Thursday, 31 March 2011


Royal Academy of Arts, until 7 April 2011

According to the website, this show “replaces the traditional survey with a provisional set of juxtapositions that challenges the viewer to make new connections.”

In other words, there’s no single big idea it wants to strike you with so much as an assemblage of points, a series of suggestions flying in different directions, works not lined up like words in a developing argument but thrown into a grab-bag. At one point, Damien Hirst insists sculpture must have a “wow factor”, or else its not really utilising its own medium.  So, instead of responding to a through-line that’s not really there, let’s take his word and go through things in search of wows.

Wow 1! Transcending the Primitive

After an introductory area contrasting representational and abstract sculpture, we enter the room ’Theft By Finding.’ This alternates primitive sculptures from the British Museum with modernist works which they inspired. Despite all the talk of juxtapositions, what we have here is anti-juxtapositional - separate types of objects are put together so we might see the links. (And, truth to tell, quite frequently I couldn’t tell ancient from modern.)

It’s not too fanciful to say that modernists were not just influenced by primitive art but by this primitive art. It seems generally agreed that it was with its sculpture that primitive art had its greatest influence. (Even when affecting other disciplines, such as Picasso painting heads as African masks.) Sculpture was then seen as inherently primitive, or at most artisan, as it implied working with your hands. And these British Museum displays are some of the very pieces which our modern British sculptors will have gazed upon.

...which has it’s pros and cons. In contrast to the earlier Gauguin show (more of which anon), and despite that headline word “theft”, we see the primitive here pretty much the way the modernists saw it – something idealised, something culturally unified irrespective of where in the world it was made, something easily transportable, something open for plunder.

In an uncommented moment, a male figure from the Congo carries both a staff and a gun. Was this a deliberate attempt to unite the modern and ancient worlds, or was the artist simply depicting what he saw around him? Whichever way, the modern artifact questions the supposed ‘authenticity’ of these ‘primitive’ pieces. The Westerners blithely assumed their arrival would leave this art completely unaffected, in some supposed state of natural timelessness. (The recent Gryff Rhys Jones programme ’Hidden Treasures of African Art’ had some interesting material on this, including workshops where ‘primitive’ icons would be knocked up and then roughed up to give them that lucrative look of age.)

It all seems almost too easy to kick holes in. Of course it’s an absurdly over-romanticised picture, of course the master looking at the servant will see only what he wants. In some ways it feels as if the whole of modernism is held in this one room, like a plant whose growth is defined by its roots.

But at the very same time you see through it all you keep looking. Modernism should be spent, but it’s like something you’re forever picking up to throw away only to find yourself gazing at. In some way I find hard to define, this work remains compelling. Modernism continues to exert its spell.

Yet, however enjoyable an experience this room is, the fact remains that it tells us something uncontroversial, something we already know, and in a fairly orthodox manner. With it we imagine what we have in store is a solid but unchallenging chronology, a kind of Cliffs Notes version of the history of British sculpture. But it turns out the true juxtaposition comes when you walk into the next room where things (almost literally) come alive...

Photograph: David Levene from the Guardian

If you don’t get a wow factor from Jacob Epstein’s giant alabaster ‘Adam’ (1938, above), please check your pulse. As the indicia explains, this “builds on and transforms the lessons learnt from the British Museum by aspiring to give contemporary figures a monumental quality.” But it’s not just the gargantuan scale that marks the shift... The handouts describe it as possessing “an enduring vitality”, neatly summing up the paradox it contains. For this mighty behemoth is a shape of two halves...

The primitive statues in the previous room, whatever the nonsense about them coming from outside time,  are notably almost always static in pose - suggesting they take up a fixed place in an eternal cosmos. Detail will sometimes even trail off beneath the torso, as if that’s not the centre of attention. The giant Easter island heads, embedded in the Earth, take this to the fullest extreme but it’s a general tendency. As Hannah Arendt says, quoted later in the exhibition, “the things of the world have the function of stabilising human life.” And indeed here the head is set straight back, as if fixed upon the heavens, the arms held firmly against the chest.

But look to the lower half – one foot striding boldly forward, the dick swinging as if bouncing along. The active pose reminded me of those old Sinbad films which almost always featured a statue coming to life. It’s no longer merely imitative of the ancient, it’s something modern rooted in the ancient.

Although put in with Henry Moore’s ‘Snake’ (1924), this is Adam in the sense only of the first man. It is nothing to do with the subservient and then fearful character from the Bible, if anything this first man is Nietzschean. It’s a pre-Fall myth of a time when primordial man towered like a giant over the Earth, simultaneously looking skyward and dominating his realm.

Primitive mythology is replete with images of the axis mundi (or world centre), the one tree or giant pillar that joins heaven and Earth. But here that pillar has become man himself. The image thereby becomes the axis mundi equivalent of a two-way street. Rather than a distant mountain or stairway for ascetics to ascend, it becomes not escape route from but linkage point to the Earth.

(Some of the more pointed critiques of this show have lamented that it excludes the Vorticists. Though Epstein was a paid-up member, this work comes from after their dissolution and – great though it is - doesn’t resemble their style. But the good news is that this summer Tate Britain is devoting a show to them! I shall certainly be there!)

Not Quite Wowed: Sculpture as Power Totem

The next room, ‘The Establishment Figure', embarks upon a new theme - “the various ways in which the sculpted figure can acquire authority.” This time Alfred Gilbert’s ‘Jubilee Memorial to Queen Victoria’ (1887, above) dominates the room, with a wow factor of quite a different kind. Equally huge of scale (the plinth itself over three feet tall), it’s less monumental achievement than grand folly – it looks spectacular but spectacularly wrong!  Though officially commissioned, if the materials weren’t so costly and cumbersome to use you would think it a piece of outsider art.

We see a face recurrently on the coins and stamps we use, and we accept that it is only a tangentially a real person, that what it represents is the focus. But with this work the person is strangely present, yet simultaneously trapped within the apparatus of power. Her legs disappear into the billowing folds of her cloak, as if the years have fused her with her throne – like Prometheus bound to his rock. A crown is on her head, but an oversize one still hovers above, highlit in gilt against the bronze used elsewhere, as if it rules her rather than she rules through it. Its removed depiction of Victoria reminded me of the grand but isolated figure from Moore and Campbell’s ’From Hell’ comic. Though I doubt any of this was intentional on the part of the artist, it recalls not Britannia ruling the waves but a bird in a gilded cage.

('From Hell' by Moore & Campbell, published by Top Shelf.)

But before we let this wow factor distract us we should note that the room’s theme, a recurrent one in sculpture, is perhaps rather glossed over. There are only two other figures in the room, and neither especially memorable.

It seems to me that the next two rooms would have worked better swapped over, with the “public sculpture” of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore following the power art of ‘The Establishment Figure’, so let’s pretend here that they were done that way. In the post-war era power became less personalised, more likely to reside in institutions. A hospital or school was once be named after a local magnate, and have a towering sculpture or commanding portrait of him dominating it’s entrance. Post-war they would be run by a government department. (Increasingly today they will be run by a corporation, and prominently feature their logo.)

It therefore came to be commemorated in sculpture of semi-abstracted figures and idealised forms. Hepworth’s ’Single Form (Memorial)’ (1961, above) was for the UN building. (A body which did not even exist pre-war.) We might quibble that Lutyen’s Cenotaph memorial (shown in the first room), dedicated to the “Unknown Soldier”, was already working in this direction, but this is certainly something which came to a head after the Second World War. 

As was chewed over on the recent show devoted to Moore, this ultimately proved to be the means by which Modernism became conservative. There’s a strange swapping-over afoot. The fault-line running through something like Expressionism is its fixation with the self, with the subjective world. Moore and Hepworth don’t resolve this problem, they merely invert it. Art becomes all about the social and ends up as merely institutional.

But it doesn’t pay to get too schematic about these things, and both works on display here have their impact. I might even have awarded them a fully-fledged Wow! factor had they been less familiar to me.

Wow 2: Splitting the Sculptural Atom

The next room, ‘Ceramics and the Influence of Craft,’ has as it’s thesis that ceramics, particularly from China, led to “a growing appreciation of abstract beauty.” Perhaps a side-effect of this is that it leads to sculpture in the round, works with no obvious front. Though the show does not specifically comment on this it’s notable that the display cabinets have to be single units dotting the room, allowing punters to walk around them.

These roots of abstraction should lead us into the first room to be devoted to a single work – Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore’s “total environment” piece ‘an Exhibit’ (Wacky capitalisation Theirs) of 1957. I’m not sure I saw much mention of this work before attending, yet it’s perhaps the biggest wow of the show. This scant media attention may stem from it being highly site-specific, as much instillation piece as sculpture, you’d only get a much reduced sense of it in a photo or on a TV screen. In fact description does it no favours, just try the following... a series of coloured panes (often semi-transparent) arranged at different heights and angles. Trust me, it’s truly one of those had-to-be-there things.

The indicia comments “the viewer... is placed within the work, looks through it instead of outside.” In fact even the other punters become incorporated, what are normally intruding heads between you and the works  or at best peripheral shadows. As they walk through it, on their grounded linear paths, they emphasise by contrast how it has no up, no down, no left, no right.

It’s reminiscent of those sequences in Ditko’s Dr. Strange comics (below) where an alternate reality system of abstract shapes would suddenly burst into ours. This is enhanced by a juxtaposition that’s presumably unintentional, as it’s geometrical forms stand out from the classicism of the Academy’s architecture and decor – it’s curved arches and ornate ceilings.

I seem to be comparing everything to comics today. (Good job I didn’t mention how Epstein’s ’Adam’ recalls Jack Kirby!) So let’s quickly add another comparison – to the splitting of the atom, another great signifier of the post-war world. Sculpture, once a solid block of a thing, has become a series of elements floating in open space. It couldn’t be further from the sense of the eternal that opened this exhibition.

Not since seeing Gustav Metzger’s ’Liquid Crystal Environments’ at the Serpentine have I felt compelled to stay in a room so long after I’d ‘seen’ the piece of art. I kept thinking there must be some pattern or symmetry to it somewhere, but simultaneously felt delighted when I couldn’t decipher one. (I later read in the notes that “the work was constructed with a predetermined number of manufactured elements and a fixed set of rules.”) I perhaps got this sense from the feeling that the work, while exhilarating, is also calm and ordered. (Making Pasmore and Hamilton true disciples of Duchamp, not mere imitators.)

...but onwards to the only other work to be given a room of it’s own – Caro’s ‘Early One Morning’. When this show was featured on the Late Review, one panellist asked how come Caro’s work wasn’t just a load of old metal bolted together? So it’s not just me then. In fact, despite the single-room status, even the indicia seems lukewarm on the subject, telling us it’s “widely considered to be Caro’s greatest work” but adding that it comes on the coat-tails of Moore and Hepworth. Let’s move on...

The rest to follow...

Thursday, 24 March 2011


 ”After 1989, Capitalism has presented itself as the only realistic political-economic system. What effects has this ‘Capitalist Realism’ had on work, culture, education and mental health? Is it possible to imagine an alternative to capitalism that is not some throwback to discredited models of state control?”

...which is, you must admit, a pretty good question. If you wanted to reduce Mark Fisher’s ’Capitalist Realism’ to a crude soundbite, you could call it neoliberal economics in ideological form, the “cultural logic of late capitalism.” He concedes at one point that postmodernism might have sufficed as a term. (He would probably counter, however, that the need to reduce the term to a soundbite is itself an example of Capitalist Realism in action!) The book begins by utilising Cuaron’s ’Children of Men’ as an indicator: “In its world, as in ours, ultra-authoritarianism and Capital are by no means incompatible: internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist.”

What follows will not be a proper review of Fisher’s book (about which you could say much, both pro and con), but an initial focus on one aspect of it which then flies off on its own trajectory. (You are probably used to this sort of thing if you’ve been here before.)

Fisher could be seen as holding a double vision of Capitalist Realism. At one point he compares it to “the Thing in John Carpenter’s film of the same name: a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact.” It manifests itself as an ungraspable, unslayable foe, always one morph ahead of any opposition.

 Yet it is also characterised as an absurd, even farcical, state of affairs; obsessed with appearance over content, run by over-eager management gurus generating a tangle of meaningless ‘targets’ which merely clog any purposeful activity. Fisher asserts that Kafka, rather than Marx, was the true prophet of all this. But let’s make a more lowbrow comparison - to the “middle sort of people” in Douglas Adams’ ’Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ who (rejected by their home world as “useless”) come to colonise the Earth. Made up only of marketing men and documentary makers, they are unable to invent the wheel because they can’t decide what colour it should be, and in general precipitate planet-wide disaster.

 Neither is it suggested that Capitalist Realism has some schizo existence, shifting between these two conditions. For Fisher to be correct it must be both horror film and farce. One might predominate at certain times, but the other is never absent. We are talking about two heads for one monster – one ravenous beast, one hapless bureaucrat.

The title’s skit on Socialist Realism is of course deliberate. Fisher’s comparison of all this to Stalinism may initially seem mere mud-slinging, but actually proves to be unerringly accurate. Indeed, some of his hardest-hitting passages come in the chapter ‘All that is solid melts into PR: Market Stalinism and bureaucratic anti-production’, where he accounts his own experiences negotiating target culture while a Higher Education tutor.

“What we have is not a direct comparison of workers’ performance or output, but a comparison between the audited representation of that performance and output. Inevitably, a short-circuiting occurs, and work becomes geared towards the generation and massaging of representations rather than the official goal of the work itself...This reversal of priorities is one of the hallmarks of a system which might be characterised without hyperbole as ‘market Stalinism’. What late capitalism repeats from Stalinism is just this valuing of symbols of achievement over actual achievement... In a process that repeats itself with iron predictability everywhere that they are installed, targets quickly cease to be a way of measuring performance and become ends in themselves.”

He compares this to Stalin’s Five Year Plans, quoting Marshall Berman on the high death toll and poor productive results of “a brutal farce in which real people were killed by pseudo-events.”

With this “brutal farce”, Stalin could perhaps be described as the figure to pull Fisher’s two faces of Capitalist Realism together. After all, he was both monstrous tyrant and instigator of a thousand black farces. Fisher actually makes little attempt to reconcile this apparent contradiction, which might tempt the reader to conclude that it marks some kind of failure of his analysis. But what if he is actually correct, is pinpointing a genuinely paradoxical characteristic of our times? What if this disjunction is actually that of late capitalism itself?

It seems astonishing the speed at which neoliberal economics have colonised the ideological terrain. As Fisher points out “ what is currently called realistic was itself once ‘impossible’: the slew of privatisations that took place since the 1980s would have been unthinkable only a decade earlier... Conversely, what was once eminently possible is now deemed unrealistic.” The most egregious example must be the term ‘free schools’, which used to mean schools run along non-authoritarian lines and now means schools ‘free’ to be run for profit by private finance.

But what makes this shift so astonishing is that the facts on the ground are so often the very opposite of its innovative dreams. As Fisher says, “with the triumph of neoliberalism, bureaucracy was supposed to have been made obsolete; a relic of an unlamented Stalinist past. Yet this is at odds with the experiences of most people working and living in late capitalism, for whom bureaucracy remains very much a part of everyday life.”

Yet it’s notable that, when you argue this point with people, they will insist quite the opposite. I have worked for private corporations with people who did nothing but complain, day in and day out, about the excess bureaucracy and consequent inefficiency that we endured. But when asked how they squared that experience with their continuing belief in private enterprise, they would simply ignore the contradiction and reassert the mantra that “everybody knows” that free markets work best.

Capitalism sells itself as both rational and dynamic, a system where everything is tested and verified, and the best new ideas inherently rise to the top. But of course it’s not necessary for this to actually happen. What’s necessary is for this to be said to be happening. (Even if it was happening, it being said would still be more important.)

While the trickle-down theory of wealth has a poor basis in proof, the trickle-down theory of ideology is much more successful. For such workplace or pub arguments simply mimic public debates on the subject, merely in a less polysyllabic way. Currently, the British Medical Association is opposing the next wave of NHS privatisations on the grounds that previous examples have failed to make the intended improvements. (And in fact in many cases have made things worse.)

Of course such objections will not be countered so much as disregarded. Any positive results of privatisation will be heralded, any negative results will be at best trivialised, because “everybody knows” what the result would be before the experiment was conducted. (And of course this doesn’t even begin to cover the way in which ‘targets’ are skewed towards the desired results.) Similarly, Fisher comments that Blair’s “equality of opportunity” has resulted in not even a decrease in but a cessation of social mobility and an exponential increase in the wealth gap.

A Capital which is always ahead and infinitely mobile, yet simultaneously strangling itself with red tape, both horror film and farce. A proletariat brutally beaten back, in a permanent state of precarity, yet less class-conscious than ever and revelling in apparent consumerist affluence. How can this all be squared?

First, we should point out one flaw in Fisher’s (otherwise excellent) reading of Capitalist Realism as Market Stalinism. Socialist Realism forbad discussion of its failings, with gulags awaiting those who broke such strictures. But the facts which prove the lie of Capitalist Realism are, if anything, more available than at any other time in history. They are never further away than a mouse click or two. Yet, rather than my being put on trial for writing this blog entry, it is unlikely the authorities will even bother to monitor it.

Of course response to those who determine to do something about the state of affairs is increasingly harsh, with police insistence on crushing demonstrations leading to the death of Ian Tomlinson and the injury of many more. Yet the overall psychological effect is that of a champion boxer not even bothering to raise his fists in the normal defensive stance. It conveys the message that it would be pointless to tackle him.

But more importantly, we should not fall into the trap of taking Capitalist Realism on its own terms. If it did not succeed in delivering better product and services to the consumer, then that was never its aim. Its true purpose, of course, was to break organised labour and it was brought in on the back of a series of class struggle victories Capital achieved in the Eighties. (Principally the Miner’s Strike.) Arguing otherwise is like saying that the Greeks beat the Trojans on the battlefield, so must have had a better system of accountancy.

Capitalism styles itself an innovator, unshackled to tradition, unafraid of (in Blair’s phrase) the “forces of conservatism.” But whenever it made this claim, we’d counter that the motor of innovation was in fact class struggle. Perhaps the core of Marx comes from the introduction to the Communist Manifesto, that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” Examples are legion; for example, the Fordist production line was not some inevitable step in the linear passage of ‘progress’, but was devised with the specific aim of breaking the power of the craft unions in the car plants.

Marx developed this argument by distinguishing between the formal and the actual subsumption of labour by Capital. At first Capital merely houses the proletariat in its workplaces, in effect stealing what they have made as soon as it rolls off the production line, like free range chickens and their eggs. But over time every second, every inch came to be controlled and regulated. Moreover, this continues outside of the workplace. Pretty soon there are no zones left autonomous from it - from free range chickens to battery hens. Of course these zones may still be contested, but that is the very point.

Traditionally, though disagreement raged about when this happened, there was agreement about what it meant. With no more spaces outside of it’s control, Capital inevitably becomes centered in the proletariat’s sight and they must go on to fight it in its entirely. It must be submitted to or destroyed.

Yet the reality has been quite different. As Fisher asserts, “class war has continued to be fought, but only by one side: the wealthy.” Of course, to the Capitalist Realist, that is the development that has made their world possible. Having defeated organised labour they can go on to pick off all their other opponents, such as labelling environmental protestors terrorists and temporarily imprisoning them as soon as they show up anywhere. Having remade society in their image they can now turn to the natural world. GM foods and the patenting of DNA go beyond defining nature as plunder, fit for grabs, and re-render it into one big machine – one which, if not performing efficiently enough for profits, is to be taken apart and tampered with.

But is this apparent victory their very moment of defeat? Will it turn out they needed us all along? Was our opposition actually propping them up? Did our struggle keep their wilder excesses on track, almost literally ground them? Are they like a brawler who lands a killer blow, but then tumbles himself through the swing of it? Target culture is a classic example. In the old, unionised days, targets could only be implemented after lengthy negotiations. This protracted process would force the bosses to consider which targets were most important, and focus on them. Nowadays targets are free to proliferate like weeds. Of course capitalist innovations continue – ‘better’ MP3 players emerge, blu-ray DVDs, HD TVs and i-Pads appear and quickly become desired commodities. But they themselves are symptoms of this over-reach, as capitalism exceeds itself.

In a way, the litmus test of this was the War. While unrest within Iraq soon became an unpullable thorn, there were few domestic consequences. After the biggest protest march in British history, the demonstrators were proved entirely right - but it was as if there was not a single general lesson to be learnt from this story. The buzzword of the political class became “move on”, in every sense except for the occupying troops (who were to stay put). Labour even went on to win the next election.

And of course, the banking crisis almost exactly followed this template, merely on a larger scale. Conceptually it pulled the threadbare rug from under the feet of neo-liberalism, exposing its rotten floorboards. But it’s as if they’re the only floor manufacturer in town. The only question left open is how quickly and how deeply the rest of us will be asked to pay for bailing out the bankers’ excesses, through public spending cuts.

But perhaps the real sign of the future happened within Iraq itself. A hamfisted, ideologically driven attempt to impose a ‘free market’ in Iraq merely brought chaos. Over eight billion dollars flown in to stimulate ‘enterprise’ simply went missing, while basic commodities such as electricity became scarce or unavailable. An infrastructure, damaged by years of sanctions but still high by the standards of the region, was decimated. Iraq was not reconstructed but deconstructed.

If the corrupt volatility of post-Saddam Iraq is the true face of Capitalist Realism, if it is both harbinger and microcosm of our future, then this prognosis is far from a cheery one. It will turn out that Capitalism did carry the seeds of it’s own destruction after all, but failed in it’s other main task – to create it’s gravediggers. The result would not be anarchy of the kind sought by anarchists (self-organised groups federating to co-ordinate production) but in the way feared by Capitalists – chaos, disorder and destruction. Capitalism collapsed will not lead to the same outcome as Capitalism overthrown.

In this way, Fisher’s book makes for an interesting comparison with Raoul Vaneigem’s 1967 agitational classic ’The Revolution of Everyday Life.’ They share the sense that the current phase of Capital is the final one, that having left itself nothing to eat it must now devour itself. Of course Fisher is far more cautious than Vaneigem in his prognosis. (At one point, Vaneigem recklessly predicts that capitalism will not outlast the millennium. Most commentators now contend that it did.) But this point of departure is in fact the point. Vaneigem was still talking about those gravediggers, predicting proletarian overthrow. Though he makes a few cautious suggestions for opposition, Fisher talks as though we are witnessing the end of the line.

So is this our inevitable doom? Such a fate is possible, perhaps even likely, but not necessarily inevitable. Firstly, ‘Stalinism’ eventually collapsed in the USSR, but took the best part of a century to do so. Moreover, the conditions it collapsed in are not necessarily comparable to the ‘world market’ of today. It is not the case that, as Stalinism collapsed, so inevitably must all forms of capitalism. As the banking crisis proved, capitalism has proved adept at surviving tremors and its collapse does not seem immediate. (Those who saw in it Capitals’ Armageddon are already looking pretty foolish.)

And of course there’s signs to prove the contrary notion, that the cuts hitched onto the back of the crisis will rekindle the class struggle. Fisher himself, previously somewhat sniffy about the direct action scene, has even participated in education cuts protests and compared their emergence to coming out of a depression.

 This is merely a thought experiment following one possible scenario. Yet it is not a scenario we tend to look into. Our forebears, writing at a time when Capital was weaker, did not have to consider it – and we follow obligingly in their wake. Like Holmes, we struggle without thinking that Moriaty could pull us off the Reichenbach Falls with him as he goes...

Further reading: My review of 'Inception' was heavily influenced by Fisher's book, on how contemporary cinema was reflecting the ideological terrain of neoliberalism.

Thursday, 17 March 2011


He’s way past being old enough to know better. He comes decked out in red and black, his calling is causing trouble and he’d probably think me a softy. Yes, my number one cartoon mascot, Dennis the Menace, is sixty today! Excuse me while I have a celebratory sip from my Dennis mug.

Of course no-one cares in the least about anything he’s done in the last twenty years, but that tends to be the fate of all cartoon mascots – the icon becomes completely detached from the character.

This BBC News item isn’t a bad piece, though the adventurous Minnie the Minx is probably a closer successor to Just William than the rambunctious Dennis. It even quotes from Beano artist and British comics historian Lew Stringer. (Whose Blimey! blog I’d heartily recommend to someone with an interest in the subject.)

The story of his name coming from a Music Hall song was new to me, and I thought it a little too close to Terry Nation’s non-existent encyclopedia. Indeed at first all the net references I found to it seemed suspiciously recent and referring back to that one Beano page. But then I came across this...

Thursday, 10 March 2011


 “On a fly-speckled summer’s eve
In the tenth long year of the siege
To the campfire gathered round we took our ease
And there were songs from better days
Black-slapping and glasses raised
The same worn-out stories told...”

In this adventure, Four Eyes went to see “anarcho-folk” outfit Blyth Power on Sunday 20th Feb and yet emerged clutching what follows in the place of a proper review...

 ‘Stitching In Time’, you see, is a song about something that took ten years. Which is fitting enough to make it the theme song for Blyth Power. Joseph Porter may have even written it ten years ago by now, for the band have been going for twenty-five. They’re here to do a benefit for SchNews, described by the Guardian as “the national newsletter of the protest movement”, who have themselves clocked up fifteen. It’s a night of longevity.

Many of the faces around me I must have seen for a similar length of time, and they look as flushed with drink as ever. And everything smells of bonfires, even though there isn’t actually a bonfire. It’s actually that sourceless smell of bonfires which acts as a Proustian cake upon me, reminding me of how long I’ve been going to such events. That smell is even more redolent of benefit gigs and drunken calls to arms than hearing earnest Crusties debate whether the Levellers “sold out” or not.

Mind you, the recent Damo Suzuki gig also nudged me along memory lane, for it marked my first visit to the newly opened Green Door Store. As things turn out, this is barely a venue at all; minimal furnishings, cardboard ‘glasses’ and crumbling brickwork residing under an overall sense of ramshackle. Everything seems to stay up and in place through a vague sense of good intention alone. Positioned not far from where all the old squat parties used to be, it feels more like a squat than any proper establishment.

Which of course is to say that I liked it.

Now squat culture might finally have had the clamps put on it by the Constabulary, I seem to keep going to things which remind me of it... last summer’s Brian Eno exhibition, Coachwerks, ’Before I Sleep’ at the Old Co-op building. Perhaps that’s no surprise, I was always most at home among the semi-derelict. I reckoned that the more impromptu a venue was, the more likely attendees were to be prompted.

(As I am getting on a bit lot, however, I do not knock the presence of proper toilets. Back then, a squat venue was marked by blokes lined against an outside wall and girls sporting dissatisfied expressions. Spot that combination, and you knew a party resided within...)

But, toilets notwithstanding, isn’t all this squat-like something of a simulation? ‘Squat’ has become a ‘look’ not an activity, like the look of cassette tapes becoming a style icon once we stopped using them for listening to.

 As well as recounting things that took ten years, Blyth Power do a song that disparages museums. Porter encourages us to let things rot into mystery, to allow Stonehenge to crumble, the past be past and time move on. As he’s a notorious history buff and (yes, really) trainspotter, I suspect disingenuity here. But I can see why he’s saying this now. If William Blake had been on the Blyth Power bill, he might well have reminded us of his adage - “drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” (Quite possibly while smelling of a bonfire.)

At the time, we wanted our own scene, answering our needs and within our control. We didn’t want ‘leisure time’, marshalled by profit-hungry landlords and order-issuing doormen, we wanted free time. So we carved out that scene with the tools to hand, from what was available. The important thing was that impetus. What we carved was extemporised, never intended to be preserved.

In ’The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test,’ Wolfe mentions how the Merry Pranksters coined the style which were later taken up by psychedelic art. But their works were never considered, but always provisional; they were thrown up quickly for their events and then thrown away once that event was over.

What was once Brighton is now caught on the twin horns of yuppification and restrictive authoritarianism. And it’s very easy to eulogise a scene once it’s dying off. Like when a relative gets a terminal diagnosis, suddenly every previous complainant no longer has a bad word to say.

For example, a few years ago, an anti-yuppie protest was called. This seemed to mainly consist of people with coloured dreadlocks juggling badly on the Level. (Quite possibly whilst smelling of bonfires, I didn’t get that close.) Now, not only are there always people with coloured dreadlocks juggling badly on the Level, they seemed oblivious that this is precisely the sort of thing which attracts yuppies. You might as well shit to get rid of flies. The way to actually scare them off would be to hold a meat raffle on the Level, or develop some ruddy sunburn while loudly professing support for “our boys” out a-fightin’.

From the shores of Goa to Brighton’s North Laines, the alternative middle classes have always acted as a beach-head for their smart-but-casual brethren. Hippies would backpack to Goa and sleep on floors or beaches, prior to the development of package tours. Other hippies would hitch or bunk the fare to Brighton, to squat old cottages or rent crummy bedsits. Then, in less time than it takes a Crusty to drop his juggling sticks, that area would become ‘desirable’. Brighton’s original listings magazine, ‘The Punter’, the thing we’d once go through to circle all the punk nights, is now ‘The Latest’ - a style and property magazine.

Which raises the question, is what we want now really those same old worn-out stories told?

Perhaps not. But then again low rent was simply preferable to high rent. I took to that alternative middle class scene primarily because it gave me space to move in. (Or, if you prefer, having styled themselves the “outsiders” they found they’d talked themselves into putting up with even the likes of me. It comes to much the same thing...)

Blyth Power are a good case in point. For they’re not really any kind of a punk band at all, nor even ‘anarcho-folk.’ Joseph Porter had drummed his way through several anarcho-punk outfits, but Blyth Power marked the point where he hung up the shouty slogans to dry. They aren’t even folk particularly, more a literary, poetic take on Englishness - Seigfried Sassoon not Steve Ignorant. (Though that might make for an intriguing combination... “Stands the village clock at ten to three? And are we still banned from the Roxy?”)

You can hear it in Porter’s voice, which resounds with the echoes of meadows and woodlands, not some scratchy shouty thing that’s been scrawled on towerblocks. His shtick is to turn over images of a mythic Albion like a two-faced coin, never quite deciding whether they are history or chimera, an activity he’s been at a quarter-century without result. The process, you sense, is itself the point. It’s like he made songs as fields and arenas, where this irresolvable war inside him could be waged.

...which is, you see, what ‘Stitching in Time’ is all about, with its reworking of the legend of the Trojan horse. Anarcho-punk was only ever his Trojan horse, something he climbed inside (along with his “hand-picked volunteer force”) to get where he wanted to be. (This view was supported by the later compilation CD being called ’Ten Years Inside the Horse.’ Yes, of course the Greeks didn’t spend the whole siege cramped up in that wooden thing, just go with the poetry of it...)

Anarcho-punk had claimed you could be whatever you wanted, happily assuming that what you wanted to be was a leather jacket with mis-spelt rantings on the back. Porter seized this scene in the very place it never expected to be gripped – its word. Then, once inside, the first thing he did was drop the leather jacket and raze the city walls. He abandoned the instant hit of battle for the perpetuation which was war.

As I smelt those sourceless bonfires, I came to this point, do we really need another benefit gig, another squatted social centre? I wonder how many there have been, since Margaret Thatcher first enclosed the commons all those years ago. All those programmes of events... by day organic gardening, tai chi and yoga, then by night ketamine-fuelled raving to dodgy deep house until everyone fell over. All those workshops which sought to ‘demystify’ this or that. When the only remaining mystery was whether the experiences were so familiar because they were being scripted from somewhere, or whether they just fell anew into that pattern with each extra recurrence.

 ...except, in the end, there’s no choice. Better the badly painted banners than another yuppie ‘apartment’ block, with the security camera that whirrs at you as you pass, like it’s frustrated it can’t actually shoot laser beams at you. Better the sourceless smell of bonfires and armpits long unwashed than the swoosh of credit cards and feeling of the ground going from under you as your area is pulled ‘upmarket’.

...which is, you see, what ‘Stitching in Time’ is all about. A man no longer young, trapped in a war that seems ceaseless, sick at heart of it all but knowing in his now-arthritic bones that the only way out is to keep fighting.

If the choice is all devils, pick the one you know.

“I remember when I was young
Each swift-sure javelin flung
Could take me right to the heart of the matter then
But now I’m older I’m not so sure
I’ve grown used to the pace of war
And the flesh that was muscle once
Has grown hard to squeeze
Into breastplates and greaves

In story now and song
Scamander flows along
Though the walls of the siege-bound city have fallen down
And though our arms are red with rust
Still in a patient God we trust
So for a cause long forgotten
Until Kingdom comes around

We’ll stand our ground”

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Thursday, 3 March 2011


Fri 11th Feb, The Green Door Store

The name Throbbing Gristle came up recently, via Lawrence Burton’s blog. I always admired their audacity; their mission to ape the form of a punk band, but then in terms of content confront the audience with sheer anti-music. (Then dodge the resulting cans as they were chucked.)

But, since resuming music-making, ex-Can singer Damo Suzuki has embarked upon almost the opposite endeavour – which for me appeals equally.  He’s on a never-ending world tour, playing without rehearsal or set-list with musicians he finds in each town where he stops. It’s a democratising desire to prove anyone can do it, anywhere, anywhen – they’ve just got to open themselves to the spirit.

If Damo is the name of the act, it’s not because he acts as musical director. He never so much as touches an instrument, nor seems to signal to the other players. His role is more the travelling shaman, putting all involved into the necessary trance state, his chanting the lightning rod which draws down all the spirits. And, despite what I say above, the musicians are never referred to as players – they’re “sound carriers”, as if themselves portals onto something.

At times this shaman status makes him come over like a hippy Prince Charles. He expresses pleasure at seeing “all your faces”, despite the fact that this is what he does every night. When he came off stage, he looks at first like he intends shaking hands with every single person present. It should be absurd... it is absurd, but the right sort of absurd. He carries it with such conviction and absence of guile you can’t help but be carried along.

Now there’s no point comparing Damo gigs to anything except each other, so we may as well get started. We get an early clue what we might be in for when two of tonight’s “sound carriers” act as the support act. Each armed with both drums and keyboards, which they swap between with alacrity, they channel Neu more than Can. (It’s funny how that boiling down of instrumentation has become such a signifier of a Neu influence.)

Now we old hands like to think of Krautrock as something you get or not, like a more positive alternative to mumps or measels. You either intuit right into it, or else you’re a hopeless chancer who’s heard it’s got trendy again. But this set proved the lie to such simplifications, spluttering into life but only firing fitfully. (Watching them, I did at points wonder at an alternate explanation. I see dance music through the prism of Neu, as for me Neu came first, but for them things are most likely the opposite - putting our perspectives are at odds.)

Next they are back augmented by two more mates on bass and violin... and by Damo. Having seen him a few times, I concede things can take their time to get going. Just as regular set-list gigs are like recited speeches, impro gigs are conversations. Think of meeting a mate for a drink. At first things are all generalities (How’s it going?”, “What you been up to?”), cast in the hope of hooking something. But soon you glean a sense of what this evening is all about, it’s own character and flavour, and you start to home in on it as the rest of the night flies by. Once you get there, the sense of something new and spontaneous happening right before you, the waiting seems worthwhile.

However... they did hit the precious moments that night, in fact they hit them many times. But they rose and fell and rose again, rather than breaking on through to the other side. The gig was noticeably shorter than Damo’s sessions, like they were riding something they could only partially steer.

The finale perhaps summed this up, working up to something great, but peaking all too soon. It was like being in the embrace of an enthusiastic but inexperienced lover. (Okay, okay, what would a nerdy comic fan know about any other kind?) As with Patti Smith, this may have been the least good time I’ve seen him. Given the tightrope that is improvised music, it was far indeed from crashing and burning. The audience took it to their hearts; it was assured enough that at least one attendee was surprised to be told it was all improvised. I might have taken it myself for the limits of the possible, had I not at other times seen more.

Particularly given the opening act, the most likely explanation was that the night’s sound was being carried by younger and less experienced bearers than before. It is of course cool that he really will play with anyone, anywhere, anytime. But does this not start to undermine his generous notion that spirit conquers all?

Maybe to some extent. Starting with Can themselves, Damo’s bands have had a zen approach to musicianship. Can all exuded proficiency, with careers in the classical or jazz worlds. But each reached the point where the only thing that still interested them was to play the same two metronomic chords all night long. It’s like the Picasso story. He could draw like a master while still a child, so all that was left to him as a master was to draw like a child. (This story may or may not be apocryphal. It doesn’t really matter.)

So do you need to have everything else down before you can really play the two metronomic chords? Certainly that gave the Can sound its unique character. But (given that this night was put on by ‘Yeah Yeah Industrial Estate’) think of a band like the Fall, where Mark E Smith would sack anyone who started sounding too proficient. What he wanted, I have always imagined, was the sound of someone who could just about play those two remorseless chords, and would put all their heart and soul into it. Once they had it down pat their attention would inevitably wander, they’d think of fitting something else in just to see if they could, player and music would no longer be as one.

And (relative) amateurishness does empower. First, because you can’t revert to the standard licks if you don’t even know how they go. But more to the point, you surrender to the spirits precisely to get beyond what you know. Because this band weren’t in control, because they blundered along not knowing where they were going, they would stumble down a lot more byways. Some of these turned out to be cul-de-sacs, others hidden gardens. Alas, more accomplishment might have let us linger in the gardens longer. But it is hard to uncouple accomplishment from simple skill. And skill is the very thing which would have sped us past them, undiscovered, as it knew where we were going and how to get there.
In short, there were times when the session’s weaknesses yielded hidden strengths. As I say, you can only compare Damo gigs to each other.. .

I took to this description of Damo’s music from his website, written by Mark Spybey, to such a degree that I found I couldn’t quote from it for fear of reposting the whole thing! (If the link doesn’t take you straight there, go for the red.) I especially like the comparisons of his gigs to the opening credits of ‘Stingray’ and to the stone age.

I’d also highly recommend the Dead Man Has No 2nd Chance’ CD, recorded live (as ever) in Melbourne with the Holy Soul, which I purchased after the gig from the man himself!

NB: More on the new Green Door Store venue to come...