sector at its collapse, the City, parts of the Treasury and
Bank of England, and some politicians, replied that the loss of manufacturing
capacity was unimportant because Britain was on some natural evolutionary
path towards a post-manufacturing or post-industrial service economy.8
Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson contemptuously offered this line
in 1985 to a House of Lords committee looking at Britain's shrinking manufacturing
Mrs Thatcher bought the line. In
his memoir the former BBC political correspondent, John Cole, describes
asking Mrs Thatcher for an example of how this 'service' or 'post-industrial
economy' would work:
'She cited an entrepreneur she had
met the previous week, who wished to take over Battersea power station
and turn it into what we both then knew as a "Disneyland", but subsequently
learned to call a theme park.'
The next day Cole recounted this
to the Economic Attaché of the United States embassy:
'He looked at me in genuine astonishment,
thoughtfully laid down his fork, and exclaimed: "But gee, John, you can't
all make a living opening doors for each other."'9
Former Treasury mandarin, Leo Pliatzky:
'It was a strange period to look
back on. There appeared to be a great gulf between attitudes in much of
the City and in industry throughout the country. In some quarters there
was a Khomenei-like fanaticism about, a reluctance to see the connection
between high interest rates and a crippling exchange rate. North Sea oil
had made sterling a petro-currency, it was alleged; the days of manufacturing
were over' [emphasis added].10
The political journalist, Edward
Pearce, recounts how a 'Treasury knight'--i.e. one of the very senior civil
servants in the Treasury--said of John Major's period in office, 'that though
very fond of Mr Major, he worried a little at his anxiety about manufacturers.
"He wasn't very happy with the analogies we made about Switzerland, so
prosperous entirely from service industries, so it was necessary to let
him make friendly things (sic) to the manufacturing people" ' [emphasis
Fifteen years after they first appeared
in financial circles, these attitudes have now been adopted by the New
Thatcherites running the Labour Party; only they talk of manufacturing
being replaced not by the 'service economy' but by the 'knowledge economy'
--a vague mishmash of the City, computers, film production, rock music and
the Internet. The difference these days is that unlike John Major, New
Labour hasn't even felt it necessary to 'make friendly things' to the 'manufacturing
people' as they go down the pan.
The knowledge economy
There was a supplement about 'the
knowledge economy' in the New Statesman 27 September. Near the end of this
a number of well known names are asked for a sound bite about the knowledge
'the world needs now'. James Dyson the inventor and manufacturer of the
'Cyclone' vacuum cleaner, dumped a bucket of cold water on 'the knowledge
'What I think we're losing is our
intellectual property base, our know-how in both technology and manufacturing.
We're losing the ability to make planes, cars, electrical appliances, in
almost every traditional manufacturing area. That's a terrible thing. While
you might think the world now depends on the software and service industries,
in reality their output is a fraction of the traditional industries. I've
had an argument with the governor of the Bank of England about this, who
thinks that software is replacing the need to make goods' [emphasis added].
In the late 1970s and 1980s first
the bankers thought it was oil which would replace manufacturing; then
it was the growth of the City of London; now the Governor of the Bank of
England thinks it is computer software.
In his comment Dyson concluded:
'If nothing is done about our dwindling
technical know-how, we will end up as a very weak service economy. We'll
have no manufacturing, few jobs and end up a very poor country. Tony Blair
and Gordon Brown realise this....'
Do they? I wonder. There is little
evidence of this. In his speech to Labour's conference at the end of September,
Blair said nothing about this --though he did refer to 'the knowledge economy'.
In May 1999 the Monetary Policy
Committee began to speak of the damage being done to manufacturing --by
their decisions on interest rates over the previous two years.12
Eddie George expressed himself as 'exasperated' by the pound's strength
--as if it was a badly behaved pet, rather than the result of policies for
which he had voted on the Committee.13 At
the beginning of September we had a quarter per cent rise in interest rates,
a compromise, after much discussion in the economic pages of the broadsheet
papers, between the 'hawks', looking at the rising house prices in the
South who wanted a bigger increase, and the others looking at the recession
in much of the rest of the country, who wanted no increase at all.
But the Committee's job specification
of 2.5% inflation remains and even with a majority now apparently worried
about the effects of the high interest policy on manufacturing there is
little it can do except chip the odd quarter per cent off rate rises called
for by increases in inflation when they occur. Gordon Brown continually
tells us that UK long term interest rates are at their lowest for forty
years. Which is true but beside the point. UK interest rates are 2% higher
than they are in the Euro zone. That is why the pound is overvalued and
why Britain lost 150,000 manufacturing jobs last year. For the policy to
change, the Committee's brief has to change and such a change will signal
to the world that Brown made a mistake: and for Brown --like the rest of
us --admitting he made a mistake will be last on the agenda.
Gordon Brown has the same problem
that Thatcher and Howe had: reality doesn't match the neat model in his
head. The model says that low inflation produces economic stability and
that, in itself, will produce economic growth and that is basically all
a Chancellor of the Exchequer really can or should do. Like Thatcher and
Howe in 1979-81, Labour has no exchange rate policy. Indeed, Brown warns
of the perils of having one. On 10 June this year Brown said that while
he understood the concerns of exporters:
'Anyone who thinks that dropping
the inflation target to replace it with an exchange rate target, or running
inflation and exchange rate targets at the same time is the right way to
achieve domestic stability is failing to learn the lessons of the 1980s.'14
Quite which 'lesson of the 1980s'
he is thinking of is unclear to me. Certainly not the lessons of the early
1980s when Thatcher and Howe followed a policy identical to Brown's, with
the same consequences --destruction of manufacturing jobs. Let me recap:
Thatcher and Howe took office and put up interest rates. This pushed up
the value of the pound, making British exports expensive and foreign imports
cheap. Collapse of a large chunk of manufacturing. Brown got into office,
handed over interest rate policy to the bankers, and up went interest rates,
and the pound rose--but not as dramatically as it did in 1980/81. New Labour's
economic policy is simply Thatcherism mark 1; but starting from lower inflation
and thus not having --yet --to be as savage as Thatcher/Howe were in the
As in the 1980s, the prosperous,
City-driven greater London area can experience growth while large chunks
of the rest of the country is in recession. In May this year the TUC reported
that in the 106 constituencies where manufacturing employs more than 30%
of the work force, half had recorded a rise in unemployment in the previous
six months.16 At present this has no political
significance. Unemployment nationally is falling because the growth of
the City/London/service sector has outpaced the lost jobs in manufacturing
in the North, Midlands, Wales and Scotland.
Unemployment falling, inflation
low --the garden is rosy. Or would be were it not for a huge structural
problem which is not going to go away. The loss of manufacturing capacity
since the 1980s has produced an ever increasing annual trade deficit on
goods, actual things. This is now over £20 billion and heading rapidly
towards £30 billion. At present this is counterbalanced by a combination
of the surplus made by the service/financial sector and earnings from overseas
investments; but it is entirely unclear how long this can be sustained.
Pursuing 'the knowledge economy' Blair and co may now believe they are
on the wave of the future, driven by technology and changing world markets;
but the truth is they have simply swallowed whole the ideology of the City
Alas for Gordon Brown, he (and Blair)
have become enthusiasts for the free market, 'Washington consensus' with
which I began this essay, just at the point when it is starting to be dismantled.
The 'open source' intelligence group on the Internet, Stratfor, headlined
its Global Intelligence Update of September 20, 1999, 'World Bank Reverses
Position on Financial Controls and on Malaysia'. It quoted comments by
Joseph Stiglitz, the World Bank's chief economist, who said on September
'There has been a fundamental change
in mindset on the issue of short-term capital flows and these kind of interventions
--a change in the mind set that began two years ago...in the context of
Malaysia and the quick recovery in Malaysia, the fact that the adverse
effects that were predicted --some might say that some people wished upon
Malaysia --did not occur is also an important lesson.'
Stratfor's analyst commented:
'These were not casual remarks.
They were made during the presentation of a key World Bank annual document,
the World Development Review, and were meant to be taken seriously. Indeed,
Stiglitz's comments came a week after the International Monetary Fund (IMF)
praised Malaysia for its skillful handling of capital controls.
....Stiglitz is following the new
conventional wisdom: capital controls are chic.'
So Brown will have to start shifting
his position again.
One final comment. The City of London
has had complete control over British economic policy, and most British
economic thinking, for over twenty years. So how important is the City
of London to the British economy? According to the City-funded propaganda
organisation British Invisibles, which may be presumed to be inclined to
exaggerate, it constitutes only 6.4% of the UK's Gross Domestic Product.17
1. The competition and Credit Control
changes are not referred to in his recent memoir.
2. In his memoir French banker called
Emile Moreau, Chairman of the Bank of France, described Montague Norman,
Bank of England chief in the 1920s and '30s, advocating an independent,
autonomous, bank. This would, Norman argued, 'remove from the political
arena... monetary security, credit allocation and price movements'. Cited
in Around the World on a Trillion Dollars a Day, Gregory J. Millman, Bantam
Press, London, 1995, p.52.
3. Frank Blackaby, 'Exchange Rate
Policy and Economic Strategy' in Three Banks Review, June, 1980.
4. Hamish MacRae in the Guardian,
October 13, 1981: 'As the energy sector grows, something has to shrink.'
In this curious universe it is unclear how countries ever get richer, for
as one sector grows, another, apparently, has to shrink. Did the Saudis
grow fewer dates after they found in oil?
5. Leo Pliatzky, Getting and Spending,
Oxford, Blackwell, 1982, p.194.
6. Blackaby op. cit.
7. Victor Keegan, Guardian, 16 May,
8. Lawson used to believe that as
oil revenues declined, manufacturing, wrecked in the early 1980s, would
spontaneously regenerate itself. See Nigel Lawson, The View From No. 11,
pp.195&6. Not so far, Nigel!
9. John Cole, As It Seemed To Me,
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1995, p.209.
10. Pliatzky op. cit. p.128.
11. Guardian, 8 January, 1992.
12. Discussed in William Keegan's
column in The Observer, 23 May, 1999. The Bank of England likes to refer
to manufacturing as 'the internationally exposed sectors of the economy'.
Sounds so much better than manufacturing, doesn't it?
13. Daily Telegraph, 15 May, 1999.
14. Guardian, 11 June, 1999.
15. The oddity is that Brown appears
to believe that something new is going on. Yet in the 1950s and '60s the
policy of putting up interest rates as soon as a little inflation appeared
was derided by Labour spokespeople as 'stop-go' economics.
16. Will Hutton, The Observer, 2
May, 1999. The Labour Party is now the two economies grafted together:
Old Labour/ New Labour; centre/ periphery; industry/ City; national/ transnational.
17. Guardian, 6 January, 1999.
Something For Nothing is a personal
account of how recent changes in the funding of Art Schools are invoking
a culture of academic research that is in turn having a forcible effect
on individual artists' practices.
Originally Something For Nothing?
was given as a paper at the Research and the Artist: Considering the Role
of the Art School conference at The Laboratory--the separate research arm
of the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art--on 28.5.99.
One purpose of this conference
was to look at how what constitutes 'research' within Art Schools might
be fashioned to be seen to formally ratify practicing artists' work.
Changes to the way government
establishes and distributes funding for higher educational institutions,
through what are termed Research Assessment Exercises, have resulted in
conspicuous attempts by Art Schools to associate themselves with particular
A central element of the Research
Assessment Exercise is peer review. An Assessment Panel, consisting of
staff members from across the institutions, rate the research excellence
of each institution in turn through an appraisal of the staffs' artistic
activity using criteria set by government.
In general these criteria have
been based upon a practising artist employed by the institution having
a visible presence within the international commercial marketplace, the
more prolific the better. In this version of the generation game research
points accredited to the institution via its employees are then translated
into stratified levels of funding. Those with the most points get the most
money--or rather, those who have been best able to comply with the government's
directives receive their incentive payment. Here points really do mean
Something for nothing?
At 34, I am an artist who is technically
part of the Young British Artist generation but not of its phenomenon.
As a result my perspectives are bound up inside the history of this period
whilst, like many of my contemporaries, also feeling outside of it. I have
managed to support myself and my practice by part-time teaching on BTEC
and then on degree courses. However, my work as an artist which, because
I teach, is currently classified by the higher education system as my research,
has had to situate itself and survive in the current art world. The Research
Assessment Exercise (RAE) has now institutionalised this fact and I now
have to be validated as active in the professional art world in order to,
as a part-time lecturer, keep a toehold in the art school.
In many respects this is the way
it should be; the academic world should be neither inside or outside the
art world but in an engaged, yet ambivalent space. Why then does it feel
that art schools (and their respective research policy) are being held
hostage by this funding shift and are warping internally in order to accommodate
their captivity rather than their creativity? And why do many of my generation
feel a sense of closure in all of this, of a diminishing of possibilities
which seems to us to characterise both the art school and the Brit Art
Of course, the entrepreneurial Brit
Art phenomena is as much manufactured as it is real. However, myths feed
off their cultural and political context, either fattening themselves or
being starved according to conditions. It might seem perverse, then, that
in the hostile environment of cuts, cuts, and more cuts certain myths can
thrive and that the Contemporary Art world is actually perceived as a British
But whose success story is it, and
who defines success?
I want to give you two very current
models of success within the contemporary art scene. The first model could
be termed a Careerist Model, and the second could be termed a Purist Model.
These two models are crude and familiar but nevertheless I think they are
A Careerist Model of success:
on leaving college the artist is included in the graduate New Contemporaries
exhibition and participates in self-curated group shows; work is bought
by Charles Saatchi and shown in highly profiled exhibitions; the artist
is featured in magazines such as Frieze and Art Monthly and signs to a
commercial gallery; work is exhibited widely within the contemporary art
world and purchased by private collectors and the Arts Councils; the work
also circulates internationally, aided in part by the British Council.
The result is that a national and international reputation is generated,
often occuring over a relatively short time of a few years.
A Purist Model of success:
on leaving college the artist is included in group shows of varying significance,
the work continues to develop and change; whilst maintaining the momentum
of the work the option to make uneven or challenging pieces still exists;
the artist manages to be intellectually speculative in an environment of
financial speculation. The result is that a national and international
reputation might be generated over a variable and unpredictable period
It is necessary to point out that
these two rather crude models of success within the contemporary art scene
do not by definition exclude each other: they could, in principle, apply
to the same work and the same artist. That they often do not, provokes
several questions: which model, or models, of success do the art schools
and their research policies desire and/or encourage? And to what extent
do these two models of success militate against each other or, to put it
another way, how does the artist reconcile internal and external pressures
in order to pursue his/ her work?
Firstly, it has to be openly acknowledged
that the art world and the art schools are operating within a neo-liberal
capitalist agenda which promotes immediacy, bureaucracy, and populism.
The pivots are money and sponsorship, lavishly lubricated by the oils of
marketing and PR. This fact should not be tiptoed around any longer. I
am not gazing back at some notion of a '70s idyll of untainted public funding;
but nor, I believe, does there have to be such an absence of debate or
such a passive acceptance of the implications of this cultural context.
The result is that competition,
rather than co-operation, threatens to consume artists, colleges, galleries,
and curators as everyone struggles to survive in this neo-Darwinian careerist
world. Competition and rivalries have always existed but have rarely been
enforced as cultural ideology and public policy. Strangely, however, intellectual
rivalry is not considered as part of this competitive culture. Instead
it is seen as negative and as divisive sour grapes threatening the consensus
The Universities have to be more
vocal in this critical and intellectual vacuum and their research policies
should be aiming to support initiatives which challenge this consensus.
Instead the fear of dissent, taking risks or asserting independence in
case it jeopardises funding, or puts off private commercial patronage,
or fails to maximise the RAE funding outcomes, or fails to attract sponsors,
or fails to bring in larger audiences, and so on, too often infects Fine
Art both inside and outside the art school.
Art schools ought to be able to
provide a power-base from which to remind the art world of the difficult,
the different, the unknown, and the historical. Curators, public galleries,
and funding bodies seem to have difficulty in locating and considering
artists that are obscure, time-consuming or complex, or worse all three
at once. It is as if there is an attitude that there are too many artists
and far too much art, and being more aware will somehow make selecting
work even more confusing and time-consuming. So it seems much safer then,
to rely on information from private galleries or catalogues, contacts,
collectors or any Goldsmith's show around, to cut down the workload and
make it 'manageable'.
This is perhaps a harsh caricature
but one that nevertheless illustrates the laziness that can become standard
when programming is determined by external factors rather than internal
dialogue. This potential for laziness is exacerbated by the 'Cult of Visibility',
a cult which operates with almost absolute power, in which visibility is
synonymous with critical and professional success. This is an intellectual
abdication: status and visibility should never be confused with a work's
or artist's critical or creative value. The deforming pressures that this
'Cult of Visibility' induces have profound effects on artists and their
work but also on the curators, funders, universities and public galleries
desperate to maintain their own visibility and to align themselves with
success. In this myopic world it is only 'success' that breeds 'success'.
The result is that everyone colludes
in the relentless pursuit of the same, of the middle ground, of the recognisable.
Small ideas are given enormous funding while many artists of different
generations are invisibly cut out of the cultural debate. Artists' work
which is deemed commodifiable, reliable (in terms of a linear notion of
progression), or that fits a familiar frame of reference becomes a guarantee
in an uncertain world.
University research policies could
provide credible alternatives, something particularly useful to artists
who wish to maintain an independent position or a space in which to reappraise
their practice. Ironically, given the institutions' singular ambition,
there is no consensus within the Universities on what ought to be their
intellectual philosophy i.e. research policy. The new and old Universities
at which I have regularly taught have wildly different approaches: either
top-slicing all the research monies, or initiating ambitious exhibition
programmes, or inviting single-sentence applications for potentially huge
funds. All of these approaches are open to distortion from internal favouritism
and discrimination. Research policies have to be transparent and accountable
in order to side step the complacency and cronyism of the institution.
Many Universities have a policy which matches University funds to those
projects that have already secured external funding, a policy which prioritises
projects with funds from other sources. This fails to acknowledge the limitations
and censorship inherent within these external contexts. Research has to
be considered in terms of intellectual value rather than cash value or
the academic space will simply perpetuate the problems that it is supposed
to address and, ultimately, will be defeated by them.
Why is it that most Universities
currently provide little or no alternative to these problems?
It is because they too need highly
visible artists with international profiles for their RAE returns. Fellowship
appointments which attempt to buy artists such as Louise Bourgeois (that's
the Louise Bourgeois who is 88 and never leaves New York) are blatant transactions.
Soon Universities will want to appoint dead artists purely because their
research and cash value can be fully guaranteed.
In the past, to be employed as a
young artist by art schools provided a feasible income and some security
and independence from the commercial art market. This is actually the simplest,
and the most effective way for universities to support artists' research:
give them proper teaching opportunities, improved pay levels, decent terms
and conditions, and research provision written into the contract. Instead
part-time teaching for all generations is now characterised by serial redundancies,
no time or resources to develop rewarding teaching, pressure to deliver
an international research profile coupled with levels of responsibility
more suited to full-time positions, all in the context of some of the worst
employment practices in the UK; and this is available only to the lucky
few. No wonder, then, that there is an increasing divide, even hostility,
between those artists of my generation who try to teach in order to survive
and the artists of my generation whose international status ensures they
can't or won't teach. This has clear implications for art schools, and
is mutually victimising for all artists in that it reinforces the false
polarities between the Careerist and Purist models that I initially outlined.
Even more significant, it seems to me, is that the whole scenario is regarded
Except that I do not agree that
it is inevitable. It is only in the absence of resistance that inevitability
becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When under siege or held in captivity,
it is necessary for the captives to understand the psychology of their
captors. However, this understanding must never define you or prevent the
internal independence required for genuine survival. The same logic applies
to the art schools: they need to build an innovative, autonomous space
to act as a critical balance to the consensus culture which drowns them.
Art schools should be ambitious and approach external agencies with ideas
and projects, but these collaborative projects need to be undertaken without
sacrificing critical debate or rigour. In short art schools need to have
ambitions beyond the art school.
I believe we require a radical pragmatism--a
combative energy which engages with the current world, rather than capitulating
or becoming ghettoised. 'Radical pragmatism' sounds suspiciously Blairite,
but should not be rejected for that reason alone. My generation was raised
under the value system of the '60s and '70s but we became adult in a world
which was, and is, dismantling this value system beneath our feet. Straddling
this process, with one foot always on each side of the rift, has become
increasingly difficult as the crack has widened into a chasm. The past
political positions of Left and Right have been overwritten. Given this
situation we do need new (but definitely not third) ways to reinvigorate
From an artist's point of view (which,
given their remit of support, should by implication also be the funders'
point of view) funding for work/ research should allow artists to advance
their ideas, aspirations and creativity. This means allowing artists to
create their own impossibilities and thereby create possibilities. This
takes time and involves making and taking the time throughout every aspect
of the funding process in order to get things right: time to include practitioners
in the policies and procedures of funders, time to select the selectors,
time for the selectors to consider the artists (all the artists) and time
for the artists to generate the work. Funding should enable an artist to
position their work for themselves, rather than being positioned by the
funding criteria or the agenda of the funder. Replication, duplication
and regurgitation are all outcomes of funding policies which are market-led.
There are many more artists out there some of whom inhabit a world of rejections
and frustrations, not because their work is invalid, but simply because
their status is regarded as too low.
There are, of course, some precedents
and exceptions to this analysis. Perhaps I should be considered as one:
in the last year my personal situation has been transformed by a £30,000
award from The Paul Hamlyn Foundation, a job at the Slade School of Art
(on a proper salary and with very good research provision), and a Rome
Scholarship. So, does my current position totally undermine my prior arguments?
After all, the financial anxieties have gone and many of the associated
emotional anxieties have gone too. Why then does my intellectual anxiety
What is of concern to me are the
collective conditions; the contexts in which I have to make work and have
it exhibited, collaborate with colleagues, and teach. Tony Blair is very
fond of saying that his government is determined to end the 'something-for-nothing
culture'. Ironically, at some point all artists have to make something
for nothing, while the art schools and the artists that teach in them all
too often have to make something out of next-to-nothing. Making art can
involve imagining something from nothing but it rarely takes nothing (in
resource terms) to produce that something. Perhaps funding-bodies ought
to reconsider the relationship of their 'something' to the artists' 'nothing',
and imagine that they might need us as much as we might need them.