David Bowie

The news broke across my television screen like lightening, how sad that this flash brought the news of David Bowie’s death. Rather than illuminating this one left the world a darker, emptier place.

Black Star David Bowie/Johan Renck
Black Star David Bowie/Johan Renck

Things had been quiet for much of the last decade but it was always comforting to know he was there, there to set the bar. No matter what atrocities were unleashed by the music industry, his quiet presence served as a reminder of how to do it, how to be a true creative.

Many people will write about the specificities of Bowie’s oeuvre, but it is Bowie the creative that, I believe, is most important: he was the epitome of the creative spirit; he embodied every quality that any creative person should cultivate. He voracious in his pursuit of knowledge and possessed a fierce and restless intellect. As an artist he was fully engaged in the world; read or listen to any of the few interviews he gave and pay attention to the range of subjects and the depth in which they are discussed.

Whatever mode he worked in Bowie immersed himself in the creative process; yet while he played at being different characters he never played at being creative. From writing and arranging to (reluctantly) performing, acting and painting–everything was an opportunity to explore the world around him and his place within it. He created for himself making his personal experience a collective one (what must be the ultimate goal of any artistic enterprise) without allowing himself to be categorized or stifled by the people with meaningless job titles that constitute: “the industry”. And so he remained authentic to the last.

This is, perhaps, his most important contribution to the creative world, a world sadly overstuffed with plastic, talentless wannabe’s; puppets of the moneymen who appear virally (how apt), and then vanish once the hype has died down. Not for Bowie though, forever looking and moving forward, he did it his way, always, without compromise.

If Bowie’s legacy reveals one thing to us it is that as creatives, we must claim the right to express ourselves as we wish to: unencumbered by restrictions imposed by “the industry” and market forces. So let’s follow the Black Star.

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Clear Lines should not be crossed

Have you ever talked about rape at a dinner party? No, well you should. That is what Winnie M Li, co-curator of the Clear Lines Festival thinks should happen. Why? Because the there is a problem with current debates: not only are they virtually nonexistent they are also dominated by a tone that denigrate victims rather than deal honestly and openly with the real issues.

Open to all and employing the arts as a platform the Clear Lines Festival, which ran from 30th July to 2nd August 2015, was instigated to provide a safe environment for people to explore issues relating to sexual violence in a way that would replace the deafening silence and social imposed shame with “insight, understanding and community”.

Using the arts as a medium was a masterstroke on the part of the organizers. Writing, photography, painting, film, theatre, poetry and comedy all served to create an atmosphere that encourage all to share their thoughts and feelings, their questions and fears and, most painfully, their experiences. Many of the women present, whether as a part of the organizational team or as an attendee, are survivors of sexual violence; their presence and their voices formed the solemn and inspirational core of the event.

It was clear from the beginning that despite the traumatic nature of what happened to them, none of those women wanted to be seen, to be labeled, as victims; hence the term: survivor. Some spoke about the attack, or attacks on them with a calm state of detachment, others were more openly emotional, more fragile, while others were angry. For each of the survivors there is no escaping the fact that the attacks happened, they are a part of their lives that will be with them forever, but they are not something that will, or should define them as women, as human beings. Each one of the survivors at the festival was, in her own way and in her own time, overcoming what was forced upon her: the destructive will of a man. Each one of them was truly magnificent in their transcendence, their courage and strength was one of the most inspiring things I have ever seen and should it serve as a lesson to us all.

The festival was a success because it was free of the stereotypes and biases that choke the media and the entertainment industry. The women weren’t headlines or statistics, their accounts weren’t used to shock or titillate; instead they communicated honestly about what, as one attendee put it “fifty percent of the population has to worry about as soon as they develop tits”.

This is the degree of openness that every taboo subject, not just sexual assault needs, and this community of though and experience must be the template for more of these events; events where the arts can provide a safe and respectful platform for the people to communicate meaningfully, so as to dispel the easily accepted myths that develop in the wake of embarrassed silence.

 

Luc Delahaye

The first posting on this blog is a get to know me book list. It was only a few days ago, while looking through my bookshelves that is realized I had hadn’t included any work by Luc Delahaye. I could believe I had left him out, especially as he is one of my favorite photographers.

Delahaye was for a number of years a photojournalist with Magnum Photos. His journalistic work, often on assignment for Newsweek, took him to Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Chechnya, amongst other places and won him a number of prestigious awards. In 2004, declaring himself to be an artist, he resigned from Magnum, not that this meant a change of subject matter; he continued to photograph in war zones and other areas blighted by social upheaval. As a photojournalist, and a Magnum member, the presence of Robert Capa is never too far away, with the famous dictum: If your pictures aren’t good enough you’re aren’t close enough being the litmus test for such work. But Delahaye seems to have not got the memo. He certainly got physically close but there was an emotional detachment – his is a cool observational eye.

He sought to formalise this approach, firstly for the book L’Autre where he used a hidden camera to photograph the people sitting opposite him on the Paris Metro. This exercise helped restore a lost faith in photography and was followed by two long trips to Russia that culminated in the book: Winterreise.

For me this small book stands as one of the finest examples of its kind. The work feels different to the journalism the preceded it. One gets the feeling that the melancholy that emanates from it is as much a reflection of Delahaye’s state of mind as is of the social decline experienced in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Spending time with drunks, criminals, addicts and the homeless Delahaye depicts a Russia that could easy have come straight out of a Dostoyevski novel.

Though it does not have the hard edge of his journalistic work, there is a sense of discomfort when looking at some of the images. The profound squalor, the feeling of hopelessness, the substance abuse and violence that offers the only way out of such dire circumstances. There are no happy people here, no smiley families or children having fun, instead everyone looks old before his or her time. In what must be the most heartbreaking image in the book a toddler, sat on the edge of a bed in a filthy room next to her older sibling, feet in layers of dirty socks, hair a tangled mess, she looks at the floor, dejected, struggling under the burdens of a life that no child should have to live. Her demeanor is that of an old lady, someone worn out or rather worn down by the unrelenting hardness of life. One wonders if she’ll ever make it to actual old age – it seems though that the odds are stacked against her.

In other images, of people on beds – a recurring theme – we see adults passed out from drink or hard drugs; lined up for arrest; beaten by the mafia, at work down a mine or in factory that looks like the gateway to another layer of hell and, like modern day hunter gatherers in a post apocalyptic nether world foraging on open landfill sites. There are small signs of what is to come though, the faint smudge of a building sized Coca-Cola logo herald the rampant capitalism of the Putin era with its oligarchs and crass nouveau riche, they haven’t arrived yet and they certainly wont bring any solace to these people, they’ll just ignore them as they drive by in their luxury cars or hold up in their mansions.

To say that this is a work of the highest caliber is an understatement. Rarely do photographers capture so intensely, so completely the atmosphere of a time, a place and a group of people. It is Delahye’s ability to capture this mood of a country at a time of profound change and uncertainty that is most striking. It is a lyrical work that seeps into the viewers consciousness, lodges itself their and stubbornly refuses to leave.

Luc Delahaye – Winterreise (Phaidon 2000)

No, No, No Jonathan Jones

Like a crashing bore at a birthday party Jonathan Jones has set forth more of his tedious thoughts on art – to be more specific: the funding of exhibitions. Along with practically everything else Jones seems to have a problem with the Royal Academy of Arts’ decision to use crowdfunding to pay for its Autumn Exhibition.

Unlike many large and well known institutions the RA receives no public subsidies, so in order to hold a major exhibition by acclaimed Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, it has decided to turn to Kickstarter as a means of raising the £100,000 needed. In return for a donation an individual will be rewarded with a limited edition print, private tour and otherwise unavailable online content etc.

None of this sounds controversial to me. But, according to Jones this is a crime of almost unspeakable proportions. Bizarrely, Jones turns to the concept of the wisdom of crowds’, presumably because it has the word crowd in it, to suggest that nothing good can come of what he describes as essentially being “mob rule”. He goes on at length about “crowd wisdom” being mistaken for democracy, the baying mobs that killed Jews during the crusades and the Gordon Riots (how many people have heard of them, but then, I imagine that he chose them as examples precisely for that reason), and the Arab Spring, which failed because of a lack of leaders and because it was ruined by those unruly mobs. It’s small wonder that he didn’t mention the Holocaust or at the very least the Nuremburg rallies or Kristallnacht. He obviously has no understanding of what a proper mob is. The Gordon riots I ask you?

Speaking of good crowds: What about the crowd of brave Tunisian hotel workers that formed a human shield to protect tourists from the marauding individual gunman? Or the London crowd that, in May this year, lifted a double-decker bus off of a unicyclist.

In his final paragraph Jones states: Crowds cannot appreciate art. Only individuals can because it speaks to our inmost feelings and perceptions. Only if we all saw with the same eyes would the crowd know best. But to see the same we would have to be a single programmed entity – a generation of robots. And I don’t think robots need art.

It is the individual versus the crowd dichotomy that takes the centre ground of Jones nonsensical argument. Only individuals can appreciate art, he claims, thus Pope Julius II is referred to as the greatest patron of the arts to have existed, while Charles Saachi is deemed, by Jones, to have been the most “daring” champion of the 1990’s Young British Artists. Today, he indignantly claims, all we are left with is the crowd friendly Grayson Perry.

But what does Jones think a crowd is? It is, and always will be, an aggregate of individuals. Yes there are times, like riots, when a crowd becomes a mob, given over to the influence of a seeming external malignant hand. But, has there ever been a case where this can applied to art exhibitions, or even more unlikely: their planning and fundraising? I’m sure we’d have heard of the Turner prize riots or Tate St Ives funding committee pogroms.

What Jones is doing, and it is a sign of his condescending snobbishness at its worst, is tacitly equating the crowd with, what are in his view: the common, uneducated masses. In an act of phony self deprecation Jones claims: I have no feel for the intricacies of music – I really do flit between Handel and Led Zeppelin – and I gladly defer to the knowledge and sensitivity of people who know their Reich from their Riley. I’m surprised that Jones can admit to need help in such matters. But, in doing so he betrays his actual intentions by declaring the necessity for a guiding hand – a sage – who can lead the culturally illiterate through the otherwise un-navigable land that is: The Art World. Someone just like him, perhaps?

It is surprising that Jones, someone who clearly sees himself as being a cut above the rest, has managed to trip himself up in such an obvious way by making such absurd claims regarding crowd funding; Frank Spencer couldn’t have done it better. If he is such an astute thinker as he imagines, surely Jones should have realized that essentially all exhibitions are essentially crowd funded. Just for Mr. Jones: all of those individuals that queue (a long thin crowd) and buy a ticket for an exhibition – are paying for the exhibition – the only difference being that the crowd funding is being sought retrospectively.

And it’s not as if the crowds are even choosing the art, something that Jones imagines to be happening or about to happen. It’s obvious of course that he would deplore this, because only the selected few, the council of elders is worthy of doing such a thing. It’s equally apparent that Jones is happy to see himself as a part of this elite – and this is the problem with Jones and many like him. He is nothing more than an opinionated snob who thinks that he has the right to dictate what is good taste to other people. He naturally takes any line that allows him to launch brickbats at those he feels are inferior, which seems to constitute the entire population of Great Britain. Anything that smacks of populism is to be beaten into extinction; if the plebs can understand and appreciate it he can’t stand on his self-erected high altar and preach at us; and if that happens what will happen to his sense of smug superiority?

There isn’t much information about Jones online – but given that he has been a member of the Turner Prize and BP Portrait Award judging panels and has written a number of books on art, he must posses a great deal of knowledge on the subject, enough at least to allow some people respect his opinion. How unexpected and pleasing, not-to-mention worthwhile it would be if instead of beating people over the head with his opinions, Jones actually took the time and effort to put his knowledge to good use by educating them. But instead of encouraging people to engage with the arts, Jones does the exact opposite; in reality he fills the role of the fatuous, tiresome uncle, the one who is wheeled out at Christmas only to stupefy his victim with his utterly tedious, outmoded and myopic thoughts. What a crashing bore.

So Called You Know Who

Last week in the House of Commons (perhaps it should be The So-Called House of Commons, given the number of former public school boys and millionaires it contains), David Cameron gave the BBC another salvo of Tory distain. His gripe, this time, is the BBC’s use of the term ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Or so-called ISIS, as the corporation would have it. It seems that the name given to this particular group of largely illiterate, mass murdering, child raping, torturing, imperialistic maniacs is what really matters to the British government, and addressing this vital point is the centre point of its fight back.

In raising this rather trite point, Cameron is showing us that he is doing something about the fiendish brutes. Presumably this is part of the “full spectrum response” he mentioned after the massacre in Tunisia. “Full spectrum response;” its sounds very menacing when spoken by a US president in an action movie, and is followed by a montage of the all-powerful and, not to mention, huge armed forces in their preparations to bomb the shit out of the bad guys. But when the phrase is followed by an assault on the BBC over what it calls a bunch of homicidal religious fanatics, it seem so far beyond pathetic that pathetic is a mere shimmer on the distant horizon. The only thing he achieved with his ridiculous speech was to add to all of the other parliamentary time wasting.

Cameron’s justification for his attack was that ISIS is neither Islamic nor a state. He prefers the acronym: ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) – I wonder if he has noticed that the Islamic State bit is still there? Both of these terms, though, are as open to interpretation as Islam itself. All religious beliefs are based on a large degree of interpretation by the believer and the contradictions that arise out of this are, and always have been, what fuel the many internecine conflicts that have plagued believers and nonbelievers alike. They are a guaranteed product of the system – just look to the history of any religion and the evidence will present itself. So I’m sorry to have tell you David, but ISIS, ISIL, IS, Daesh, by all means, choose which ever name you wish to call it, but it is, without doubt Islamic. Even if the shadowy former Ba’athist that created ISIS and, from Iraq, control the organization, aren’t necessarily devout, their faithful henchmen are. They are Muslims, Muslims who choose to interpret their religion in the most medieval of fashions: a feat that is made all the easier by the Koran itself, a book that sets forth plenty of helpful (holy) precedents.

There is a long history of unrecognised states, ISIS is just another to add on to it. I absolutely agree that it should not be recognized in any way, shape or form; however, it is an entirely different question for the people who live under ISIL rule. Some deplore it and some praise it. Again is a matter of perspective. And, I would argue as I have on the religious point that it is a state, because the people who form it believe it to be one. Whether other governments or news channels refer to it as such is again, in the some ways, rather trite. I doubt if ISIS care about whether western media and politico’s refer to them as a state or not; and I can guarantee that they are not going to pack up their guns, stop beheading infidels, give up crucifying children and stop throwing gay people from the top of tall buildings simply because a government in the despised West does not grant them official recognition as a sovereign state. I fully appreciate the symbolic point – but I think we’re passed that now.

Having said that, I don’t expect that there will be any genuine response to ISIS from any western country, especially Britain. There simply is not the will to do what needs to be done. But arguing over a name and a status, even if it scores some symbolic brownie points, really does show the depth of this government’s apathy and impotence.

I recently saw one of the Harry Potter movies on television. In it the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, would only speak of “you know who” in reference to Lord Voldemort, as if the name itself could do harm. All the while Lord Voldemort is out there and well on the way with his latest killing spree. Who’d of thought, on such a serious matter, life would imitate Harry Potter. Surely David Cameron – should stop ‘Fudgeing” it and ask himself: What’s in a So-Called name? Then, if he had any clue of what he is doing, he would realise how utterly pointless his name obsession is and do something worthwhile instead.

Why Anthropology Matters: Part Two

There has been a definite resurgence of feminism of late. Most media outlets now feature feminist issues with a degree of prominence and seriousness that quite possibly has never been seen or felt before. What strain of feminism you subscribe to depends largely on each individual personal disposition and experience. There are those who lean-to the more militant variety, for want of a better word, who see all men and quite a number of women as the enemy, while at the other end of the spectrum are those who are perhaps a little more lenient with regard to the other sex and may even welcome the support of men in overcoming gender prejudice. As can be expected there is much dogma in support of and in opposition to every shade of feminism, both of which are used by feminists against feminists, as-well-as by those who would attack the “movement” as a whole, which goes a long way to explaining why genuine change has been so elusive.

It is possible that things could very different though. If more people knew about what is, quite possibly, the most powerful of all feminist arguments, which was developed, ironically, by a male anthropologist. Employing both social and physical anthropology in his book Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, Chris Knight suggests that the creation of culture was the product of a social revolution by our female ancestors.

It is most likely that our early ancestors had developed a social system akin to those found in high order primates, such as chimpanzees; the harem system allowed the most dominant alpha male to jealously monopolize sexual access to ovulating females. Given that only a few females with a group would be ovulating at anyone time, this was a relatively straightforward task, he could with a high degree of confidence ensure that any offspring produced in the group were his; that this suits the dominant male is obvious, it is, however, not so good news if you were a subordinate male or especially if you were female. The development of our large brains meant that certain physical concessions had to be made: in order for females to give birth our brain must develop after birth. The result of this is that our offspring are far more dependent on their parents than those of other animals. This put our female ancestors under huge pressures – it is virtually impossible to forage for food and carry a baby at the same time. The only way for both mother and offspring to survive was an increased investment from a male. It was paramount that the alpha male system be smashed; to achieve this our female ancestors employed landscape-wide solidarity, at the centre of which was a revolutionary strategy, what Knight terms: the sex strike.

As a result of living in close physical proximity female reproductive cycles synchronized, this enabled them to deny dominant males the chance to guard and mate with females as they began to ovulate, he simply could not mate with all of them at once. This strategy, therefore, did not only benefit females but also the subordinate males, as they were now afforded the opportunity to procreate with the unguarded females, so it was in their interest to cooperate with the females, to support the sex strike. Initially this would have all relied entirely on actual physiological signals: real menstrual blood. However, Camilla Power, a colleague of Knight’s, has extended the theory. She realized that women did not always need to physically synchronize their cycles or display real blood. Once the groundwork had been laid, once that the signal was recognizable and the system accepted, women could fake menstruation using red ochre and elaborate symbolic display to state their intentions, displays that showed that while they bled, or pretended to bleed, they were also not human and male. The act of “becoming” another species and another sex only serves to make the messages even more unambiguous. There could be no mixed signals, no mistake in what is being asserted: an emphatic NO!

We can glimpse what may be recordings of this type of ritual action. Cave paintings in various sites in southern Africa show female figures with penises and horns; while samples of red ochre suggest an explosion in its use dated to between 100,000 and 120,000 thousand years ago. This combined with detailed analysis of female initiation rituals amongst various traditional African societies (the Khoisan for example), many of which feature neophytes dancing as if they were the male Eland (a large antelope), while the other women of the camp move as if mating with her. It is most improbable that this striking similarity is coincidental – there are far too many examples of rituals at the time of puberty which link menstrual taboos and hunting for that to be the case.

Having broken the shackles of the alpha males’ system of domination the females had to ensure that the males would stick around and provide the food that both they and their children needed. It was vital that they continue to act collectively: in doing so they could force the males to hunt and bring home the precious spoils. In playing their part males had to police their own and each others behavior through what can be seen as peer group pressure. Thus any infringement of the new social rules by any male, especially in relation to the food they were responsible for supplying and/or the temptation of illicit sexual relationships, would result in the sex strike being reinstated – in short if one male were to break the rules all males are punished. What is perhaps most important here, is that it was in the majority of male’s interest to support the action of the females; for in doing so they greatly improved their chances of mating, thus improving their own reproductive fitness. The crucial point of this theory is that society benefits when females are in full control of their bodies.

This may sound farfetched but in 2009, during a period of political instability, various Kenyan women’s organization organized a sex strike to force a resolution to the troublesome situation (Even prostitutes were offered financial compensation to join in). While the sex strikes’ impact has not been scientifically examined, Kenya did have a stable government after one week of the strike. There was also a call for a sex strike in Belgium, in 2011, after no stable government could be formed.

Perhaps if the work by Knight and Power was more well-known, or, dare I say it taught as part of a compulsory anthropology course in British schools, we may begin to see, not only genuinely empowered young women but also young men who could, and I’m sure would, act in solidarity with them. Why? because it would be in their interest to do so. Rather than today’s sham “left wing”, with its fragmented self-interest groups and divisive identity politics, there would be a united front of groups who realize that they have more in common with each other than many in their ranks would think or care to admit too, if only they could see past the dogma. First and foremost it would be clear that they are all the subject of social repression largely by the same groups. With this realization and the creation of a true, critically thinking – rather than purely reactionary – opposition, perhaps there would be a genuine chance for real and meaningful social change that benefits the many, not the few.

The Importance of Anthropology: Part One

The vast majority of people have no idea what anthropology is. I know this through personal experience; I hold two degrees in anthropology, and have spent considerable time, when asked, explaining the subject. Before asking the question, many people offer a speculative stab at what it might be. Oh, that’s the study of ants isn’t it? That’s to do with dinosaurs, right? Wrong.

Of course I don’t begrudge people their ignorance. Anthropology isn’t one of those disciplines that has a prominent position at most universities much less the media, unlike physics or astronomy, both of which have been featured heavily on the BBC, thanks to Brian Cox, who is now something of a nerdy sex symbol. I had never heard of anthropology while I was at school and I would back myself in stating that not too many of today’s students will have heard of it either. What a shame that is.

Anthropology is the study of what makes us human – it looks to explain our physical evolution as well as our cultural practices: their origins, development and interaction. It has been described as the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences. Anyone who has studied anthropology or has any familiarity with it will understand how incredibly important it is. This is especially so in an era where populations are more fluid than they have ever been and there is so much more contact between people of different cultures.

It would have been easy to mention race in the previous paragraph, I did not do so for one simple reason – it does not exist. We know this because anthropology (along with biology and the study of genetics) has taught us so: that there are physical differences between humans is obvious, that some of these differences can be shared by groups of humans is also plain to see, but, the notion that these physical variations can be used taxonomically to discern various subspecies within our genus and that these can be placed in a hierarchical system is without any scientific basis. As is the idea, at the very core of racism, that the variations in human physiology can be connected to behavioral traits both positive and negative. As Anthropologist and Geneticist, Jennifer Raff, in her critique of Nicolas Wades’ preposterous book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, makes very clear:

‘Humans are incredibly similar genetically. We only differ by about 0.1 percent of our genome. Compare that to chimpanzees, our closest relative. Individual chimps from the same population show more genetic differences than humans from different continents.’

As does Agustin Fuentes, Primatologist and Physical Anthropologist:

There are no genetic patterns that link all populations in just Africa, just Europe or just Asia to one another to the exclusion of other populations in other places. If you compare geographically separated populations within “continental” areas you get the same kind of variation as you would between them.

Just think if anthropology were taught in schools, this genetic knowledge along with that of the human fossil record could be used to destroy any glimmer of racism before it even had the chance to take hold in the minds of the young. If children were taught this then surely in time the very breath that feeds racism would be stifled to nothing.

If that wasn’t enough, then think of the benefit of teaching children more about different cultures. The emphasis here being the very human need for culture; that culture doesn’t only relate to that which is in a gallery or a section of a newspaper; but that culture lives and breathes in each and every one of us. It is inevitable that future generations will interact with a variety of increasingly diverse cultures and that this contact will lead in turn to a more culturally diverse population, as members of groups marry and raise mix cultured (not race) offspring. We should be careful though not to fall into the trap of cultural relativism, which in some quarters has made something of a comeback. Respecting different cultures is one thing, but being deferential to any of the barbaric practices that are forced onto people in the name of culture is unacceptable. Any cultural institution or practice that is used as a tool of oppression must be fought at all costs.

Over the last few years there has been a resurgence of feminist thinking. I have my problems with identity politics, but one cannot argue with the notion that women are, in far too many areas of life – in far too many cultures, a distinct underclass. While some of those calling themselves feminists argue the finer points of dogma and seem intent on only creating further inter and intra-group schisms, many women (and men) are totally unaware of the powerful role anthropology could play in not only gaining social equality, but, more importantly emancipation.

Part two will follow shortly.