ARTYFACTS: May 2013

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Simon Garfield – too much latitude

We all like a good map - we guys that is. And as this was billed as ‘Why the world looks the way it does’ I expected Garfield to peel away maps to reveal something deeper about how we see the world through maps. Instead we got anecdotes about maps, strung together chronologically, but no real revelations about the cultural, political or philosophical role of maps. The stories were too long and too weak, which meant he overran by 20 minutes, leaving no time for questions. Too much latitude.
History of Maps
First, we had a quick, well not really quick, run through of maps since the Eratosthenes 3rd C BC map, based, he claimed, on travellers’ tales, as there were no maps before this. There were no maps before this! We have maps of the skies in Lascaux that are 18,500 years old, Minoan maps, Clay tablet maps at about 2500BC, Papyrus maps at about 1600BC, Anaximander, Hecataeus and others long before Eratosthenes.
Mapped mistakes
The only point of real significance in the whole talk, for me, was the fact that California was represented in a 1650 map as an island, and this mistake was repeated for over 200 years by 250 cartographers, the last in 1860. This is an interesting epistemological question, as paper-based knowledge, divorced from reality, can indeed fossilise false knowledge. It’s why Wikipedia has a far more sophisticated view of knowledge than the Encyclopaedia Britannica. There are many examples of such mistakes, including the Mountains of Kong in Africa. That was worth exploring.
Annoyingly, and this happens frequently at book events, which are clearly aimed at older luddites, he had a go at Apple for releasing poor maps on the iPhone. Big deal. Nothing positive about Google Earth or Google Maps or the fact that I can walk down my own street showing the entire route on my phone. Nothing about the triangulation of five satellites and smart algorithms, to deliver my exact position on my SatNav. Nothing about screen-based maps making paper maps redundant. Just some wrong-headed comment about it all being held on ‘mainframes’ – mainframes!

In truth, we have entered an era of realism in maps, local, global and cosmic, that are truly astonishing and revelatory. From the sub-atomic to the cosmic, maps now reveal everything from our inner genome to the history of time and the universe. We are literally capturing, digitally, people, places and events in time on a greater scale than ever before. What are the consequences of all of this mapping – drones, death from invisible sources, the potential loss of freedom from mapping (surveillance) or new knowledge and progress… or a useful source of anecdotes?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Flaming Lips – terror, joy and light side of the moon

Almost impossible to describe the light show but if anyone in the audience was on acid they’d be certifiable at the end of the show. Wayne Coyne stood, gulping down Red Bulls, high on a podium and two massive bunches of optic cables emerged from his groin, looped back on either side behind him up to the roof and along the front of the stage. These pulsed with light throughout the show. The back of the stage was a solid wall of intense light and colour, and along the front of the stage were huge silver hemispheres that reflected the output of what must have been the most expensive electricity bill the Dome has ever seen. Wayne was sporting a blue and turquoise suit and nursed a baby doll as he sang. Just another day at the office.
A Spinal Tap moment came when the gantry descended down towards Wayne’s head just behind him it then spat out colour to the back of the hall. Red Bulls seemed to keep him going as he was emerging from a bout of flu that saw his London gig cancelled. But nothing stops Wayne when he’s on a joyous roll and that’s what the Lips are all about – pure joy.  True to form they come up with a surprise, as their new album The Terror is a frightening series of songs that don’t play many happy cards. Blasts of sound accompanied by explosions of colour and light from the amazing light show attacked your ears and eyes. But there were spells of pure beauty, like ‘Do you realise?’ when bliss returns. They even played Dark Side of the Moon, in tribute to the fact that the Dome was where it was first performed. Stepped out of the Dome into a full moon with two thousand happy souls and felt on top of my own little world.

Monday, May 20, 2013

BUG: Fat Boy Slim - art of the music video

For years our football team had a record label's logo on the front of their shirts  - Skint. Tonight we turned out to see some of the iconic videos that Norman Cook and that label has turned out over the years. First up was the video that deconstructed video - Everybody Needs a 303. The guy is a local doorman called 'Perv'.
Push the Tempo used poles to shake actors with the poles being removed afterwards.

Then the masterpiece that is Praise me by the genius Spike Jonze. Rejected by MTV for being of insufficient quality it went on to take every award known to man in the Music Video world.
Then another piece of art - Christopher Walken dancing in the Marriot in LA.
I'm not a great fan of the video art I see in installations (there's one particularly bad example in the Univ of Brighton gallery as I write) as I think the real talent shows itself in music videos. Directors like Tim Pope and Spike Jonze. Joyous evening, lots of laughs and some great music videos.

Treasure Island by Nick Shaxon. Book made me angry, talk angrier

A fine book, full of detail, that uncovers the murky world of the ‘second British Empire’ – tax havens. Let me put my tax cards on the table. I’ve been out on UKuncut demos, been kettled and had my photo taken and mug videoed – all because I object to pin-stripe theft. There really is one law for the rich and another for the poor and it’s crippling the world economy, with a flood of capital out of developing countries as well as the rich salting away their treasure. And let’s be clear, this is about banks and bankers – the pinstripe infrastructure of advisers and lawyers are compliant but it’s really those bottom-feeders the bankers who are to blame. But it’s not about bank accounts. No, it’s about brass plaque trusts and companies – smokescreens. Tax evasion is abusive. Now that I’ve got that off my treasure chest….
The City of London is a big player – unaccountable, secretive and abusive, it lobbies and protects these practices. The British component is huge, centred around Jersey, Guernsey and the isle of Man but also the British Virgin Isles, Caymen Island and Bermuda. It’s big and it’s global. Criminal money and practices are mixed up with other money. None of this is clean.
Is there a clean-up? Not really. But make no mistake, public opinion has swung against the practice and is rock solid – we hate it. But Osborne and others are playing a game of obfuscation. The weasel word ‘competition’ has crept in. We need ‘competitive tax markets’. Read that again. It makes no sense. It’s a race to the bottom, where reasonable, democratic decisions by states are undermined by the few for the benefit of the few. All tax havens are an affront to decency, fairness and even fair markets. The book made me angry, the talk made me angrier.

Tchaikovsky: As fate would have it in St Bartholemews by Sussex Symphony Orchestra

Peter Ilyich wasn’t the cheeriest of chaps and after a marriage to the mad Milyukova and the equivalent of online dating (they never actually met) with von Meck, he composed theses surprisingly cheery pieces.
First, thanks to my friend Andy Wooler, not only for getting me a ticket but also a front row seat. St Barts is a Brighton landmark, as tall as the pier is long, a huge brick box that towers above the North Lanes. Inside it’s a single long nave with Byzantine type mosaics. Fantastic venue.
Capriccio Italien got us off to a lively start. I was literally in the lap of the violin section, which was fabulous, as I could hear every note. Then a Rococo theme for Cello, played by Pavlos Carvalho. Again, I could almost touch him. Finally, Symphony No. 4. As fate would have it, the orochestra were crammed into one  narrow end of the church and maybe this is why they sounded so forceful. 
Great evening in a great setting by the wonderful Sussex Symphony Orchestra, who played beautifully. Their hearts were in this performance. Thanks again Andy.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Manus Noble – surprise, surprise

Some Apollonian, European Bach followed by more Dionysian, South American  Morel (Venezuelan) and Piazzolla (Argentinian). Then a complete surprise – an abstract piece about being poisoned by Deadly Nightshade by Bruce MacCombie. A single note as the poison struck, then trills of delirium as it took over the mind, clusters of notes change slightly, like cells multiplying and there’s bits of chaos and bits of calm – madness in music. Eventually it kills. Back to Mongore (Paraguayan) then a jazzy piece by his old teacher, Gary Ryan. But it was the finale I enjoyed most, Gary Ryan’s Rockweeed, a mash-up of guitar techniques – slide, jazz, rock, scratching, plucking  - you name it, it’s in there, surprise after surprise. For an encore he did one of his own pieces, an Irish tune. Great to hear a young musician eschew the standard repertoire for a box of surprises. Classical music needs to get out more and these youngsters are leading the way.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Auf wiedersehn Alexanderplatz!

OK I give up. Over eight hours in and I’ve had it. There’s Epics and Epics. It may be a masterpiece, if so it’s beyond me. It may be evocative of the period, if so I’m blind to it. Having just emerged into the sunshine after a total of eight hours in a cinema watching seven episodes of Berlin Alexanderplatz in two batches; I’m whacked,
Billed as a sort of mini-series before the mini-series, a boxset before boxsets, Alexanderplatz was a 14 part series made in 1980 by Fassbinder. But that was 33 years ago and it hasn’t passed the test of TV time. Stephen Johnson made some very good points in Everything Bad is Good for You, when he pointed out that TV, way back then, was remarkably primitive compared to contemporary drama. It tended to have one plot line with a limited number of characters. Compare this to contemporary drama, especially 24, The Wire, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Southlands and so on. Multiple threads, characters and superb scripts. The test of TV time is tough.
Alexanderplatz is of its day; slow, literal and often ponderous with one plot line. What the modern viewer has to struggle with is the simplicity, pace and lack of context. There doesn’t appear to have had a budget that could sustain big street shots and you get no real feel for what Berlin was really like pre-war. Of course, it was obliterated, so it isn’t easy.
We’re so used to seeing cinema as spectacle, with high production values, quick edits and superb audio and music. This seems almost amateurish in places. To be fair, some of the acting IS amateurish. But it also suffers from being too loyal to the novel. There’s a lot of exposition lifted from the text and few modern cinema techniques are used to reflect the subtlety of a good novel.
There’s a point where something like this becomes, not a work of art but an artefact in the history of media. Things move on and genuinely progress and some things fall to the wayside. Of the forty or so souls in the cinema I’m sure some will persevere to the end. Not me. Life’s too short. Auf wiedersehn Alexanderplatz.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Major Tom: a woman, a dog and SHOWTIME. Delightful!

Delightful – that’s the word I’d use – not deep, not profound, but delightful. And that’s enough for me. I sat entranced for a full hour (unusual for me) by the simple act of a woman, her Basset hound, some video, several costume changes and a delivery that was so charming and unarming, that it lulled you completely into her world.
It’s a tale of dog shows, beauty contests and a woman who does things - well just for the hell of it. Of course, it’s about success, failure, trying, overcoming and values. There was something oddly surreal bout her delivery – it was monotone but never dull, simple but quite complex and full of little surprises - like the odd swear word or echoes of her Northern accent. That’s the great thing about this performance – you really do have to see her to get it. So go see her….. fantastic piece of one-woman theatre.

Bigmouth: speeches from the edge - powerful stuff

A suited man walks in and stands behind a long table, with a row of different shaped microphones. He chants and sings but above all he reads, in different voices and languages, a series of speeches across 2500 years of history. He has a very ‘Dutch’ face – like someone out of a Bruegel painting, with a wide mouth and a handsome, muppet-like. This meant that you watched his mouth and face whenever he spoke or sang.
It starts with Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor speech (in Dutch) where Christ is returns but is yet again condemned. In Dutch it sounded like a Calvinist rebuke, The anarchist cries out that he would do what he did, again and again and again. Pericles funeral oration (in French) from Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War is a stunning piece of oratory pointing towards an age when glory was greater than death. I’m doing the Harvard edX course on Heroes of Ancient Greece and this one speech is central to that whole perspective. Socrates first person speech from Plato’s Apology is read in French but I'm not sure why. (There’s another version by Xenophon that is less flattering.) That would have been interesting. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful plea for reason and an attack on luxury and consumerism that had as much resonance in the room, as it had at his trial. We then have a Goebbels/Patton rap-battle, one coldly Teutonic (in German), the other ranting (in American English). Both sound unhinged. And do it goes, with Osama Bin Laden, Reagan, JFK, Martin Luther King, MalcolmX and ending, oddly with Ann Coulter, with a speech so extreme, that she sounded like a white-trash Hitler.
These were all ‘on the edge’ speeches – on the edge of death, war, invasions, terror, megalomania. It was polemical, but not one dimensional. The voices came from all sorts of positions. Perhaps that was the point, that history is a series of shrill, contradictory and opposed ‘voices’? Powerful stuff.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Roy Hutchins: Poetry as polemic…

Went to an abridged reading of the Old-Etonian Heathcote Williams The Poetry Army, had four stools, four readers and Roy at a mike stringing it all together. It was a polemical piece that strung together snippets of poetry from a full range of English and foreign poetry trying to claim that poetry has changed the world. It’s a riposte to Auden’s famous line from his poem In Memory of W, B. Yeats, “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives In the valley of its making”.
So poetry stopped the Vietnam war, the building of more nuclear power stations in japan and nuclear proliferation. It was also the cause of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. I think not. Sure poetry, or more correctly poetry & songwriting, given these readings, can contribute to political change but the proposition is, as Auden claimed, deeply suspect. The piece is classic Williams, with absolutely no sense of balance. Pure polemic.
Everyone in the audience was surely thinking the same thing - too one sided. No mention of the explicit fascism in Pound, Yeats or Eliot. No mention of the poetry in National Anthems or of uncomfortable ideologies. No mention of Anglo-Saxon poetry that worships war and warriors. No mention of the poetry in the Koran that calls for death to Infidels. And here in the UK, no mention of the Poet Laureate, who HAS to pen a poem to the Queen and play a curiously obsequious game. No mention of the misogyny and homophobia in rap.
It was just too polemical, too long and too homogeneous. Also, single loines or couplets start to sound like epigrams and mottos when read out of context. Poetry suffers badly from being cannibalised. Performance is different from poetry. It needs variation and structure, not a relentless 50 minute reading, either from paper, or an ear-feed. In the end, this was not performance, just people ‘reading’. Couldn’t the four readers on the stools have made the effort to learn the lines?
To be honest the young Spoken Word artists have conquered this space. Go see Scroobius Pip if you want real, contemporary subversion. This had the feel of a old-school, bookshop poetry reading, not an edgy political event.