Monday, 22 August 2011

Top 10 Contemporary Political Artists

The phrase "it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism" has been attributed to both Zizek and Jameson.  It seems prophetic in the wake of the bank bail-outs: it seems impossible to even imagine the banking system (which has bankrupted not only our country but many countries) failing, we are ready to pay any price so that this broken system carries on.  And even though we own the banks, we have no power to influence them as they announce that they will continue with their unlimited bonuses.  It is indeed easier to imagine the end of the world: think of the recent apocalyptic scenes on London, ransacked and on fire.  We can't turn to politicians for guidance, there is tri-party commitment to the same forms of Capitalism.  So, how can we imagine alternatives?  This is where Art can play a unique and crucial role.  Philosophers or economists have to come up with an alternative before they can communicate what it might be.  Only the Artist has the power to forge a space where we can imagine new possibilities.  It doesn't need to be didactic either:

Even artistic experimentation and creation that is not explicitly political can do important political work, sometimes revealing the limits of our imagination and at other times fuelling it".
(Michael Hart & Antonio Negri 2009).

This got me thinking.  What Artists are there out there who are capable of fitting this brief?  I turned to Google for an instant answer but "Top 10 Political Artists" only returned results containing the likes of Picasso's Guernica. This is the best site here.  It cites the deaths of Socrates, Caesar and even JFK.  There's some Poussin, Delacroix, David and other historical paintings in there too.  Not very helpful though, we can't turn to dead Artists for answers... or can we?   History can teach us many things but these paintings tend to illustrate a point rather than provide space for new possibilities.  For example, Guernica was very much a shock and reveal campaign telling us what has already happened, it was specifically linked to the atrocities that occurred in Guernica in 1937.  Likewise Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People" is political but in more of a reportage kind of way.  It tells a story, it glorifies the French Revolution, it commemorates the event.  I suppose we could get involved in a debate about the use of historical painting today but I'm more interested in what artists exist now who could help us understand our world and imagine new possibilities.  What would this work look like?  So I Googled "Top 10 contemporary political Artists" - nothing.  Then "Top 10 political contemporary artists" - nothing.  Given the sense of urgency for us to understand a rapidly changing world, a world aethetised through the mass media too (we're talking about interpreting the image of, say, 9-11 as much as the act for example)...this struck me as strange.  In contemporary art circles the political (especially the overtly political) isn't all that... "fashionable" I guess.  

It was at this time that I went to see the Wilhelm Sasnal exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ.   Now, here's an artist who deals directly with political imagery (in a historic, communist context) but also with the added bonus of the cultural context of growing up in Poland as the Berlin Wall fell, and advertising flooded in, then the internet happened and in one person's lifetime the proliferation of the image changed so much.  Although this exhibition isn't particularly strong in this sense I couldn't help but compile my "Top 10 Contemporary Political Artists" in my head.  So, over the next few weeks I'm going to post descriptions of such Artists, in no particular order, starting with Sasnal. 

Sunday, 14 August 2011

On the Drivel Regarding National Service

I've been hearing a lot of "Bring back National Service, that's sort 'em out" rhetoric recently from the reactionary right.  Obviously, it won't "sort 'em out" as after they leave the service they will return to the same conditions as before - which are bleak.  The evidence at home shows that large numbers of ex-servicemen and women have problems (re)integrating into society, and record numbers end up in prison.  Also, Greece has compulsory National Service and they're not exactly unused to the occasional riot, are they? But OK, let's do it!  Let's bring back National Service, but there a re few things to consider first...

Just a reminder: Not all young people rioted, they're not even all criminals!  Young people didn't cause the banking crisis - they were too young to get jobs then.  They couldn't vote against measures to take away EMA and triple university tuition fees - in our democracy those under 18 don't get a say about how their future will pan out.  I'm serious, not only can they not vote (if under 18) but society attacks them if they try to have any democratic voice.  Look at the student protests.  There were many asking "shouldn't they be in school" and calling for expulsion - even for those aged 16-18... in POST COMPULSORY EDUCATION.  The police then kettled children, for hours, with no food or water, with no toilets, in the freezing cold.  The intention? To make them think twice about ever protesting again.  There were no such kettles during the August Riots.  No, our youth didn't cause the mess, but they have to pay for it.  Pay through education, and then pay through unpaid volunteer posts and interships, pay inflated rents and property prices (that older generations have benefited from).  Previous generations benefited from both social housing and the right to buy - but we didn't build any more Council Houses for this generation. 

Choose a job? I don't understand...
If we want to bring back National Service in order to re-connect with our youth and show them that they are part of society... isn't introducing a blanket punitive measure against the youth problematic?  It's OK though, I've got the answer: compulsory National Service for everyone, regardless of age.  Let's prove to the youth that National Service is a good thing, of benefit to all (still sound good?).  In addition, this will address the minor issue (see my previous post) that the majority of those arrested for rioting were in their 20s (some in their 30s).  And it doesn't matter if you have a job - you still need National Service to sort you out, as proven by the Postman a Teacher, and 11 year old boy Sun headline.  We're all in this together! 

Oh, but what about civil liberties, what about those who refuse to do it?  Put them all in prison?  This could be a disaster, the prisons are already full - and we already imprison more than our European neighbours.  Mass objection could ruin my plan - damned pacifists!  OK - we'll make it National Service, not National (Military) Service.  You can join the Red Cross, or work for a local Charity instead if you like.  In fact you could sweep the streets, work in a hospital, care for the elderly or mentally ill etc etc.  What about the people who already do these jobs?  Tough, they need to do it unpaid, out of civic duty, for a year.  Hey, I'm liberal though, you could even do it abroad it you like through organisations such as VSO, Raleigh International, GAP, Christians Abroad etc.  Yeah, this will help us realise the good things about Britain (by seeing those worse off abroad), and it will help improve international relations as we (literally) build bridges.  Oh... what if people still refuse?  We can't make them do it, and we can't lock 'em all up... 

Right, got it!  It's not compulsory.  It's optional.  What if they don't choose to do it though? Ah ha!  Got it!  Having completed a year's National Service entitles you to some benefits.  Yes, the right will like that.  You don't have to do it at all, as long as you don't ask for anything off the state.  If you're already working as a nurse, for example, you're already contributing to society in two ways a) by working as a nurse and b) by paying taxes.  If you're unemployed and can't get a job, you'll get a guaranteed voluntary post (Military, Charity or other public service) which will give you something to do for a year (instead of rioting one presumes), it will give you something on your CV, it will raise your self esteem, and, if you still can't get a job, you can legitimately claim some sort of benefit - why not JSA, maybe others too, because you're "paid in" through unpaid labour.  Actually, if this isn't punitive, why not even pay people to do it? Yeah that would incentivise people - just minimum wage or a token stipend so people can afford to do it though. 

Uh oh... I've forgotten something haven't I?  The cost.  How much will it cost to implement this scheme?  Someone's got to administer it.  It has to be linked to the benefits system (and possibly National Insurance).  We've got to pay them, and we've still got to sort out conditions for when they return from National Service and re-integrate into society.  Hmmm... Wouldn't it be cheaper, and more effective, to invest in jobs, re-instate the EMA,  and revoke tuition fees thus giving people prospects - which would make them feel they have a stake in society?  Just a though...

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The Emasculated and Infantilised Strike Back

“I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables - slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We’re the middle children of history man, with no purpose or place. We have no Great War, no great depression. Our great war’s a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and, movie gods and rock stars – but we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off” Fight Club
The fact that Fight Club is over 15 years old is startling.  It was eerily prophetic - and not just in this quote.  Two points, you could argue, from the quote above are now inaccurate though.  
  1. Our generation already has its own "great war" - the continual war on terror and 
  2. We are entering our "great depression", that of the wake of the global banking crisis.
But the war on terror is not "real" in that it does not directly affect that many of our citizens (compared to WW2 for example).  There is no "excitement" no conscription or blitz spirit.  It just drags on, being used to excuse the erosion of civil liberties. 

Indeed we are living in a neo-liberal consumer society though: proven by the looting of trainers.  That's all these people have left to aspire to.  And the system is broken, we all know that.  The banks have collapsed but so unthinkable is it that capitalism might fail, the state intervenes to ensure it's business as usual.  Bankers still get their unlimited bonuses - someone else will have to pay. 

We are living in an emasculated society where Dads are demonised (see Fathers for Justice) and all men are treated as potential sex offenders.  Traditional "masculine" industries have gone.  As you'll see below, young men in particular, and young people in general, are treated like children.  It is this kind of nanny state approach that makes people act like children and makes young men violent.  

Croydon Clean Up Brigade
Croydon Clean Up Brigade2
I went into Croydon this morning to take photographs of the aftermath of last night's riots - which spread across the Capital and, now,  the country.  I've spent the day talking to people on the street and watching the news footage as well as reading articles online and through Twitter etc.  One thing that strikes me is that everyone wants to know "why" (as if the youth are asking for something and if only we could give it to them they'd stop).  When anyone tries to explain underlying reasons they are quickly shot down as "not good enough" and the rhetoric returns to "it's all just mindless opportunism and criminality" (as if the two things are mutually exclusive).  What people can't grasp is that it is mindless opportunism but this doesn't mean there aren't reasons for this.  No, it's not a coordinated political uprising.  It's a load of people who are fed up, bored, and have got nothing to lose.  Yes, they are having fun (they're having the times of their lives).  They can't believe that they're getting away with it, no one is stopping them and this makes them feel empowered.  The other thing that I hear repeatedly is a patronising infantilisation of these people, who are usually referred to as "kids".  There are repeated cries of "what are the parents thinking....why have they let them out, they should be at home".  The Met has called for parents to check on their children and keep them in tonight but at the same time they have admitted that 80% of those in custody are in their twenties.  And those in their teens? Should we be referring to them as children?

Last night I saw Ken Livingstone give the best explanation of the rioter's motives.  He came under attack from the BBC reporter who interrupted to ask something like "but isn't it just criminality and looting, plain and simple?" to which Ken replied something like "of course it is, but why is it happening now?".  He went on to remind us that for the first time since WW2 we have a generation with worse prospects than their parents.  These youths, he says, are are criminals, yes, but they are disaffected, they feel that no one at the top of society (government) cares about them or speaks for them.  They have no prospect of a job, cannot provide for a wife and family, half the students in college don't know if they will be there next year because EMA has been cut.  That's why there is the fearlessness, they don't care, they have nothing to lose, they don't have a stake in society.  Not everyone takes to looting though Ken points out that the rioters account for less than one tenth of one percent of the Capital's youths.  It's not a political statement - it's anger and it's disaffection. You can hear the interview here.  

Of course Ken could have gone further.  He could have cited cuts to youth clubs and services.  He could have mentioned that Londoners, on average (unless helped financially by their parents) cannot expect to buy a house until they are 37, and young people now spend half their income on rent.  Ed Howker and Shiv Malik sum this up in their book "Jilted Generation: how Britain bankrupted its youth", in which they discuss what sort of a deal this young generation has got as compared to previous generations - taking into account opportunities, income, and cost of living.  To sumarise, they find conditions have worsened for young people:  
  • 25% of young people are still living with their parents - long into their twenties, this affects their ability to form relationships, men who live with their parents are more likely to become violent, 
  • There are 1.7 million families on the Council Housing waiting list (these are not old people), governments deal with this by giving them money to rent privately, which helps prop up landlords instead of building more Council Houses.  
  • This generation cannot have a university education unless they're prepared to take on huge debt (£9K per annum in fees but the total cost, including loss of earning could top £100K).  Even if they do get a degree they can look forward to a "competitive" job market where they may have to work in low value McJobs and undertake unpaid interships until they are "allowed" to get a proper, adult job.  
  • At the same time the government pays winter fuel payment to over 65s - 80% of whom don't need it.  If this was means tested the savings could pay for student tuition fees.  But they don't do that - young people aren't allowed to vote you see.  
  • Any help young people get is based on their parents' income.  This is, in itself an infantilising act as an 18 year old - capable of voting, joining the army, paying taxes, etc is still treated as a child.  
  • The government say that tuition fees have to increase because more people are going to university, but if more people use the NHS or the roads or any other public service what happens? The public pay more, through taxation.  This logic only affects our generation.  
  • 1.5million young people unemployed (1 in 5) and they are unemployed for a significant amount of time.  If this continues we will have a lost generation.  
  • Young people's careers start much later (after Uni, interships and unemployment) thus infantilising us further. 

Hear Malik and Howker discuss the book here

Yet this isn't a good enough "explanation" for many pundits or Joe Public.  I've still heard calls for water cannon, rubber bullets and "send them to Afghanistan".  How about treating them like adults, giving them opportunities and responsibilities?  "Sending them to Afghanistan" would, however, have a positive outcome: it would enable "them" to experience "the real", something beyond the everyday malaise that they experience - something akin to what is being experienced now.  It would be one opportunity, but there should be more for this generation to choose from, not be pushed into as some sort of punitive measure - punitive for what? These people didn't cause the banking crisis, they probably didn't vote Tory (if they were old enough to vote in the last election).  In fact, hang on a minute, who did vote to bail out the banks and pay the price through public sector cuts and the systematic dismantling of our Higher Education system? Certainly the Tory voters were not a majority and those who voted Lib Dem, who have been utterly betrayed. This government has no control of the streets and no mandate to govern.  I call for a general election now and hope that a new coalition wins - a coalition of the left - because Labour won't help these people, Labour won't restore free Higher Education or punish the banks.  We need a new politics where the Greens and the Communists can affect Labour and the Liberals to pull them away from a centre-ground consensus that a neo-liberal, free-market society based on continually increasing consumption is the only way.  That only Capital, not culture, matters.  We have seen the beginning of troubles - stemming from the banking crisis or credit crunch - but capitalist consumerism will only send us head-on into an apocalyptic scenario of global warming and a rising global population fighting over depleting resources.  The system needs to change, the question is a) has the revolution already started and b) do the left have the answers to fix the mess?

Monday, 8 August 2011

Twitter - Just Like a Phonebox Really

London rioted again last night.  On Thursday the Police shot and killed Mark Duggan in Tottenham.  Riots broke out and shops were burned and looted.  Last night (Sunday) saw a wave of “copycat criminal activity” (Met) across the capital: “Disorder spread to Enfield, Walthamstow and Waltham Forest in north London and to Brixton in the south of the city”. 
Reports from mainstream media (old media) quickly turned to the economic cost, how this could damage the Olympics next year (economics again) and how the trouble is perpetrated by minority groups.  There has been speculation that that some of the people involved were anarchists, and we all know the police don't like anarchists because they asked us to report on any known anarchists just last week (as if having a political belief is criminal).  Kit Malthouse, Deputy Mayor of London and Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority said "Obviously there are people in this city, sadly, who are intent on violence, who are looking for the opportunity to steal and set fire to buildings and create a sense of mayhem, whether they're anarchists or part of organised gangs or just feral youth frankly, who fancy a new pair of trainers."
You can read more about how the Daily Mail blamed Twitter for the riots here.  I wonder what rioters of the past used to organise levels of greed and criminality?  I guess they might have spoken to each other or maybe used a telephone to call up their mates but, correct me if I'm wrong, I don't recall newspaper reports or police chiefs blaming payphones for the riots.  Twitter, and all social media, is just a means of communicating.  What sort of person you are and who you choose to communicate with is up to you, it has nothing to do with the service provider - just like payphones.   What we need to recognise is that there are a lot of old people who have no idea how the internet works, fear Twitter and Facebook and so put the blame on them rather than tackle real issues. 
What seems to me to be more important is a) why the police were so ineffective b) why is this happening in the first place and c) what the ramifications will be for free speech and our right to protest. 
On the first question, Mayor Boris Johnson issued a statement referring to a "Michael Duggan" - so incompetence goes right to the top!   BBC London's Paraic O'Brien said of the situation in Brixton:
We can only conclude that the police are scared of Brixton "the ghetto", were ill prepared or that the level of unrest was so great that the police had no chance - in which case the press have failed to communicate the level of severity.  

On the second point - the old press (and politicians) seem to have no interest in "why".  Rhetoric such as "outside agitators" and "anarchist groups" upsetting the "hardworking majority" (Tottenham MP David Lammy for example)is not helpful.  Richard Seymour (on Facebook) calls this "Crocodile tears from people who spend a lot of their time screwing over the hard-working majority...The point is to understand that this is an inevitable reaction to police murder, racism, and - more generally - the destruction of working class communities. The point is to get that what's happening can't be reduced to 'yob politics'".

On the third point (the ramifications for free speech and our right to protest): I've already pointed out that Social Media providers cannot be blamed for what users decide to discuss.  Users should also be free to discuss whatever they like, if they disclose criminal activity then they are potentially incriminating themselves but monitoring Twitter to see what people might do...  Can you imagine the police phone-tapping every call made from every telephone and arresting people based on what they insinuated they might do?  I can, sounds a bit Stalinist or reminiscent of the Stasi or Gestapo doesn't it?  Yet when this occurs with Social Media it's OK?  Richard Seymour points out (on Facebook) the police are using rumours (on FB/Twitter) as the basis for a crackdown.  "Cop car parked diagonally on Enfield town pavement while young kid was stopped, searched etc. Vans driving up and down, shops closing in panic."  See photos here.  The danger is not that Twitter can spread rumours of a riot but that rumours of a riot on Twitter reach a far bigger audience when people start seeing arrests, shops closing early and panic setting in in places like Enfield.  I'm sure word will soon spread - through Twitter or by word of mouth, it doesn't matter. 

Monday, 1 August 2011

The Salamander

Dalia Zaida: source
The salamander is an amphibian: it sits between land and water.  This, we are told, is the reason behind the naming of Samandal (Arabic for salamander) Comics, which sits between the word and the image - but also between the (children's) comic and Fine Art project - or between the "high brow" and the "raised brow" as they put it.  Salamanders are also capable of regenerating limbs, which is unique among vertebrates, making them a kind of super hero. 

Hatem Imam (co-founder of Samandal) gave a talk on the project at the Serpentine Gallery on Saturday 30 July.  The main part of the project involves a quarterly tri-lingual (Arabic, English and French) publication comprising of a wide range of contributors (writers and artists, and non-artists).  Their stated aims are to raise the profile of comics in the middle east and to have fun - Hatem tells us that the immediate response to the question "what do you think of comics in the Middle East" is ..."there aren't any".  Of course, this isn't true and much of Hatem's talk sought to educate his audience about Middle Eastern comic books and, also, what comics were available to him growing up.  However, is there another agenda? 

"All comics are political", Hatem tells us and goes on to cite examples from "innocent" children's comics.  One such example is particularly blunt, I'll paraphrase Hatem's translation here:

The chicken has a house.  The chicken's house is called a coupe.  
The horse has a house.  The horse's house is called the stable.  
etc, etc,...
The Palestinian HAD a house.  The Israelis took it.  The only way for the Palestinians to get their house back is to fight the Israelis. 

Of course, the political is all the more evident when looking at comics from the Middle East.  Samandal do not wish to publish anything as blunt as the children's story above, in fact they steer away from the political.  However, being based in Beirut, and in the midst of an Arab Revolution, means they will never be able to completely escape the political.  Hatem talked of his comic book heroes growing up and how he imagined them coming to save him from the Lebanese civil war.  He also talked about how these heroes were often foreign (American, French, Japanese) as there were no Lebanese or Arab comics readily available.  Perhaps most interestingly he spoke of how these foreign comics were translated, and the inherent politicisation of the choice of words - every choice is political.  It's only just dawning on me now, that his looking to foreign comicbook heroes for salvation might reflect a wider Arab cultural position, that of waiting for intervention.  Perhaps in the case of the Lebanese civil war, from France, Britain, and/or America (or maybe Syria?).  In the contemporary case of Libya we can see the US deliberately playing a back seat role to the UK and France.  In Tunisia and Egypt no intervention was necessary and we have seen initial domestic resolution, but must wait to see how this pans out.  In Bahrain and Syria we have seen no intervention and as I write there are reports of over 130 Syrian protesters killed by their government. 

Hatem's talk was set in the context of the Bidoun Library - a kind of residency at the Serpentine.  Bidoun has developed a resource of books periodicals and ephemera investigating the diverse histories of printed matter related to the Middle East.  For this "residency" Bidoun has indiscriminately collected, and displayed, printed matter on the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Revolution, most predominantly that of Egypt.  It is as part of this project that they found, and invited to talk, Samandal.  The similarity between the two projects is actually in their apolitical political stance.  Bidoun don't censor, they collect everything with no regard to quality.  Samandal, of course, do select.  They select in terms of quality, but not by theme or political agenda.  Know a comic book artist or writer in the Middle East (or not)?  Get them to submit and add to the diversity of opinion that is Samandal

Hatem Imam is a visual artist and designer whose work includes print media, installation, photography, video, and painting. In 2007, he co-founded Samandal comics magazine. He is board member of the 98weeks research project, the artistic director of the Annihaya record label, and a founding member of the art collective Atfal Ahdath. Since 2007, he has been teaching at the Department of Architecture and Design at the American University of Beirut.
Samandal Comics is a Beirut-based magazine dedicated to comics, with contributors from all over the world. The goal of Samandal is to provide a platform on which graphic artists may experiment and display their work, generating contemporary reading material for comics fans.