Category Archives: art

Slogan slogan slogan, shout shout shout

Workers at a protest, from The Battle of Chile, Dir Paricio Guzman, Venezuela /France/Cuba 1973-1979.

Workers at a protest, from The Battle of Chile, Dir Paricio Guzman, Venezuela /France/Cuba 1973-1979.

It’s all about shouting at the ICA today. Leandro Cardoso and Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre (who explains that “Uruguay is the only country in the world where god is spelled with a lower-case g”) present a workshop on Latin American political chants. After listening to unidentified recordings of protests and manifestations, we’re asked as a ‘listening exercise’ to think about what these sounds of demonstrations, speeches and streets clashes might be. The particpants (mostly students) reckons that some are ‘melodious’, others sound ‘tribal’, and one ventures to speculate on the number of amplification and recording devices that the voices have been filtered through to reach us. It turns out that all the recordings are from Chile in the three years running up to the CIA-back coup and murder of Allende (which Leandro pronounces almost as ‘Agenda’), some of them stripped and looped from the soundtrack to Patrico Guzman‘s Battle of Chile.

Our education over, we turn to practical exercises. We chant the word ‘freedom’ until it becomes meaningless to us (pretty quick, that) and then one participant is given Leandro’s mic and told to address and exhort us: we are told in turn to shout him down. Thirty people with their bare voices shouting down one man with an amplified voice is quite exhilarating, though I quickly feel the legacy of too many cigarettes: a street-corner orator I’ll never be.

We go on to follow the recordings and join in the chants: a la Plaza and trabajadores al poder! There’s something sublime about chanting together, even in the hallowed halls of art and isolated from politics. Leandro laughs at the students chanting about the workers and opines that though some talk about ‘re-enacting’ political events, we are not Chileans, and we are not in Chile thirty-five years ago, as if our worlds are incommensurable.

Meanwhile, outside Parliament, as MPs angrily debate their grocery receipts, Tamils protesting against the government genocide in Sri Lanka have broken the bounds of permitted protest. An email from an entity called CommunitySafe comes round to our desks:

A large number of Tamil protestors have spilled onto the road area surrounding Parliament Square, They have also advanced onto Westminster Bridge, this has brought traffic into the area to a total standstill. Please do not make any attempt to travel towards or through this area on either foot or by vehicle. Roads are likely to remain closed for some considerable time. Please refer to media outlets for updates.

Avoid Tamil protestors today. Maybe in thirty-five years time, we will be shouting Tamil slogans in the ICA galleries.

Advertisements

Something concrete

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Poster Poem. Image: Iliazd, flickr.com/migueloks

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Poster Poem. Image: Iliazd, flickr.com/migueloks

To the Poetry Library, then, for a tour and introduction to the history of concrete poetry in anticipation of Poor. Old. Tired. Horse., courtesy of Poetry Librarian Chris McCabe.  The Poetry Library houses the Arts Council’s modern poetry collection, its definition of ‘modern’ being post-1911, and it pursues comprehensiveness in collecting the entire poetic output of the UK, including ephemeral magazines and self-published chapbooks, as well as a representative sample of international poetry publishing.

It’s a brilliant place: its collection is available in stacks in the library on the fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall; you can just drop in and consult a text. It’s also digitising its poetry magazine collections and putting them online. I first discovered the library in the mid-1990s, and rather arrogantly dropped off two copies of my own chapbook, one for reference and one for lending, both of which I’m always gratified to see they still have.

McCabe introduces the place, and shows us the library’s current exhibition, Lucy Harrison‘s Poetry Machines, a work that takes scans of individual words of poems and cycles them across a row of video screens to produce an multiplicity of new poems in the manner of Raymond Queneau’s seminal Oulipo work Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes.  But the real treat is that upstairs, along the entire length of the St Paul’s Roof Pavilion, laid out for us along thirty or so feet of tables is the history of concrete poetry using material from the archive.

It begins with Lewis Carroll’s Mouse’s Tale, progressing through magazines of 1960s avant-gardeism like Second Aeon, and the curious letterheaded subscription mailings of Private Tutor. There’s a whole table devoted to the gorgeous works of Ian Hamilton Finlay, mostly in the form of fragile little pamphlets featuring boats, and also postcards (of boats) and a card of a lovely-looking neon work. A lot of Brazilian stuff (the combination of typeface, round vowels and Portuguese nasal intonations seem to all go strangely together). Oddities include Colin Sackett’s Black Bob, in which a single frame of the Dandy comic strip is repeated across 63 identical spreads and a curiously sealed package including the work of Tuli Kupferberg backed with a correspondence about the intellectual property rights in the name ‘Poetry’.

Hamilton’s son, artist and poet Alec Finlay is there too, and of course the library’s own collection of Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. itself, missing a few copies and containing some stunning work by Mary Ellen Solt, John Furnival, IHF, Bridget Riley and many others. The explosion of inspiration in concrete poetry is evident in the sequence of the magazine itself. It starts out as a simply folded poetry magazine with illustrations and evolves into something else entirely, with entire issues devoted to a single collaboration between a poet and a typographer. My favourite might be Ronald Johnson and John Furnival’s Io and the ox-eye daisy, in which letters morph and move through each other in a brown-blue moonscape.

On further tables there’s a beautifully colourful shape-of-the-sun poster by Dom Sylvester Houédard, and Furnival’s extraordinary lithographic renderings of the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, densely packed with an inky allusive vocabulary. More recent works include Sam Winston’s Dictionary and a fabulous set of large fairytale-based prints, and Rick Myers’ limited edition boxes of texts and objects.

It’s properly impressive, and we all feel rather flattered that McCabe has taken the effort not only to get the stuff out of the archive, but also to construct an approachable intellectual history of concrete poetry. In some ways it speaks of its marginality; Finlay aside, there are few very well-known names here, and not many journals or publications dedicated exclusively to the form. You get the feeling that, like the villanelle or sestina, concrete poetry is now something that poets try their hand at as a demonstration of their virtuosity rather than a poetic tactic or affinity. In other ways, McCabe has drawn out an enduring tradition of the verse that pays attention to shape, and its ongoing exploitation of the tension between visual form and the internal ear. Either way, it feels like a privilege to be able to pick up and leaf through such an extensive display rather than gaze mutely at it through the glass of a vitrine. The more recent work that he has lad out for us, perhaps with an eye for our artistic sensibilities, comes in the form of limited editions, multiples and artists’ books like those produced by Coracle Press: poetry that has taken not so much visual inspiration from contemporary art as economic.

Walking backwards to the sixties tables, something strikes me about the confluence of poetry, art and radical politics. I’ve been looking at some old ICA bulletins recently, in particular the November/December 1967 issue that includes Tjebbe van Tijen‘s own photo-story of a continuous drawing from the ICA to Amsterdam, involving sarcastic humour and confrontation with the police at the bottom of the Duke of York’s steps, and John Sharkey’s ‘Popular Cut-Out Piece’. It seems to demonstrate a convergence of the radical, poetic and artistic in the ICA’s swish new premises on the Mall that’s unimaginable now.

Of course, in most ways, this radicalism was an illusion: Sirs Penrose and Read’s rather aristocratic ‘playground’ was then still an elite institution, and as such could tolerate the kind of disruption that posed no real threat to its audience’s place at the top of the pile. This kind of spectacular radicalism also worked as a kind of inoculation against real threats to the social order, a demonstration that British society could tolerate the counter-culture (whereas in reality, it couldn’t tolerate real change like equal wages for women or civil rights in Northern Ireland), an alibi for its continued reactionary existence.

Still, it’s hard not to feel some kind of nostalgia for the time when it was possible to discuss politics, poetry and art with the same set of people. Radical politics hangs on somewhere in the recent G20 protests, and if the theatre of protest still exists courtesy The Government of the Dead, there’s certainly little revolutionary fervour in the new East End, where ‘emergent artists‘ seem to be more interested in producing mediocre car advertising than changing the world. And poetry… well, some people are still reading poetry. Some people, like Daljit Nagra and McCabe himself are even writing good poetry. But compared to making art, writing poetry today seems a rather perverse and recondite activity.

Both contemporary art and contemporary poetry share a position realms of the ne plus ultra, in that anything goes: there are no limits to experimentation in form, elaborations of concept or nature of content. It’s a situation similar to the way that academic discourse can only be challenged through the medium of academic discourse itself. They’re the places in which the extreme end of our social dreaming can take place: while this often limits their relevance to our actual lives, contemporary art and poetry both have an essential role in exploring the limits of human creativity.

In status, however, they are completely unequal. While in recent years contemporary art has more than ever basked in the luxury of international money and media attention, epitomised in the Frieze Art Fair, an event which each year has me reaching for the Taliban application form, even among the literati poetry seems to be fighting a losing battle against prose fiction.  While the Poet Laureate and the most recent winner of the Turner Prize seems to attract an equal measure of controversy and derision, Andrew Motion scarcely feels like a fair match for Mark Leckey. McCabe himself might be more like it, but there’s no competition for emerging poets that seizes the public attention in the way that even Beck’s Futures did for art.

In the end it seems hard to put this discrepancy down to anything other than our old enemy, the commodity. While both poetry and art share a similar social function, art can be bought and sold: it has literal value, and value attracts attention and social activity. That the power of the market has then affected the amount of attention that we pay to each form, and the access we have to each is unsurprising. The relationship has been distorted to the extent that capitalism itself is a distortion of life. Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged legislators‘ remain unacknowledged.

If poetry has derived any benefit from its non-object, reproducible status, perhaps it’s this: the Arts Council’s own collection of contemporary art, constrained by budget, foresight and all the other vicissitudes that make art buying a popular hobby of investment bankers, is actually a rather poor affair. By contrast, the collection of poetry belonging to the Arts Council that lives in the Royal Festival Hall is, as we have discovered through looking at only a tiny fraction of it today, an invaluable archive and an exciting resource. After McCabe has concluded our tour, I shyly-proud pull my own volume off the shelves to show my colleagues, hopeful that they’ll be impressed and petrified that they might actually read any of it: it’s a pretty appalling piece of juvenilia. But that’s the beauty of this place, and of poetry: looking after things, however little they apparently may be worth.

Bombs, slums, and brightly-coloured balloons

Victoria/Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Bombay/Mumbai

Victoria/Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Bombay/Mumbai

It’s all the same for tourists and terrorists when it comes down to it: get downtown and do the sights. When Azam Amir Kasab and his fellow attackers arrived in Mumbai in November 2008, they could have been reading straight from the Rough Guide’s 24-hour essentials. First they took in the opulence of the Taj and the Oberoi, then the everyday hustle and bustle of Victoria Terminus before popping to slaughter the backpacker-Bombay-boho mix at Leopold’s Cafe. Truly, India is a Land of Contrasts. They even managed to blow up an ‘iconic’ Ambassador taxi, such is the literal iconoclasm of fundamentalists.

And then terrorism is swiftly recycled as tourism. The Taj maintains its grandeur even sealed behind a police cordon: a bored patrolman whistles his way along the covered arcade, while the red-carpeted steps are slowly swept. The half-deserted snack bar that looks out over VT’s station concourse has photos on the wall of the damage wreaked on its premises; select bullet-holes are still visible in the shuttered plate glass windows of Leopold’s on the Colaba Causeway. It’s hard to tell whether it’s historical preservation or everyday neglect, but if you get friendly with a waiter he might shift a picture on the wall to show you another bullethole, or gesture to the very spot where colleagues were murdered. It’s nearly as exciting as being asked to be in a Bollywood movie by one of the scouts that patrol the streets nearby.

Some battles are less obvious. Take ‘Mumbai’ vs ‘Bombay’. To a right-minded English person, the decolonisation of place names seems reasonable: re-establishing an indigenous geography warped by the British Empire. But then Bombay didn’t really exist before the Portuguese and British put it together: Surat was the trading port for this part of the Arabian sea. Mumbai is the Marathi way of saying Bombay: the definitive name-change was imposed on the city in 1995 by the right-wing Hinduist Shiv Sena government: ‘Mumbai’ also stands for an ethnic and religious exclusivism, and an antagonism towards North Indians and Muslims. The Sainiks are a nasty bunch all right, instigators of communal violence after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, but they also represent the defeat of India’s communists in their own constituency, the working class. While Bombay is the city of the middle classes comfortable with an imperial multiculturalism in which they occupied an upper berth, Mumbai is the city of the working and lower classes.

Both VS Naipaul in India: A Million Mutinies Now and Suketu Mehta in his more focused work of equal scope, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, begin with a visit to the street operators of the Sena, exhibiting a curious fascination with the troops of an unfamiliar force in Indian politics. These days the BJP has stolen the Sena’s Hindutva thunder on the national stage, and Narendra Modi’s a demon to best the superannuated Bal Thackeray. Even a Gandhi is in on the act: Indira’s grandson Varun, a BJP candidate in the elections has been jailed under security and hatespeech legislation for an inflammatory speech threatening to ‘cut off the hand’ raised against the Hindu majority. The English-language Indian press, written in a code-laden register reminiscent of Variety, talks of him as the ‘poster-boy’ for the ‘saffron party’.

The Bombay action starts in the slums. If you want to, you can see for yourself. We go through the back of a sweetshop and up the stairs to where a business centre shares the first floor with tiny living quarters: a wrong turn takes you into a kitchen. Through the door of a tiny office a man turns off a fan so that we can climb stairs which are practically a ladder; at the top of the stairs is the door to a cupboard-sized office where a representative of Reality Tours takes our booking for a walk through  the Dharavi slum, the location and source of child actors for Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire.

The next day we meet our guide Ganesh at Churchgate station and take a forty-minute commuter train journey to Mahim Junction, where the slum begins, butted right up against the railway tracks, but clearly on the wrong side of them. Our view from the bridge above the station is a jumble of tin roofs stretching for miles. ‘Slum’ doesn’t do the place justice: an informal area of settlement for Gujarati potters and leather workers since the late nineteenth century, it houses nearly a million people. In contrast to downtown Colaba, where begging and street hassle are practised like theatre, during a two-hour tour of the entire area, not one person asks us for money.

What happens here is recycling. When you put your milk cartons and newspapers in a box outside your front door, you’re not ‘doing the recycling’. These people are doing the recycling, and it’s a dirty, disgusting, health-harming job. Rubbish from all over Mumbai is collected and brought here to be processed and then returned to the production cycle. The snaking plumes of smoke making their way up from the tin roofs come from waste paint burning off cans, so they can be beaten back into shape and reused. Aluminium is recycled in fires and moulded into ingots for use elsewhere. Ghee containers are cleaned in boiling water. Needless to say, no-one wears face masks or even gloves. Plastic of all sorts is thrown into noisily rattling chipping machines that shred it into tiny pieces; the pieces are boiled clean, dried and dyed, then melted and extruded into semi-rigid spaghetti which is finally chopped into tiny plastic beads which can be used as raw material in new plastic moulds. They also make the plastic chipping machines themselves in Dharavi. As we walk gingerly through the workshop in which they’re assembled, some of the machines, a lathe in particular, remind me of ones I once worked on.

Communal tensions ran higher in Dharavi after the riots of 1992-3; housing is now organised more along ethno-religious lines than it once was, and Muslim areas are festooned with crescent flags, but it’s far from a battleground. Ganesh proudly shows us a Muslim-owned factory where wooden Hindu shrines are made as an example of communal collaboration and co-operation. The wage of an industrial worker in Dharavi is between 100 and 150 rupees a day; monthly rent is about 1500. Where the factory areas have space between the hutments sufficient to stack and unload materials, the living areas are cramped and close together, the paths between buildings not much more than covered gutters where one person can just about pass another. Crowded rooms where families crouch and cook on the floor are visible through curtain doors. And somewhere in the middle of it all is a shop, clean and brightly-coloured packets of crisps and sweets hanging above the counter just like any other corner shop in India.

In commercial areas there are grocery shops, fresh produce, pharmacies, an ATM; even a cinema showing Slumdog in Tamil. NGOs have built and maintain schools: Reality Tours support one such venture with what they make from showing curious tourists this place. Since the 1990s, residency and building has been formalised to an extent: new construction requires consent by signature from neighbours. It’s not perfect: Ganesh shows us one towerblock where signatures were found forged. Construction was halted, but that didn’t stop people moving in to the half-finished building, barely any better than the shacks. For all that idiots like Brian Eno laud the ‘self-organising’ power of the informal market in slums, infrastructure and social justice remain crucial necessities.

Back in the city that the British built, the towers soar. The southern end of Bombay is a playground for ideas in Gothic decoration that make St Pancras look like the work of Mies van der Rohe. VT, or Victoria Terminus, is now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, renamed like so many things in Mumbai, for a seventeenth century Marathi warrior king and scourge of the Mughals (in the same way that Balkan anti-Muslim sentiment often refers back to the ‘Turkish Yoke’, Hindutva uses the Mughal Empire as the past oppressor of a rightfully Hindu India). The station seems strangely familiar before we even step into it: from Slumdog, from the news footage of the attacks, and from documentation of Patrick Keiller’s incredible multimedia recreation of the station in Lille.

Colaba is a bubble, a heritage vacuum in the heart of the country’s busiest city, but it’s not just for the tourists. Though our hotel’s street is lined with handicraft shops, expensive cars pull up at night outside the swish-looking nightclub. Two streets away they eat tasty seekh kebabs from the vehicles’ hoods, served up from the smoking Bademiya stand. Backpackers are far from cool here: they spoil the vibe for the real cool Mumbaikers. We get asked to move on as soon as we’ve finished eating at hip sisha rooftop hangout Koyla. Shops and hotels have a lot of visible security: mustachioed men in interchangeable police-like khaki uniforms, their cloth-patch badges with a standard-issue space for the firm’s name above the word ‘security’. At the Gateway to India, photographers hold bulky photo-printers under their arm to produce instant pictures of you at the landmark. Hawkers carry enormous brightly-coloured balloons nearly as large as they are, thwacking them suggestively as you pass.

And then, Bombay as a whole is back to front. The Gateway, another Indo-gothic arch built to welcome George V, but best remembered for heralding the last departing British troops from Indian soil, stands facing not the Arabian Sea and Europe, but the bay and mainland beyond. To reach the open sea you have to first sail round the hook of Colaba. What they call the ‘back bay’ in fact faces the sea. At the top, at the end of Marine Drive, the backwash has deposited the sandy stretch of Chowpatty, Bombay’s urban beach. The wind whips up the sand, and the entrance smells vaguely of sewage, but for twenty rupees you can hire a mat to sit on, and for another twenty eat a plate of delicious pani puri standing up at the Badshah puri stall. A tiny big wheel is powered by hand: the crew grab hold of the bars at the top and then hang on and swing down to the bottom before climbing back up on the shaky-looking apparatus. The toys are on the correct scale for the children thronging the beach and braving the sea: plastic baubles and windmills on sticks. As the sun goes down behind the wall of buildings along the Walkeshwar Road, we look for a cab and all too soon it will be time to go home.

Ruined gothic

Pancras Halfspider: Paul Day's The Meeting Place

Pancras Halfspider: Paul Day's The Meeting Place

Like an Edwardian cinema, a Victorian train station has two parts: the frontage that welcomes you, and the hall where the business of departure is done. The front is generally shallow and tall, the shed long and low. Together they form a supine letter L. The building that faces you on the street is typically the more impressive half (such buildings’ fantasy architecture returns to haunt them: the colonisation of former cinemas by religious organisations is not limited to Pentecostal churches. Is it surprising that a former cinema once owned by Mecca Leisure has become a mosque?). But even cinema sheds are not without their merits, as watching even the most meagre arthouse fare in the Finchley Phoenix or the Duke of York’s in Brighton will show you.

So it is with the dreaming Gothic spires of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel and William Barlow’s vast single-arched train shed at St Pancras. The monumental vision of an architect, and the architectural vision of an engineer combine gloriously (engineer Brunel alone was good enough for the earlier Paddington). But alas, now split between the glassed-off fortress of the Eurostar showroom and the far-off extension for the spurned Midland platforms, the undercroft filled with a standard-issue transport shopping mall, and enhanced with a Betjeman-themed pub, St Pancras has been multiplexed.

Is it possible to love gothic without also loving its abandonment? The Gothic Revival was born from the appreciation of picturesque ruins, but even a twentieth century hipster might talk of wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic appreciation of transcience. “Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” Like Brighton’s West Pier which periodically burns and folds slowly into the sea, the Midland Grand gained something from its ruin and emptiness. We cherished the tiny glimpses that we caught on Open House weekends, the impassive facade we drifted past on the nightbus, even if we didn’t know what St Pancras station, like its near-namesake vital organ, was really for.

Margaret Thatcher’s London manufactured dereliction. City-based representation was stripped away, the rights of the suburbs to veto progressive transport policy were enforced, and corruption was funnelled through borough councils. This wasn’t just about a recession: even in the boom years the Tories were more interested in beginning again in the Wild East on the Isle of Dogs than the city or even the City. Though the channel tunnel rail link was signed off by Heseltine, it was only with the election of a Labour government, less than a year after the Spice Girls symbolically reopened the doors of the hotel in the Wannabe video, that the regeneration of the Midland Grand Hotel became an inevitability. As Iain Sinclair says, you can’t make policy decisions to preserve decay, but a five-star Marriott and penthouse suites promise to be as showy and tasteless as the Peyton and Byrne pastries on sale in the arcade.

Tubby little John Betjeman, St Pancras’s own Paddington Bear, holds onto his hat and gasps in awe at Barlow’s train shed. Appointed patron saint, the man who through the medium of the Victorian Society is credited with having saved the building from modern hammers. Though his heirs in the Society relish regeneration, he himself invested a very gothic wistfulness in the building, deeming it ‘too beautiful and too romantic to survive’ (though almost certainly it was the labour economics of a building without ensuite bathrooms or central heating that did for the hotel itself). He’s a fusty figure for a fusty restoration: the author of A Subaltern‘s Love Song, is a bit too metropolitan (in the wrong way) for London today. In fact, Betjeman was at his best when satirising exactly the kind of middle-century, middle-English existence that we now use him to typify, and not just on the subject of Slough.

The dead hotel is haunted not by Betjeman but by an upstart and a ghost. The Euston Arch is the Midland Grand’s dead twin, the unsaved glory of the Euston Road, a baleful classical monstrosity borne of the architectural monomania that decreed every public building from a bank to a school should be modelled on a pagan temple. Those who would reconstruct it, return it to a zombie heritage half-life, are guilty of the same neurotic fixation with the past that led the city government of Berlin to demolish the Palast der Republik and replace it with a facsimile of an eighteenth century palace. Rebuilding the Palast now would make as little sense. It is a building that we can now only access through memory and historical record: all that will ever happen there has happened. The construction of the lines into St Pancras itself involved the destruction of half St Pancras churchyard (under the supervision of Thomas Hardy). Should we reconstruct that too? History is human jam: you can’t make strawberries back out of it.

The upstart is Colin St John Wilson’s British library building. Though it’s the UK’s largest public building of the twentieth century, it bears a mere 10 million bricks to Scott’s 60 million (Bazalgette’s majestic shitpipes put them both to shame with 318 million). Wilson was a member of the Independent Group alongside brutalists par excellence the Smithsons, but his library is associated with the warmer nordic humanism of Alvar Aalto, and fellow Independent Eduardo Paolozzi’s Newton After Blake graces the courtyard. We can tell the building is a modernist masterpiece because that eminent Palladian Prince Charles said something rude about it. He called it “an academy for secret police”, but in fact it’s Babcock House just down the road, a building of Grecian proportion, that once housed our secret services. The library may look a bit like a suburban Tesco, but with five subterranean floors extending twenty five metres down into the London clay, Wilson’s behemoth is an iceberg. Its form nobly follows its function, if only we could see the form.

If there is a single focus point for all these contradictions, it is in another structure found on the Euston Road, one also on the brink of obsolesence. Scott’s own son, George Gilbert Scott Jr died mad and cirrhotic in the Midland Grand, but Scott Jr’s son, Giles Gilbert Scott’s architectural achievements rival his grandfather’s. He designed not only Liverpool Cathedral and Battersea Power Station, bringing gothic home to the modern, but also the archetypal K2 red telephone box. Whence the inspiration? From the self-designed mausoleum of a man of the other party, arch-classicist Sir John Soane, which can be found in in the undisturbed half of St Pancras Churchyard. See the echo of the curved pediment? Take a picture on your phone and text it to someone. If you’re lucky, one day it may be all you have.

The above owes a great deal to drink and conversation in the Betjeman Arms with Nathan Charlton and Rich Cochrane. The podcast we made on the night [mp3 | subscribe: xml]  is available on the Big Ideas website.

Your art

Your art is another officeblock we don’t need, a billboard obscuring the view, an uncommissioned act of flytipping. Your art is a blot on the landscape of our consciousness, an eyesore that needs to be eradicated. Your art is good cause to phone a government helpline.

Your art is all about you. It doesn’t deal with anyone’s preconceptions but your own. It addresses issues that only you can see and creates problems that only you need to be solved. Your deep and searching universal questions are everyday life for the rest of us. The only challenge involved in your art is trying to understand why you bothered to make it.

Your art is a soiree for your friends and your only friends are the ones who paid to go to the same school as you. The only opinions you form are your own: your art is an in-joke for inbreeders, a snooty laugh at everyone else’s expense.

Your art’s irony is a stab vest worn to collect a kebab from Peckham. You fear the nakedess of your own intentions because you don’t have any. The changing curtain your art coquettishly hides behind is all it is wearing: it looks as ugly as you do without clothes.

Your art is a comfort blanket for the fashionably thick, cushioned insoles for high-heeled shoes. Your art is easy to talk about in a way that makes stupid people feel good about themselves. It offers the illusion of understanding to those who understand nothing, it rapes the minds of those not competent to grant consent. Your art is a war crime with a complimentary cocktail.

Your art is money talking to itself, your art sits on a shelf waiting for someone to pay for it. Your art flatters the rich, it makes no sense in any place except a boardroom. Your art is its own price ticket.

The room in which you have installed your art is a coffin. Something is dead in here, and it stinks.

Your fascination with popular culture is not reciprocated. These commercials do not need your re-editing, these fanzines do not need your archive, this life is not a curious object waiting for your curatorial skills. Your art has a crush on someone who wishes you were dead.

The way you talk about your art makes it clear you you have no idea what you’re doing. Your statements are peppered with qualifiers and smoked with abstractions. The agency you ascribe to your art is a mysticism, an abdication of your own responsibility for it. When you pressgang interpreters to explain it and they fail, you blame the readers. You’re a clown who hits children when they don’t laugh.

Your art is vomit in my throat, mucus in my cough, blood in my stool. It’s environmental pollution. I see your art rotting on the pavement when I walk to work, I see it filling the gutters when the drains overflow, I see it splashed across the face of buildings after a terrorist attack. Your art is cancer.

Leftfield and Looping

The Lifesize Zoetrope, Dir Mark Simon Hewis

The Lifesize Zoetrope, Dir Mark Simon Hewis

The London Short Film Festival‘s Leftfield & Luscious programme of experimental shorts is a good halfway house between the ascetic contemplationism of the LFF’s Experimenta weekend, and the calling-card aesthetics of most other shorts programmes. With a small prize backed by Wallflower Press (the Lux in previous years), and unencumbered by any obvious curatorial baggage, it’s a light-on-its-feet sort of picture of the state-of-the-art.

In The Lifesize Zoetrope [watch] director Mark Simon Hewis creates selfsame out of white t-shirted extras in a fairground centrifuge. The camera zooms in on a book of sheets that each particpant holds, and each scene repeats a couple of times as a zoetrope would before the page turns and a new sequence begins. The technical dedication is admirable (imagine how easy it would be to create the effect of this happening rather than actually filming sheets of A4 paper on a moving fairground ride), and the sometimes-scratchy results reminiscent of early eyetoys, but beyond formal experimentation the story itself is a suitably circular and repetitious tale of life, procreation and death.

The Black Dog’s Progress [watch | essay by Karen Alexander] (Dir Stephen Irwin) starts with a similar lo-fi moving image technology: looping flickbooks are laid out one by one across the screen, building up the tableau of a dog’s life through rejection, hunger, perversion and death, ending with a howling inksplatter. Both films were funded by Animate Projects, (an ACE/C4 venture) laudably supporting artists’ ventures into the medium of animation.

Like a filmic camera toss, Christopher Steel’s Welcome to Southside takes a roll of film and exposes it to the lights of London’s South Bank 36 times. Lights become lines become stars: the shape of the London Eye is somehow there and somehow not. Nagisa Kinoshita’s Touched is a creepy series of meditations on womanhood, from the little girl holding hands with a monster in the park, through pregnancy as a tethered balloon and the emergence of dark tentacles from within (we watched this while waiting for news from the hospital of L’s sister’s baby); each vignette breaks and then recedes through the vertical surface of the screen like water.

Judith Poirier’s Dialogue appears to lay type directly onto clear leader with ink: elegant outlines filled in with telltale inky ripples. What’s printed on the frame appears to be applied to the soundtrack as well, an echo of the experimental tactic used by Mary Ellen Bute, and by Norman McLaren in Synchromy. Typographers’ dabblings in other visual forms are typically facile (and often hard to read), but Poirier plays a more entertaining game: while bold capitals only produce snaps and crackles, the most aurally pleasing examples are the lines of lower case repetitions: mmmmmmmmmmmm, ppppppppp and fffffffffffff together produce satisfyingly crunchy bliptop chords.

It’s not the only film in the programme that refers back to earlier works. Ava Lanche’s Silence [watch], like Eisenstein et al’s Everyday, works through a groundhog day of alarm clock ringing and feet clumsily hitting slippers on the floor, before deviating to a simple point: each morning a woman wakes to urinate and tell us of a recent newspaper article justifying further wars in the name of the struggle against terror, which is useful, as she’s just run out of toilet paper.

On a gentler, more personal tip, The Reason I Collect [watch] takes Paul Escott’s own account of his life as a collector and hoarder of almost everything (save christmas cards), and animates the objects themselves: toys at war, a svankmajerish taxidermy cabinet, other people’s family albums and a one-armed Luke Skywalker: everything once belonged to someone, and that gives everything meaning. New Madrid (winner of the Wallflower award, imho a duff choice) narrates John James Audubon’s account of the 1812 New Madrid earthquake which altered the flow of the Mississippi river, over footage of landscape and submerged trees: beautiful and meditative, but also somnolescent.

Jacob Cartwright & Nick Jordan’s Landing Lights (Wallflower’s special mention), a 3-dimensional model of a plane repeatedly flies through a 3-dimensional model of a residential building, shown from several different aspects. The immaterial intersection of imaginary forms, the intimation that the catastrophe of a plane flying through a towerblock can be averted through modelling software as each are perfected on the drawing board, is magnified through the eerie emptiness of both plane and building into an ethereal beauty, until at last an engine hits a glancing blow on a folding chair left carelessly in its path, and something is touched.

On the less formal side there are a couple of interesting performance-based films, one amusing and one tragic. Alan Chieh-Hung Liang’s Cul De Sac is the recursive adventure of a scriptwriter stuck in a storytelling dead end, unable to make anything happen to a couple on the run through a tunnel. He ends up getting on his bike and going for a pint. Rinat Kotler’s You’re Not Going Anywhere presents a split screen, juxtaposing children playing and a woman recounting in a jocular fashion a horrible tale in which a woman skins her lover, without comment.

The final film in the programme Better to Have Loved [watch] (Dir Karen Macey), gets a live-action/stop-motion effect from being constructed of photographs on cards animated and manipulated, overscrawled with spiders, matchstick men and fuzz. Climbing through a hole in a wall leads a lonely man back to the seaside, a lost love and the picture on his own bedroom wall.

More so than feature film festivals, the point of short film festivals and programmes often seems questionable. With world-domination outfits like Future Shorts making a serious fist of online distribution, and online channels continually hungry for this sort of content, you can see a lot of these films online, in most cases before they hit a big screen anywhere near you. Why bother to drag your arse down to a cinema on a January Sunday evening? The point of sitting down in the dark and seeing all these films together (and more importantly the skill of the programmers: a mighty tip of the hat to Kate and Philip) is not only the avoidance of buffering and distraction but to see the whole lot at once, to grasp similarities, differences and references. This year, it seems to be all about returns: films that return to the beginning, and return to experimental traditions.

Mausolea and migrants

Kensal Green angel

Kensal Green angel

For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.
G.K. Chesterton

Is it ghoulish to go looking for a fresh grave? On Sunday we wander through Kensal Green cemetery to see if we can find where Harold Pinter was buried on Tuesday, with only ‘in the heart of’ and ‘under a tree’ as clues. There can’t be many new burials at this time of year, and we think we find it. This is what a fresh grave looks like: bare clods of pale earth, the diggings boarded and tarped. No flowers, no marker, just a rectangle of disturbed ground. A headstone won’t appear for months. Not only does it take time to cut, compose and hammer, but the sod is uneasy too. The overturned earth must settle around the bones, and a lasting memorial needs steady soil.

The cold, cold earth is not the only place to go. Like Highgate, Kensal Green has its catacombs of coffins on shelves, beneath the central chapel with its impressive hydraulic catafalque. A triple-coffin is constructed for the occupant of each loculus: a wooden box for the body is fully sealed inside a lead coffin (a plumber usually deals with the metalwork) and then placed inside a larger, decorative coffin. There are thousands (though spaces remain) beneath the chapel where West Londoners also sheltered from German bombs during the war, but you can also get your own mini-mausoleum above the ground.

Kensal Green is the first and oldest of the magnificent seven municipal cemeteries created by act of Parliament in the mid-nineteenth century. There’s a continuity in the melancholy Victorian funerary art from the tumbledown headstones of Tower Hamlets to the proud and wacky Egyptiana of Highgate west, but the character of each cemetery comes from its setting and landscape. Nunhead has hills and views, Abney Park its legendary cruisers’ undergrowth, but Kensal Green is flat and open: from the top gate you can see across most of the plain that rises alongside the Harrow Road. Looking south and across the canal vast gasometers rise and fall in the distance behind the tombstones.

The seven were the solution to London’s early Victorian burial problem, the means by which city graveyards could be closed and sanitary order established. Vaster, more ambitious schemes were proposed, including a giant pyramidal catacomb atop Primrose Hill to house five million souls (the upper levels financed by the sale of the lower in an, er, pyramid-selling scheme), to which the seven were the sane and suburban alternative. But even they have their own lost pasts, their might-have-beens. The original designs for the chapel and entrances were high Victorian gothic, but the owners spurned them for (equally bombastic in their own way) classical columns and gates. Also proposed and never built was a southern water gate where barge-borne funeral processions could arrive along the canal which runs along the south side of the cemetery.

A municipal enterprise, the cemetery itself isn’t consecrated ground, and although the majority of the imagery feels Christian (crosses and angels) there’s also plenty of Victorian classical excess, and a bit more Egyptiana (while Greek and Roman columns serve Mammon and Thanatos with equal vigour, there’s something inherently creepy about animal-headed gods and mystical eyes that suits death rather better than life). There’s also a whole system of Victorian cemetery signifiers. The broken column symbolizes the head of a family lost; a lower broken column one cut off in his prime. There are even novelty headstones. Victorian adventure novelist Mayne Reid’s is equipped with a full set of Indiana Jones style adventure equipment. One grave has been decked out in full Christmas regalia. More warmingly, one flat headstone featureless except for a small stone frog is littered with an empty champagne bottle, candles, and a ‘world’s best mum’ mug.

To die somewhere you must live there first, and Kensal Green also pays a mute kind of tribute to West London’s fluctuating and migrant communities, as well as the great and the good. At the Western end of the cemetery, there’s a Catholic extension, and a small Orthodox section too (names jump out for odd reasons: a couple of Milosevices). There’s a small welter of Italian names, and among them the strange headstone of Italian anarchist Emidio Recchioni which bears his own image, reminds us that London also welcomes political communities in exile. The would-be assassin of Mussolini and associate of Emma Goldman opened a delicatessen in Soho named ‘King Bomba’ (not for anarchist explosives but for Sicilian King Ferdinand II, hammer of the 1848 Italian revolutionaries); he was the father of late Freedom editor Vernon Richards.

Other communities are less visible. Without a keen eye for dates and old-fashioned names, many West Indians buried in Kensal Green go unnoticed. A relief of a wind-blown palm tree on one headstone offers a clue to island origins; elsewhere, the modern fashion of embedding photos of the deceased in the memorial shows many black faces at the eastern end of the main avenue. The great photographer and documenter (gallery) of West London Charlie Phillips documented many black funerals at Kensal Green: somehow the black and white photos seem to emphasise the coldness of the ground in which people born under a warm Caribbean sun were buried. There are sadder stories still. Kelso Cochrane, victim of an early racist murder in Notting Hill is also buried here.

Jamaican connections go back further than the Windrush generation. Mary Seacole is buried in the Catholic section. Marcus Garvey spent the last five years of his life in London and was originally buried here in 1940; in 1964 he was disinterred and reburied in his homeland, in the National Heroes Park in Kingston, Jamaica. And as if to bring round a full Ethiopian circle, here too can be found the final resting place of Ras Andargachew Messai, son-in law of Haile Selassie.

So it goes. Add Harold to the list, and when we come in future years we will pay our respects here too, and tell other tales about nurses and poets, freedom fighters and playwrights. You could fill all London with the stories of those who lie here.