Thursday, April 30, 2015

Pete Ashton, Alvin Lucier and the futility of originality

Pete Ashton’s Sitting In Stagram is a digital art project that takes as its starting point the absence of a repost function in Instagram; users have to create a fresh screen capture when they send an image, causing subtle, cumulative deterioration each time. Ashton’s work was also inspired by Alvin Lucier’s sound piece I Am Sitting In A Room, in which the repetition of recorded speech degenerates into incoherent noise.

Of course, repetition doesn’t necessarily always mean a downturn in quality but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb — just look at the trajectory of most movie sequels. And even when a project doesn’t become objectively worse, we seem to lose interest ever more quickly. Think how fast memes die away these days; how soon did the various iterations of the Harlem Shake lose their charm? Inevitably it turns out that Ashton’s idea isn’t a new one, a fact that he readily acknowledges: “There are no original ideas and that is an awesome thing.”

So does Sitting In Stagram become less good as its originality recedes? Does it transcend the process of representation and become the very thing it’s depicting? There’s one thing to be said for it in this age of stunted attention spans, at least by comparison with the Lucier piece — it’s a damn sight shorter.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Lewis Hamilton pops his cork

I’m profoundly uninterested in motor sport, and also very wary of investing too much symbolic significance into silly little moments, but I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable about Lewis Hamilton’s champagne celebrations following the Chinese Grand Prix. It’s long been pretty obvious what the uncorking and spraying of the fizz represents but we don’t need to delve too deeply into the semiotics of porn tropes to decide that there’s a big difference between a general splurging in the rough direction of the watching fans (who apparently rather like the experience) and firing it into a specific woman’s head (and she clearly didn’t). 

Talking of wankers and cars, apparently the very notion that A WOMAN, not to mention A LESBIAN WOMAN might take the place of Jeremy Clarkson in Top Gear has prompted some of his halfwit catamites into wishing said woman might burn to death. Look, I’m not arguing that a deep and intimate fascination for all things automotive correlates with being a socially inept thug but, yes, well, I am really.

To be fair, though, just to prove that such levels of abject idiocy are not confined to people with penises: Jon Ronson is getting grief for a line about rape in his new book that might be misconstrued — despite the fact he removed it from the published edition, lest it be misconstrued. You know what? I need a drink.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

H&M and all the stars that never were

When I was about 13 or 14 I was in a band. We were called Yeux Bleus and we had a really great logo, with a pair of elegant, feminine eyes peering out from beneath the brows formed by the initial ‘Y’. We also had some lyrics, which were basically the poems I was already writing about nuclear war and beret-wearing girls who didn’t fancy me, with some bits repeated so we could have choruses. No recordings exist, sadly, because we never made any, because we never actually played any music, because we couldn’t. But I suspect we would have ended up doing vaguely synthy, new romantic stuff, like Visage or Depeche Mode, because they had French names too. 

I only mention this because it appears that the clothing brand H&M, following on from the craze of adorning t-shirts with the names of punk and metal bands of which the wearer has never heard, has taken things to the next level, using the names of bands that somebody in the marketing department has just made up. To be fair, they’ve put more effort into this than we ever did, retrospectively creating band histories, album artwork and even some suitably gruesome music for these non-existent combos.

But here’s the thing. There must be hundreds of thousands of bands that never happened, just like ours. And probability states that at least some of those band names will coincidentally pop up again on an H&M garment — there are only 26 letters in the alphabet after all, although this is metal, so we have to take umlauts into account. Just imagine what it might be like to be walking down the street and be confronted by some kid whose fashion choice pledges allegiance to a band that you never quite got started more than three decades ago. The feeling would surely be something like stepping into a parallel world where all those primal adolescent dreams of power chords and groupies and difficult third albums and woooh, hello Leipzig had come to fruition and you hadn’t ended up selling patio heaters in Shropshire after all. And if you do see some kid whose t-shirt announces slavish devotion to the back catalogue of Yeux Bleus, please let me know, because we were bloody brilliant.

PS: Turns out it’s not that straightforward. The t-shirts were real but the back stories (including the dodgy neo-Nazi connections of some of the bands) and the music were conjured up as a subversive prank by a production company that was fed up with the high-street commodification of metal. One unreality on top of another. I can’t keep up.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Unsafe space: a message to students

It’s a very, very long time since I was a student in the conventional sense. I did have a sort of extended virtual postgraduate moment in the mid-1990s, when I was working on a guidebook for prospective university entrants, but that’s about it. So I’m a bit late in the day when it comes to the concept of safe space and my response to it may be old hat but I’m so astounded by some of the things I’m reading, however belatedly, I’ve just got to respond.

When I first heard the phrase “safe space”, I assumed it was some sort of policy to ensure students didn’t come to physical harm; possibly akin to the reclaim the night protests against sexual violence that I remember from my own university days. Apparently not, though. It isn’t physical harm that safe space seeks to prevent; it’s the emotional harm of that might occur if you happen to hear someone say something you don’t think is very nice. A recent high-profile example came last month when a show at Goldsmiths College by comedian Kate Smurthwaite was cancelled because some people didn’t like her opinions about sex work. As one protestor complained, “They want really controversial speakers to come to campuses, over the heads of students who are hurt by that or disagree with their politics.”

Now, just let that sink in for a few minutes. This person thinks that university students – for the most part, young, intelligent adults, or that’s what we hope they are — need to be protected from controversial opinions with which they disagree because they might get hurt. Fortunately I’m not at Goldsmiths, because I rather suspect its safe space policy would prevent me from explaining what a colossal sack of horse shit such an attitude represents and that that the person expressing it is evidently barely bright enough to be in kindergarten, let alone at an institution of higher learning.

Listen, hurty person. Listen, even if it bruises your flabby, blancmange-like brain. University should not, must not, be a safe space. In fact, quite the opposite. It. Should. Hurt. In your three or four years at university, you should expect to have your political opinions and religious beliefs completely upended at least once a term. You should question your sexual orientation, your gender identity, your musical tastes and your preferred hairstyle. You should have your heart broken, crushed, pulverised, ripped into tiny pieces and blown forcefully into your tearstained face, five times, minimum. You or a person close to you should undergo a pregnancy scare, a bout of food poisoning and a trip to the casualty department. You should go vegan for at least a week. Overdoses are not compulsory but you should go through several ghastly mornings after, vowing never to drink again. If you don’t regularly find yourself staring at the ceiling at 3 am wondering what the hell it’s all about, you’re doing it wrong. It’s quite possible that you’ll come out at the close of your university career with the same politics, religion and liver as when you arrived, and that’s OK; the point is the experiences you have on the journey, even if you end up in the same place. And if such a prospect is so terrifying that it puts you off the notion of applying to university, well perhaps you’re not quite ready, emotionally, socially or intellectually, to make that leap just yet and perhaps you never will be. And if you insist on going to university but don’t wish to avail yourself of these productive traumas, then don’t you dare, don’t you fucking dare try to stop other people experiencing them.

This is me, at university, with unsafe hair. Photo by Susannah Davis

PS: Via Clair Woodward, by Judith Shulevitz in the New York Times. Play-Doh? Really?

PPS: And now this, also from Clair:

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

A Turkish Ruskin

I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the more obscure avenues of the Turkish art scene, beyond a passing observation that Turks seem unusually fond of tortoises. Indeed, recent events have persuaded me to go no further in my studies, after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was fined 10,000 lira (about 2,500 pounds) for inflicting “psychological damage” on a sculptor by saying that his Monument to Humanity was a bit rubbish.

Apparently it’s not a straightforward case of a highly-strung artist finally losing his rag with critical snark and attempting to restage Whistler v Ruskin in the back end of Anatolia. The piece in question was intended to symbolise friendship between Turkey and Armenia, just the sort of political statement that’s going to wind someone up somehow; indeed, it’s still an offence under Turkish law to claim that the horrors inflicted upon the Armenian people 100 years ago might be described as genocide. (Meanwhile, in some other countries it’s illegal to say that it isn’t genocide, which strikes me as equally daft.) It’s tempting to revel in Erdogan’s current predicament, since he’s a supporter of the not-a-genocide protocol, committed to the notion that what happened in 1915 is a bit of unpleasantness best left to historians, but preferably not for a while yet. And yet, as is so often the case when a law is passed to stop people saying a particular thing, the effect is considerably more far- reaching, as it contributes to a general discouragement against talking, or indeed thinking, about anything of any significance. Which is presumably what those in power ultimately want.

But if it’s any comfort to the beleaguered Prez, he was entirely right. The sculpture, which has since been removed, was bloody horrible, resembling at best a bad waxwork rendition of the robot mummies from Pyramids of Mars. I wouldn’t presume to comment on his political credentials but I’d give him a job as an art critic.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Goneril? Who the **** is Goneril?

Britain’s greatest living playwright (discuss), Sir Tom Stoppard, has said that audiences fail to get many of the literary allusions in his plays. For example, he believes that a one-liner about Goneril in Travesties (1974) would fly above the heads of many people watching or reading it today. In The Guardian, Michael Billington sensibly argues that it doesn’t matter a great deal if every theatre-goer fails to get every reference, but there is a bigger question bubbling under the surface: in a post(?)-postmodern culture, is there such a thing any more as a cultural canon, of which we can expect everyone to be aware? And if so, what should it contain? Billington is blasé about the fact that a proportion of Stoppard’s and Shakespeare’s gags may fall flat these days, but feels the need at the end of his article to explain that Rhett Butler was in Gone With The Wind. Which is something that my parents, say, would not need to be told and nor would they have to have it spelled out to them that Goneril was one of Lear’s daughters; but they may not have got the reference to Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown in the title of this blog post. I wonder whether Stoppard would get it – and if he did, would it make him seem more or less clever?

PS: And here’s something – an article in The Atlantic that feels obliged to explain who Plato was.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Page 3, Charlie Hebdo and the bare boobs of Angkor

Last week, The Sun pulled off what was widely regarded — through gritted teeth — as a PR masterstroke, by appearing to retire its venerable Page 3 feature (an attractive young lady with her breasts on display) and then, with all the brouhaha for and against still sounding in the air, bringing it back. But before the other media were forced to retract their obituaries, their coverage seemed to come up against the same sort of dilemmas and paradoxes that were exposed by all the Charlie Hebdo-related comment: essentially, if the key issue is whether it’s appropriate or not to depict something (Mohammed, boobs) you’re forced to take sides when you choose whether or not to depict it. Many of the papers and other news sources attempted to fudge the task by running pictures of former Page 3 stars such as Samantha Fox or Linda Lusardi, but choosing poses where they weren’t airing their areolae. This in turn raises further questions, since these more demure poses were still cheesecake shots for the gratification of the straight male gaze, which is apparently the whole problem with Page 3 — otherwise we’d have to infer that breasts per se were the problem, a profoundly anti-female stance that would probably have found favour with the Kouachi brothers, albeit maybe not with the sort of fervour that might have prompted them to shoot up an editorial meeting of The Sun. Because bare breasts when deployed in the cause of feminism — as in the case of Femen, say, are a good thing. Oh, hang on, maybe not.

In a parallel development, there has been outrage at the appearance of photos of topless women taken in and around the historic temples of Angkor in Cambodia; this is particularly controversial because what clothes they are wearing make them resemble apsara, cloud spirits of Hindu/Buddhist mythology. Apart from the fact that this is far from the first time such a scandal has erupted, observers have been quick to point out that Angkor is absolutely swimming in images of underclad females, in the form of the carvings on the temple walls, but that cuts no ice with Kerya Chau Sun of the Apsara Authority: “When you insult someone’s culture, it’s not art at all,” she says. Which is pretty lame as a code of aesthetics but I suppose it neatly encapsulates the thinking behind the campaigns against both Charlie Hebdo and Page 3. Although it does raise a further question: if it were art, would that make it OK?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ahmed Aboutaleb says “fuck off” (or does he?)

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and associated horrible events, the mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, has told Muslims who don’t like the city’s chilled pluralism and might consider taking violent offence at the contents of a newspaper to “rot toch op”, which has been translated in the British media — with varying numbers of asterisks — as “fuck off”. I don’t speak Dutch; some contacts have suggested that in reality Aboutaleb’s words might be translated as a rather milder “go to hell” or even just “go away”, but he’s still earned plaudits for his straight-talking approach to the enemies of freedom. Of course, Mr Aboutaleb is of Moroccan extraction, so he can probably use more direct language than some other civic leaders could get away with, without being accused of racism or Islamophobia. (I’m thinking of Boris Johnson, his Turkish ancestry notwithstanding.)

But the discussion did get me thinking about what an odd beast our favourite expletive construction really is. If we accept that “fuck” means to copulate, how exactly does one “fuck off”? It creates images of someone copulating so forcefully that he or she is propelled bodily from the bed or other surface, rather in the manner of Viz’s Johnny Fartpants being sent skywards by the power of his own bottom burps. The American “fuck yourself” is more satisfying as an insult, casting the recipient as a sort of carnal oureboros, pleasuring and consuming himself at once, the ultimate in squalid self-indulgence. But then the “off” does reinforce that your ultimate goal is for the person in question to leave your presence entirely, which I guess was Mr Aboutaleb’s main point. Maybe in celebration of this excellent fellow we should recalibrate our default swear mode to “rot toch op”. And unless we’re telling a Dutch person where to go, only we know how rude we’re being.

PS: This: