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Friday, 3 July 2009

A couple of early construction images from Renzo Piano's mixed-use development at St. Giles Court in London, fantastic engineering but very bad architecture. Before the horrible cladding was applied, the building shells, a mixture of concrete and steel framed structures depending on use, looked very elegant and rational. Then came the architect....

RPBW's description of the project is an exercise in how far semantics could be stretched before they snap: "the project is part of a complex urban patchwork of medieval streets, modern buildings, and traditional urban blocks." No it's not, it's the largest Lego set in the world, the designers are using color in this childish way to simulate variety and freshness. It doesn't work.

The project reveals how distinct and separate aesthetics and structures have become in contemporary architecture. Designing facades has become the equivalent of dressing up dolls, with no relationship to the spatial and tectonic aspects of the design. In this case, Renzo chose fancy summer ball dresses for his latest set of dolls.

Renzo's experimentation with ceramics has been a complete failure so far, it didn't work in Potsdamer Platz and doesn't work over here. Renzo is trying return materiality to modern architecture, but the harder he tries the more plastic the ceramic looks, St. Giles Court is the most plastic so far.

The pathetic lack of innovation in architectural technology especially when it comes to cladding systems has reduced this aspect of building design to two aspects: keeping the water out and meeting the ridiculous European codes for thermal performance of building envelopes. Anything else is a bonus. This is precisely the approach followed with the design of St. Giles Court, it's a direct translation of the codes with mathematical precision that governs even window sizes. Apply color, and presto! Bad design of the year award beckons.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

The winners of this year's MoMA and P.S.1's Young Architects Program, MOS, titled their project 'Afetrparty'; 'Wake' would have been a far better description. The deceased is Modern architecture and all that it ever represented: ambition, experimentation, industrial techniques, and rationality. 'Afterparty' is the antithesis of all those concepts: random, reactionary, patronising and furry. P.S.1 had paved the way for this abomination with last year's winning entry 'Public Farm' by WORK architecture company, an exercise in autarky wrapped in a text whose level of naivety is hardly matched outside a Miss America contest. The trend can only intensify in the coming years, although it is hard to imagine anything more dreadfully reactionary than 'Afterparty'.

According to the New York Times the project is 'a mix of what could be described as cones, domes, smokestacks, primitive huts, towers or industrial chimneys.' Primitive hut would have done: the project's main distinguishing feature is its primitivism that, like biodynamic agriculture, represents a yearning for pre-modernity masquerading as radicalism. The project is so imprecise and accidental formally and organisationally that it is completely open for interpretation: this is the Rorschach Test of architecture, a three-dimensional accident of shapes or a giant furball thrown up by Godzilla after a night of rampage in a hippie market.

Michael Meredith of MOS said the structures were meant to evoke the fading factory vernacular of the P.S. 1 area in Long Island City. “We’re interested in building typologies,” he said. They must have tried very hard to resist showing this interest in 'Afterparty'. Rather than evoking the 'factory vernacular' the project is symptomatic of America's ending love affair with industrialisation. For the second time in the space of a few decades America is losing nerve and turning to imported ideas from Europe for inspiration, the Green assault has truly began in the US. Three years ago it would have been really hard to find advocates of sustainability outside Hippie communities in Nevada, now architects are competing really hard to learn the New Speak of the environmentalist dogma.

The connection between declining production and the recession has still not been grasped in America, so it's not strange to see MOS trying to pass off their cheap knock-off of a primitive village as a thoughtful response to the economic situation. There is still talk of an 'economic party' and an 'economic hangover', isn't it fun how eco-geeks always try to use words like party and hangover to pretend that they are cool? It still hasn't dawned on American intellectuals that financial hyper-activity is not equivalent to productive economic activity, never mind they are still willing to throw the baby out with the bath water, let them eat biscuits. The result in architecture? MOS's masterpiece, a monument to garage sales and Sunday markets across the land, where the fetishistic value of recycled materials is elevated above real innovation in architecture.

The architects are obviously free to present whatever design they come up with, the real blame falls on P.S.1 and MoMA for encouraging and supporting this trend towards reactionary architecture and celebrating it as good architecture. This is not a one-off, it's a trend that started with last year's project and is bound to continue as long as architects will continue to pursue this obsessive form of self-harm that is passed off as 'environmental responsibility'. Solving challenging economic and environmental problems requires innovative thinking and advanced technologies, not the escape from modernity that is represented by projects like 'Afterparty'. Let's interrupt this assault on Modernity before it escalates into a full return to primitivism.

Friday, 26 June 2009

So Jacko's gone, and the eulogies begin. The media that has for so long fed off the 'king of pop' and his tumultuous life are now trying to milk one more story out of Michael Jackson. The BBC was quick to shift into tabloid mode, interviewing anyone that has ever caught a whiff of Michael Jackson or even saw his reflection in a water puddle. Even Gordon Brown, ever eager to shelter in other people's glow, has come up with one of his pathetic statements lamenting the loss of the mega-star that was Michael Jackson. Shameful stuff, it's time to leave the man along and let his family deal with what is after all a private tragedy.

There is one important lesson to be drawn our of Michael's bizarre life: eccentricity is not a crime. The media, shallow, populist and superficial, doggedly hounded Michael Jackson throughout his life, but sank to miserable lows when the allegations of abuse against him became public. In the most despicable example of trial by media, journalists used Michael's eccentricity to prove his guilt time after time, but they were ultimately defeated by the decision of a jury of his peers to clear him the last time around. God bless America and the right to trial by jury, not by a media that has forgotten a long time ago what the pursuit of truth means.

Michael Jackson took eccentricity to new levels, and he was certainly conscious of public attention. Yet, there is a difference between being eccentric and breaking the law. Michael's eccentricity was gloriously audacious, he treated his body as a moldable entity shunning decaying flesh for the sake of plastic longevity. That is part of his appeal, with each re-invention a new Michael emerged, the ultimate fulfillment of the desires of a ravenous fan-base. Bare in mind that Michael Jackson managed to survive decades in the music business, whereas many of his contemporaries dropped off the scene a long time ago. He did not live long enough to have yet another come back, but no doubt it would have been equally amazing for his fans.

Michael's eccentricity was part of his appeal, and the media savagely turned that against him but the public stood by him. Now as the fake tears and the insincere eulogies start, let us remember that the most important thing to take out of Michael's life is that eccentricity is not a crime.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Writing in the times today, Kate Muir announced that eco-art 'will be huge this summer', arguing with typically lame eco-speak that 'Preserving sharks in formaldehyde is over; the days of preserving sharks in the ocean are here." The Barbican is leading the eco-conformist assault with its upcoming exhibition Radical Nature — Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet, followed by Tate Britain's Heaven and Earth, featuring the works of Richard Long. Long in any other age would have been considered an eccentric gardener, today he is considered an accomplished artist by tapping into the sense of insecurity about our 'fragile planet'.

Muir, as ever, knows a lot of big words, but doesn't have a clue how to make meaningful sentences out of them. Like many of her contemporaries, she absorbed a lot of concepts and phrases in college, without really understanding what they signify, but still has the audacity to use such concepts in print. She epitomises that breed of journalists who seem to think that the universe started in 1997, everything prior to that being a giant blob of events and concepts that are too hard to disentangle. This utter unawareness of history comes across in sentences like 'of course, Land Art has been around for ever'. Like, Kate couldn't be bothered to find out, like, when and why.

Muir's complete ignorance is manifested even more painfully in her naive proclamations: '..the new eco-art movement is not merely about the medium, but the message too'. Read: 'on message'. It is not important how banal and mediocre your 'art' is, as long as it is on message, as long as you feel the suffering of Mother Earth in the depths of your soul, and use whatever medium at your disposal to express that pain: sand, snow, rock, and ultimately, and appropriately, manure. Muir is happily preaching us that art will no longer be a selfish endeavour, it shall be put to the service of the great collective eco-whinge, the mighty bout of never-ending eco self-flagellation. Hurrah!

What Muir, and every mediocre curator that has been promoted to a position of responsibility because they are 'on message', doesn't realize is that this vulgar reduction of art to a tool of propaganda is antithetical to the spirit of art. Art has to be free from any such intrusions and demands to be meaningful, art has to revolt and kick back against the prevailing assumptions, and art should never be restrained by the parameters of 'social responsibility'. Art has been used historically as a medium for political protest, but how is that relevant today when everyone has embraced environmentalism? How radical could eco-art be when it is merely repeating what politicians and journalists are constantly babbling about?

Muir's attempt at making eco-art sound heroic are simply pathetic. She tries to portray two artists from Brighton as modern-day revolutionaries, claiming that their 'work exemplifies the combative mood around the country'. And I thought that people are actually worried about losing their jobs and paying their mortgage, silly me. Of course to Muir and her fellow 'organic-wine and fair-trade coffee' 'mentalists, such real-life concerns are not as important as the latest fad in eco-whinging. And this is why she thinks the antics of Hanks and McCurdy, the two eco-artists from Brighton, are examples of radical eco-art.

The pair dabble in the sort of art that bored teenagers and pensioners on holiday usually do, except that they don't think of it normally as art: writing on snow and bio-degradable graffiti. Their cause? Brighton beach is dirty and polluted, plastic is to blame. In a heroic feat, they visit parliament to lobby on behalf the Marine Conservation Society, then they flip their T-shirts, selflessly showing their bras in the process, to reveal messages about the dirty beach. Muir is nearly in tears at this moment, 'as MPs fiddled their expenses in the background and the planet burnt'. Drama straight out of Hollywood.

Of course the real message is: we are two smug, self-centred attention seekers who will do anything to get a bit of attention. That anyone could imagine that this has anything to do with art, or even politics, is a sign of how low public discourse these days is. And how degraded both art and politics have become, allowing such trivial concerns to grab media attention. Yet there is a danger in this trend to tame art and turn it into a medium for channeling social responsibility.

Firstly, there's the unbearable prospect of art being judged not on its intrinsic merits, but in terms of how much it serves a bigger cause. For the record, this is what Fascism historically did, it appropriated art for its own needs. Simply because we imagine eco concerns to be a more noble cause does not justify such an appropriation. Secondly, there's the even more serious prospect of a rigidly conformist society where dissent is not tolerated. Art should strive to liberate itself from the demands of conformity, when it starts seeking to be conformist, we know we are in trouble.

Kate Muir relishes the prospect of eco-art taking center-stage, but this is based on a completely wrong understanding of the nature of art and the parameters within which it operates. The logic of environmentalism has been internalised by the political classes and the media, and there are hardly any dissenting voices these days. Co-opting art into this un-questioning arrangement will not help matters at all, but will lead to more of the banal art that justifies its mediocrity through its important 'message'. In a civilised society we should not tolerate mediocrity, art should strive for excellence not conformity.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Tired of life in the materialist and consumerist West? Why not spend a few months in Palestine, away from it all, training the local population to keep their ambitions low and stay at the mercy of an agrarian mode of life? This is the vision that Green Intifada is promoting. A group of volunteers, mostly from the UK, "work in the community to implement initiatives for sustainable living and food production." For sustainable read pre-modern and backwards. These include "rainwater harvesting, vegetable gardens, tree planting, greywater reuse, composting systems and compost toilet building."

The days of solidarity with the Palestinian people based on a healthy notion of human solidarity and active human agency are long gone. Today, the Palestinians have been turned into our poor cousins that cannot fend for themselves and solidarity has been replaced with pity. Hannah Arendt pointed out that pity dehumanises its receivers, and this outlook towards the Palestinians is as dehumanising as Israeli aggression. The Green Intifada is an example of this patronising expression of the contemporary Western outlook towards the Palestinians. Rather than seeing the Palestinians as a people fighting for self-determination and national liberation, they are reduced to helpless peasants that need to be taught even the basics of a primitive agrarian way of life.

Time to start exposing these initiatives for what they really are: they are not motivated by concern for the Palestinian people but are an expression of western discontent with modernity. This is a form of escape from the demands of life in the west, a way of burying one's head in the sands of Palestine. In the process, the Palestinians are recast as pure, unspoiled peasants, the alternative to the modern corrupted western individual, the image of what could have been if modernity and industrialisation had not occurred.

In itself, the Green Intifada is not a sinister or dangerous operation, the Holy Land has always attracted all manner of lunatics to go and pursue their own brand of millinerianism. However, what it says about the state of politics and the outlook towards the Palestinians is quite revealing. The Palestinian struggle has been emptied of any meaning and completely de-contextualised. Instead of a cry for freedom and an aspiration for universal change, it is now treated as a parable for the wickedness of humanity. It is easy then to take sides not based on a genuine understanding of the political dynamics, but on the basis of cartoonish over-simplifications that are entirely wrong.

The Israelis are cast as the villains because they dared to spoil the virgin land with their western technology and intensive agriculture, while the Palestinians are the good guys because they retain the connection to the land. Aside from the fact that the relationship with the land is a Fascist invention that has its roots in Nazi ideology, it is also an extremely inaccurate depiction of Palestinian society. The Palestinian struggle for self-determination is the beginning of the process of by which the Palestinians can control their own destiny and build a modern nation. A modern nation, with modern infrastructure, not 'sustainable' compost toilets, there are plenty of those in the camps.

"People are being driven from the land, denied access to essential resources, closed into urban ghettoes and severed from their natural heritage". A process known otherwise as urbanization which every modern society goes through. The Green Intifada eco-imperialists are not resisting Israeli occupation, they are trying to resist the process of modernisation, a sentiment expressed clearly on their website. If their vision prevails, and I have to admit their is no real danger of this because the Palestinian people have not struggled for decades to end up in the 19th century, but if their vision prevails it would be entirely consistent with what Israel wants: a docile Palestinian population that is happy to live off the land with no aspiration.

Ain't gonna happen. Go look for your agrarian paradise somewhere else.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Surveillance society is once again a hot subject, in light of the DNA database debate. A reminder of my essay on the subject:

"It’s been said before, I am aware, but Orwell was immensely prescient. 1984 has come and gone, leaving behind an entrenched legacy of surveillance made even more powerful by the advancements in monitoring technology in recent years. Query the phrase ‘eye in the sky’ in your search engine of choice, and instead of a biblical reference or even the Alan Parsons Project 1982 hit single, you are referred first to surveillance camera manufacturers. Meanwhile, the unblinking eyes of CCTV cameras keep a constant watch on every street in London, and it seems that the rest of the nation is catching up fast." Read on: http://karlsharro.co.uk/surveillance.html

Monday, 6 April 2009

Forget about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, that’s way too dignified for the petty bourgeois grievances that manifested themselves in the Big Tantrum of 09 on the streets of the City of London this past week. The Three Stooges of the Apocalypse is a more apt moniker to describe those lost souls gathered outside the halls of the G20 proceedings, as opposed to their equally confused counterparts who had the pleasure of experiencing the event from within. The Three Stooges of the Apocalypse beautifully sums up the equal measures of banality and doom-mongering that fuelled this middle class tantrum, and as luck would have it, Newsnight assembled three guests on the evening of that most insignificant of demonstrations, each representing one wing of the White Middle Class Anger and Doom-Mongering apparatus. For the duration of their chat with Jeremy Paxman, they faithfully re-enacted the antics of the original Three Stooges, although too much less humorous results. Like a bird with three wings, this is a freak of nature that didn’t fly far.
Our Three Stooges of the Apocalypse for the night were Barbara Stocking, the Director of Oxfam, or White Woman Knows What is Best for Africa, Mark King, from the Camp for Climate Action , or White Man Knows What is Best for the Planet, and the comedian Mark Thomas, or White Man Knows What is Best. (In some circles he is known as the least funny comedian in the universe, perhaps he should be investigated by the Trading Standards Agency).
Paxo was atypically restrained, focusing most of his characteristic ire on the International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander, the boy-wonder of New Labour, and gently sheltering his fellow members in The White Middle Class Liberal Club. Paxo gently prodded The Three Stooges, what’s their wish list for G20 decisions? Barbara Stocking: Financial Stimulus for poorer nations, presumably to be distributed through Oxfam and like-minded Neo-colonialists so that they can prepare poor African farmers for the challenges of goat-herding in the 21st century and shelter them from the nasty syndromes of development that the west is suffering from, such as clean drinking water and functioning public transport systems. Mark Thomas: Get rid of tax havens! For a self-described radical, Thomas is certainly tame, managing to agree with Angela Merkel and Nicola Sarkozy, perhaps the most conservative politicians in Europe today, and the two who have absolutely no clue about what to do except to appear to be challenging the US and the UK without actually doing so. Thomas thought that tax havens, where most hedge funds are based, are what caused the crisis. Forget about the de-industrialisation of the West and the lack of productivity in paper economies that produce very little but consume more than anyone else, and let’s demonise the faceless hedge funds. Mark King (ponytail? Seriously, dude?): Climate Change! (Surprise, Surprise!) He even came prepared with a sound byte, the climate doesn’t do bailouts! The greens are definitely getting better script writers these days, but you have to agree with Obama, put lipstick on a pig… (or even a ponytail).
Mark King doesn’t like the dinosaur that is high-carbon industry. But he and his fellow greens don’t like low-carbon industry either. They hate industry full stop. Why are they focusing on aviation, which is one of the smallest producers of carbon emissions? The Greens have consistently opposed any technological solutions for Climate Change preferring to reduce consumption and smother demand, and solve the problem at is root. Kill aspiration and progress, but save the planet. How do they square the circle between their demands for caps on CO2 emissions which would lead to more economic problems by reducing productivity, God only knows. Or Gaia.
Yet, it was entertaining to see The Three Stooges do their act and expose how little they know, and how little they understand the world we live in, and the real reasons for the economic slump. (I think the sound of the recession happening sounds somewhat like slummmmp.) The solution is more industry, in the West and the Rest, more productivity, more investment in real infra-structure as opposed to meaningless subsidies for inefficient energy technologies such as solar panels on flats in London. And while we’re at it, let’s not politicise the energy question, and release from the confines of the climate change discussion. The real energy question is how we can get more energy, way more energy, cheaper, cleaner and more available, everywhere. So that we can fly more, produce more, and have more. So that one, every family in Africa can have a large house, two cars, and take a holiday in Europe every year. (They can go somewhere else if they want, it’s merely a suggestion).
To The Stooges of The Apocalypse, the world is passing you by, you are holding centre-stage now, but you are irrelevant. The media’s obsession with your every little action or utterance does not mean anything in the real world, and your mates from Cambridge or Oxford will not dictate the course of events in the long run. One day, the workers in this country will wake up, and then your antics will be over. Think of your next show.

Monday, 30 March 2009

I watched The Satanic Verses Affair late last night on the BBC, and thought it was really good. Salman Rushdie isn't the perfect hero of free speech, but who is? It's a great reminder that people's real character emerge through their conflict with the world, and their ideas are shaped by this encounters, life is not a Hollywood film. Rushdie made a lot of concessions, re-converted to Islam, issued apologies, and then announced that his experiment with Islam was over and admitted that he hadn't converted out of conviction.

Hanif Kureishi came across as a more heroic figure, dismissing Rushdie's enemies as the 'bearded ones', but he didn't have to go through what Rushdie experienced. The real hero to me was Frances D'Souza entirely committed to the cause of defending Rushdie's right to free speech without compromise, she was very convincing in her defense of the principled stance that drove her and her colleagues to form the International Committee for the defence of Rushdie.

The other notable contributor to the program was Inayat Bunglawala, one of the Islamic activists who were shaped by the Rushdie affair and took their first steps in politics through the campaigns to ban the book. At the end of the program, Bunglawala admitted that they were wrong in calling for the book to be banned and for supporting the Fatwa against Rushdie. Instead, he said, they should have fought it on 'the plain of ideas'. It's an amazing admission, and shows that at least some people did learn from the whole episode.

If Islamic 'fundamentalists' manage to learn the value of free speech, perhaps the environmental 'movement' should take notice that its tactics of intimidation and accusing people of denial do not serve its cause. Who's more reactionary today, an Islamist whose willing to discuss his most sacred ideas publicly or an environmentalist who goes out of his or her way to silence opponents?

Monday, 16 March 2009

I hope this will become an online archive for lame ideas that come about because of the obsession with cultural identity. No 1 comes today from India, where Hindu activists are upset by a proposal for a 20m tall statue of Charlie Chaplin, because he was a Christian. The activists have actually succeeded in preventing the statue from being built, however I don't agree with the Times' assessment that they are 'extremists'. This label is applied too easily these days.

When cultural identity takes the place of politics, this is the kind of excess that you can expect. Such protests are motivated less by bigotry than by a sense of insecurity and a fragile identity. All over the world there are examples of how cultural identity is distorting politics and producing more examples of these lame protests. Please send in your examples to this post.
It's not everyday that I find myself agreeing with Tristram Hunt, reading his column in the Times today about controls on drinking was a pleasant surprise, until I got to the end and Hunt shows his true colours. Hunt argues that pubs should take their place at the heart of public life in Britain, and criticises measures like the smoking ban for driving people away from pubs. All very true, until Hunt says that the "...ban on smoking in public places has driven drinking back into the home, where social safeguards are absent".

Hunt is not arguing for the freedom of drinkers, he wants them to drink in public where they can be monitored and controlled, by each other and by the state. It's another version of the 'eye on the street' that institutionalises suspicion between citizens, and is abhorred by what they might get up to in the privacy of their homes. Hunt has used a similar logic in the past to argue against suburbs, again blaming them for moral degeneracy.

Hunt is not a campaigner for freedom, he's a pragmatic authoritarian who thinks it's better to monitor drinkers in public than attempting to limit their consumption of alcohol through punitive measure, simply because they haven't worked in the past. What a truly miserable view of humanity.

On a similar subject, I am trying to oppose the proposal to turn the area around the Arsenal Emirates Stadium into a Controlled Drinking Zone, a measure that the metropolitan police has asked Islington Council to consider. Very few people know what CDZs are, and what they actually mean. Effectively, this gives the police extra powers to stop you and confiscate drinks you are carrying, even if they are unopened. Either the police have developed psychic skills, or as I am more inclined to believe, they would use these powers to make their lives easier, and in the process making everyone walking with a drink a suspect.

The proposal is calculated and worded to create tension between the residents and the Arsenal fans, the fans are not being consulted only the residents are. What I found to my surprise, is that some Arsenal fans actually support this measure because they blame the away fans for bad behaviour. This is exactly the type of suspicion that such policies promote, and we should fight it.I agree with Hunt, let's put the pub at the centre of public life again, but let's remove all the constraints that have been imposed by the government and councils on public drinking to enable that.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Best description I ever heard of our manifesto: "The Fountainhead re-written by Jeremy Clarkson." Thanks to Charles Holland, the director of FAT, for that. I couldn't have thought of a better way of putting it myself. Second prize goes to Justin McGuirk in the Architects' Journal, who described ManTowNHuman as the "anti-sustainability manifesto". No link for that, you'll have to buy your own copy of the AJ for the pleasure.
Holland meant it as a critique, of course, but it's still a brilliant line. Back in October, I spoke on a panel with Holland's colleague from FAT, Sean Griffiths and I actually thought he was quite good as a speaker and he stood up for the freedom of architects. Admittedly, their stuff is a bit flippant, but those aren't heroic times. Perhaps the recession will sort that out, someone will realize that we will need genuine development and big ideas instead of messing around the edges.
Holland got everything else about us wrong. I don't think I've ever been called a conservative before, but there's a first time for everything. His grasp of politics is very shallow, but you can't expect nice white middle class boys to be Renaissance Men, that would be too old fashioned. Still, thank for the quote, Charlie Boy.

Monday, 9 March 2009

'Help' Lebanese Film and Freedom of Expression, or Christians Learn from Khomeini

‘HELP! was pasted all over Beirut in February on bright blue posters advertising the new Lebanese film addressing sex, prostitution, drugs and homelessness. But anticipation for the movie, which cost over $200,000 to make, came to nothing. The film's directors told NOW that the Censorship Department in the General Security withdrew permission for a planned screening on February 16.’ (NOW Lebanon)

With Nadine Labaki's 'Caramel', it appeared that Lebanese cinema was taking a new direction. For starters, it was refreshing to see a film that addressed the contemporary reality of Beirut and moving away from the subject matter of the civil war that had for long occupied Lebanese filmmakers. Also, the film tackled, ever so gently, some of the 'taboos' in Lebanese society, such as homosexuality, virginity, and extra-marital affairs. Lebanese audiences were waiting for the release of Marc Abi Rached's film 'Help' which was expected to be more daring in dealing with such social issues, however this was not meant to be. As Pierre Abi Saab reports today in Al-Akhbar, the Lebanese film censoring authority has withdrawn a license that it had previously issued, meaning that the film has effectively been banned.

There has been speculation since the license for the film was revoked about the reasons for this decision. One theory was that the officer in charge of the licensing the film was replaced, a bit flimsy in my opinion. Others said it was because of the nudity in the film, especially that the actress involved is the daughter of a Lebanese MP. But Abi Rached said in an interview that he stayed well within the limit allowed by Lebanese Law on nudity. The organization Skeyes, the Centre for Defending Media and Cultural Freedoms founded in memory of murdered Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, claimed that a Catholic organization had a role in the decision to ban Abi Rached’s film.

On the Lebanese Forces discussion forum, (don't ask) the contributors were in favour of showing the film, and someone suggested that it was because 'our southern Iranian neighbours don't like nudity'. (A not-so-subtle reference to the Shiite community). According to Abi Saab's piece in Al-Akhbar today, it appears that they are in for a surprise. Abi Saab attributes the decision to withdraw the license to a 'protest' made by the 'Centre Catholique d’Information', the mouthpiece of the Maronite church in Lebanon. Abi Saab does not cite any sources for his claim, but he is a good critic and a trustworthy journalist, and I would have no reason to doubt his claim.

The film apparently describes the experiences of some of the ‘marginal’ characters of Beirut, a young prostitute, a homeless teenager, and an overtly camp gay character. Abi Saab thinks that it is this character in particular that seems to have offended the church authorities most, and he might be right. Such subjects have certainly been addressed by Lebanese filmmakers in the past, such in Mohammed Soueid’s 'Cinema Fouad' and Akram Zaatari’s 'Majnounak', but those were short ‘documentary’ style films, shown mostly to small audiences. With Help, Abi Rached was preparing to take those subjects to a mass audience in a feature-length format, which might still make it to Europe before it will be seen by Lebanese audiences.

Like 'Caramel' before it, 'Help' appears to be influenced by Almodovar’s work, and certainly from the trailer available online appears to be ‘polished’ technically. It was boldly advertised through a ‘teaser’ campaign, the aforementioned Help signs did not mention the film until sometime later. All of this is significant. Whereas Zaatari’s and Soueid’s work took advantage of the small ‘art house’ context to push the limits, it is high time that the wider audience gets the benefit of a similar experience. I have no idea if Help is any good, but I would have liked to have the opportunity to judge for myself.

What is interesting about the whole episode is the extent to which the language of cultural sensitivity is being deployed nowadays. Those who argue that the Satanic Verses saga was about Islam, and its incompatibility with the modern world, are entirely wrong. It wasn’t Islamists that came up with the idea that speech hurts, in fact it was a by-product of feminism that found its way into the mainstream. Once feminism was dissociated from a wider idea of liberation and started arguing in favour of a particular experience that is distinct from the universal, it inevitably started dabbling with restrictions on speech and expression. That lesson has been learned by everyone, from cultural groups to religious organisations to gay rights campaigners, who all compete nowadays in what they see as defending their constituents from offense.

In that sense, the Catholic Information Centre is not being an outdated religious institution, but a thoroughly postmodern one. Even if it turns out that it was not behind this particular decision to ban 'Help', it has certainly led campaigns in the past against some films and books that it considered offensive, such as The Da Vinci Code. The response should be not to blame religion, but to insist that there is no right not to be offended. This is even more important when the film in question is not an imported one, but someone holding a mirror to the society he lives in, as Abi Rached is trying to do. Let’s find out for ourselves whether we can see our reflection in that mirror.

For more articles on film, see:

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Unveiled: New Art From The Middle East is an exhibition which claims little beyond its title. There is no obvious reason why this particular group of artists should be brought together in the same exhibition, to claim that somehow they represent art practices in the Middle East would be misleading, there are no obvious stylistic connections or over-riding concerns among the various artists on show. Paradoxically, this liberates the exhibition and allows the visitors to relate more to the individual works on display. This show does what it says on the tin, and does it successfully.
In contrast to Catherine David's Contemporary Arab Representations, a series of exhibitions that ran for several years since 2001 in various cities, Unveiled does not assume the burden of representation, and does not expect the artists to give an insight into Arab culture, cultural ambassadors they are not. What they do is give us free-standing art works that can (mostly) speak for themselves. This was a breath of fresh air.
Take for example the two works by Marwan Rechmaoui Beirut, Caoutchouc and Spectre, previously exhibited as part of Contemporary Arab Representations. It's the first time that I've seen his work shown outside of that context and liberated from the company of Deleuzian texts and yet another grainy video of someone's aunt, and it was like seeing the artworks for the first time. Caoutchouc is a large scale map of Beirut reproduced in black rubber in relief, that represents the city in a surprisingly novel way. Common to the work of most Lebanese artists of his generation, the problem of knowing the city is a central theme in Rechmaoui's work, yet his take on it is very personal and specific. The abstract conventions of map-making are subtly manipulated, allowing us to look beyond the physical city.
In Spectre (The Yacoubian Building, Beirut) Rechmaoui creates a scaled-down version of an iconic modernist building in Beirut in concrete and glass. The building is depicted at a specific point in its history, after it was evacuated during the Israeli attacks on Lebanon in 2006, and bearing the traces of its decades of existence in a troubled city. The artist faithfully depicts the smallest details, such as the heavy metal doors that become common during the civil war, but this is far from a process of pure documentation. The tension between the building's abstract repetitive form and the little details that Rechmaoui chooses to highlight, the story of the decline of a city and the fate of its inhabitants is being told cleverly and sensitively.
Rechmaoui's works are representations of his unique and personal way of looking at the city, and his ability to translate that into material form without excessive expressionism but with the subtle hints that allow us to see the city through his eyes. Isn't this the unique skill of the artist? By contrast, Diana Al-Hadid's works take expressionism to a new high, vigorously melting the symbols of modernity into twisted lumps of plastic. If Rechmaoui's works are masterpieces in under-statement, Al-Hadid's works are loud and garrulous. Curiously, they seem to be less personal precisely because of this quality.
The Tower of Infinite Problems and the other pieces on display by Al-Hadid, are large shards of metal and plastic, constantly at odds with gravity and at various stages of collapse and ruin, some of have completely surrendered waiting, presumably, for the inevitable crawl of green that is the fate of all ruins. The works are masterfully produced, but that has long ago ceased to be a quality to be praised in art. What is genuinely disturbing about the shattered towers is not Al-Hadid's unique vision in as much as that images of catastrophe have become so common today to arouse any interest, in me at least. Rather than seeing an artist struggling with the world around her, all I could see is yet another Virilio inspired take on modernity and the implications of taking technology to an extreme.
Al-Hadid as a Syrian-American artist is trying to give expression to the two cultures that she belongs to and on the way highlight issues such as cultural conflict. But the impression that I get, and perhaps this is the one fault line that can be traced in the entire exhibition, is that this is someone who have accepted those categories such as culture uncritically, and her work becomes less personal because of that. To a certain extent, this is the main difference between the works of the artists who live in the Middle East and those who live in the west. The first group don't have the luxury of thinking of their context in terms of abstract categories; it is above all a lived reality that they have to struggle with on a daily basis. The second group seem to have escaped the confines of that reality, but it's a false liberation that gives their work that abstract distant quality.
This is particularly true of the paintings of Nadia Ayari. The catalogue says of her: "Ayari didn't start working with her Middle Eastern subject matter until she’d moved to America and notions of cultural heritage and identity came to the fore." And it shows. Only someone far removed from the lived reality of the Middle East can attempt to sum it up in such a collection of visual clichés. This is Orientalism for the 21st century, rehabilitated by the fact that it is being committed by a native. All the more cause for concern. The struggle of the people of Palestine and Iraq today is not so much to get recognition for their misery, but to stop the west from constantly portraying them as perpetual victims, and in the case of Ayari's paintings, literally in such a flat manner.
Flatness, that old paradox of painting, has been revisited by two of the Iranian artists in the exhibition, Ramin Haerizadeh and Ahmad Morshedloo. Not so crassly, of course, but with thought and sophistication that re-asserts the notion that are is truly universal, and an experiment began by a French artists a hundred years ago could be picked up again by someone in Iran today. Not as a distraction from life, but as a unique way of dealing with it and sharing that vision with others.
Haerizadeh's collages are powerful in combining the conventions of collage with traditional Persian painting and crafts, using mostly his body as raw material. The effect is astonishing, producing intriguing works that on closer inspection reveal the manipulation and distortion involved in re-packaging his severed limbs and his chubby face to produce hyper-real bodies suitable for our age where the body has lost its integrity and has been appropriated by various institutions.
Morshedloo's work is particularly powerful, not only because it declares that painting is not dead as an art form, but because of the insistence that his subjects caught in a moment of daily life are not the vacuous abstractions we have to expect from depictions of that part of the world, but are subjects in their own right regardless of how much their attire hides or reveals of them. The contrast between the naked men and over-clad women does nothing to distract from that, these are living breathing subjects. We are made even more aware, paradoxically, through Morshedloo's unique perspectives and foreshortening effects. This is not crass realism, but painting at its best. The less said the better.
Finally, the last piece which attracted the most attention from the visitors is Kader Attia's Ghost. The aluminium-foil empty shells that represent Muslim women in prayer, a hundred or more of them perhaps, are very powerful visually. Though to me personally the effect is not particularly due to Attia's social 'comment' in as much as it is the representation of the hollow body in that most fragile and transient of materials, aluminium foil. For all I care, they could have been a group of Jedi warriors looking for their contact lenses, the effect would have been the same. There is something about the power of visual depictions that we seem to have abandoned in favour of art with a message, and perhaps that is too much of a burden. Attia's work is an example of the power of that form of visual exploration that used to be called sculpture.
The last room in the exhibition is dedicated to old masters from the Middle East, and it suitably takes me to my conclusion. In societies where visual art was not an established tradition, those early masters embarked on what seemed to their contemporaries an alien endeavour, a career and a life in art. They did that for two reasons, one to create their own modernity in countries that were still ambivalent about it, and secondly, to become full-fledged individuals in societies where the concept was struggling to emerge against the tyranny of older institutions. In Unveiled, we see that struggle continue. There are artists who have to live in countries that find their activities superfluous, but in their struggle to assert their individualism they are producing thoughtful and engaging works of art. On the other hand, there are those who seem to have surrendered their individuality in favour of a formulaic and self-indulgent art that is obsessed with identity. It's a fine line, but this exhibition will allow discerning viewers to judge for themselves.
It doesn't take much to provoke the Lebanese, so a project like Cedars Island (http://www.cedarsisland.com) was bound to be controversial. The large development on the Lebanese coast proposed by Noor international is described as "a residential, commercial, recreational, and touristic site made for luxurious experience", built on reclaimed land in the shape of, what else, the Cedar Tree. Mind you, it's not really like a Cedar Tree, but the idealized shape of the national symbol that has been constantly re-drawn by everyone from the Lebanese flag designer to the national airline to the various political parties (mostly on the right).
Yet, the specific nature of the responses to Cedars Island is quite revealing. The 'protest' kicked off like much else with a Facebook group, that utterly meaningless form of desktop activism. Within a short period of type it attracted thousands of disgruntled Lebanese internet users. The objections ranged from the environmental to the aesthetic, the common denominator being that everyone was offended. It is not difficult to see why, to start with the development is a typical Dubai-style development, which is enough to send the Lebanese into fits of rage. Regardless that hundreds of thousands of them make a living in the Gulf, the attitude of the Lebanese towards that part of the world has always been a negative one. Dubai on the Damour coast, what an affront!
Some people were even annoyed with the fact that the project will have palm trees. Palm trees on our shores! Oh poor cedar tree... In a country where everything from the type of car that you drive to your favorite TV station is politicized, it's only natural that even trees can have such ideological significance. The Christians used to whine about the palm trees that the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (allegedly) planted in Beirut and Saida, importing that alien tree from the Arabian Peninsula to our 'virgin' coastline. Somehow they feared that those trees will subliminally take over their political affiliations to the land of the cedars.
Then, the environmentalists stepped in, naturally. Greenpeace Lebanon (how proud am I!) is conducting a study on the effect of island on the marine eco-system. Happily, we even have a proper green party in Lebanon now (in as much as a green party could be proper). I haven't found out what they have to say about it yet, but I am sure they will not be thrilled. In a brilliant article in Al-Akhbar ( http://www.al-akhbar.com/files/pdfs/20080820/p06_20080820.pdf ) Bassam Al-Qantar exposed the 'party' for what it is: an elitist club for the affluent and the well connected.
Like any 'protest' of that nature in Lebanon it is not the farmers of Baalbek and Hermel who are protesting, it is someone else protesting in the name of the Lebanese people. It is only those who don't have to live at the mercy of nature than can afford to idealize it. In a country where hundreds of thousands of people live in areas with no economic prospects whatsoever, the Greens will take it upon themselves to stop any development project that can offend their aesthetic sensitivities.
No one has yet looked at the number of jobs that such a development will create or the volume of economic activity that it could generate. Details. People don't like the Cedars Island and therefore it has to stop. This is from people whose understanding of economics is so distorted that thousands of them joined another Facebook group to nominate the governor of the Central Bank to the Nobel Prize because of his wisdom and genius. Presumably, the ultra-conservative economic policies of hording foreign cash reserves and promoting banking policies that are slightly more advanced than those of Hammurabi.
To make matters worse, thousands of Lebanese people have been going to the West to get degrees in American and European universities where they un-critically accept the prevailing orthodoxies of environmentalism and sustainability and then head back with a clear recipe of how to cure Lebanon from its ills. Thanks to the collapse of the Left in Lebanon, progressive voices have long ago died out completely. It used to be the Lebanese left that argued for more industrialization and development to give the Lebanese working classes a better future, while the "Right" (Kataeb and co) dreamt of milking their goats under the starry skies of Mount Lebanon.
Today, the political shades range from the conservative to the down-right reactionary, and all radical ideas have been discarded. Hezbollah long ago tore up its founding document, and with it its social radicalism. (See: http://www.culturewars.org.uk/2007-08/norton.htm ) The sole purpose of Hezbollah today is to keep the Shiite masses under control and contain their explosive potential. To that end it will pacify them with small 'gains' at the expense of the integrity of the Lebanese state.
Equally, the Tayyar has lost any radical potential it ever possessed. There was a moment in the late 90s when the Tayyar could have become a genuinely radical political movement, but the youth leadership chickened out and left it to Aoun to play the role of demi-god, a role currently performed at a cinema near you to devastating effect. What promised to be a genuine change in political consciousness among Christian youths (and a few Muslims) has been hijacked by the clan leaders.
Both Hezbollah and the Tayyar have departments for the environment, incidentally, so do several of the other parties. I am not singling out Hezbollah and the Tayyar, but it is important to understand that the parties with the most radical potential have become establishment parties, so we shouldn't expect much more from the proper bourgeois parties. And today both of those parties have developed a conservative outlook, and primarily one that has no political and economic vision for the country.
So, back to Cedars Island. In the absence of any real development in the country, why should a private project like this be opposed? So it might appear hideous to some people, is that enough to prevent a major economic development? In fact, I think there's even something subversive about the scheme, it's saying nothing is sacred anymore, even your blessed Cedar! Learning from Las Vegas, anyone? Should we give the arbiters of middle class taste the right to control the fate of such developments?
Living in such a small country, we have no option but make the most of what we have. I hope this will be the beginning of an ambitious project of sea reclamation that will stop when we hit Cyprus!