sleepy me

Global Cities

‘Can cities promote social justice?’ asks an opening exhibit in the Tate’s collaboration with the Venice Biennale, Global Cities. It’s a question the exhibition does not seek to answer, instead taking us through an exploration and comparison of ten cities – Mumbai, Mexico City, Cairo, Sao Paolo, Shanghai, L.A., Tokyo, Jo’burg, Istanbul and London.

The exhibition itself is engrossing, facts that alarm are blown up all over the place: In Jo’burg only 4% of the population live beyond 65, half of Egypt’s 70m population live within the 100km radius of Cairo despite the ‘official’ population of Cairo registering at just 11.5m. The wall charting growth presents the facts in particularly immediate way. After informing us that in 1900 10% of the global population lived in cities now that figure stands at 50%, by 2050 it will be 75%. The wall then gives the population growth per HOUR in major cities all over the world. Berlin +0, London +6, Madrid +8, L.A+9, NY +14, Cairo and Beijing +23, Manila and Sao Paolo +25, Shanghai +31, Karachi +33, Mumbai +42 and Lagos an incredible +65. The correlation is clear, the poorer the city the faster it is expanding and I’m pretty sure that’s only in the poorest sectors of Lagos, Mumbai and Karachi. That question at the beginning I doubt resonates too strongly in cities in which many of the inhabitants live under a tarpaulin and struggle to make the UN’s poverty line of $1 a day. The only cities that had a declining population growth (bar Havana) were located in Eastern Europe.

Tucked away in a corner was a walled off table, on it a selection of gardening and cookery books. I noticed a few copies of Monty & Sarah Don’s book about growing seasonal veg, a guide to planting seeds and something about allotments. This must be the sustainability corner I thought – a necessary section to any program for urban development – nothing else in here was remotely green in substance or colour (aside from the massive aerial photos of London, which from the air is very green). The trouble was I couldn’t for the life of me square these books and a film I now noticed showing an American guy explaining what veg he grew when, and how expensive he thought supermarket verdure cost, with the rest of the show. Sure we need green spots to ‘integrate’ with each other in our diverse cities (I read that on a wall), and of course we should all grow our own things to eat if we can, but if the residential density of Mumbai is 34,000 people per km, and the city (an island only 438 square km) is growing at a rate of 42 people per hour, allotments probably won’t do.

And if sustainability is a good thing what about bikes? The only line I could find (and damn it I looked) was along the lines of ‘in Shanghai there are 9m bicycles’, a fact I seem to remember learning in my pre-pubescent years. Surely transport is one way a city can promote social justice – ban private cars and make everyone get on the bus or ride a bike, easy way to ensure a very basic level of equality without scaring off business (keep the cabs for the city cats). Might even do something to combat cholesterol levels and general inner city fatness.
sleepy me

Web 2.0

Speaking yesterday with someone who works for the people who constructed the virtual world that is rapidly managing to connect with our day to day existences – Second Life – I had very mixed feelings. Yes Second Life now has its own economy, (which apparently were Second Life a state would be the fastest growing economy in the world) and yes Second Life offers opportunities for creative types to get their work out there. In this respect it is in Silicon Valley technobabble, empowering.

Forget trading real life for yet more pixel engagement, don’t worry that you’re substituting the changing leaves outside your window for meaningless (and I must say at the moment graphic-wise rather lame) shapes in cyberspace. The idea as a concept [apparently] is exciting enough. ‘Just imagine’, it was put to me, ‘one day what happens in Second Life will affect what happens in real life’. I’m sure it will, and in some respects the prospect of blurring the real and virtual does excite me…but that doesn’t make it worthwhile.

My problem with creating such a world is that it lacks any souls. We get Avatars that are our own creation. They are essentially edited versions of ourselves, we may be honest in the Avatars we create, but I guarantee that these incarnations are a long way off having a subconscious. Even though I try to be as honest as I can in representing myself when writing this blog, I can’t help but come across as being far more coherent than I am if I have a chat with someone, because I get to think things through when I write in a way that is impossible unless one speaks very, very slowly indeed.

This problem with web 2.0 is well outlined by Andrew Keen, himself a Silicon Valley bigwig in an article that can be accessed by clicking here.

‘Another word for narcissism is "personalization." Web 2.0 technology personalizes culture so that it reflects ourselves rather than the world around us’, writes Keen, before making the link between Max Weber’s Law of Unintended Consequences and the downturn in fortunes of ‘traditional elitist’ media. It’s serious, instead of getting solid facts from reliable sources, we’re engaged simply in creating our own web-rooted worlds, be they blogs, conversations carried out using ‘messenger’ tools, Myspace interaction or Avatars in Second Life. Decent newspapers and other media outlets who provide a great number of jobs and resources that are necessary in self aware democracies, as well as small, independent record labels putting out music the majors won’t touch are feeling the squeeze. One of my favourites – Fcommunications – has decided to stop signing any new groups and halted its 12” only subdivision.

How do I square the potentially (and ironically) Orwellian distopia that Keen advances with the writing of my own blog? By initially rejecting every other narcissitic web 2.0 opportunity, and buying both music and the occasional decent newspaper. Wouldn’t it be great if the ones who were damaged most by this technological advancement were the newspapers with the readers least aware of such nuances? Fat chance methinks.

sleepy me

The stone is in our court

After a brief but somewhat difficult conversation last night about the forms of foreign intervention in response to human rights violations (specifically in relation to women) that can be undertaken in Islamic countries by the West, it was concluded that broadly speaking the support of domestic groups that provided domestic support to victims and gentle carrot incentivised diplomacy are really the only respectable options.

I then got home to find a short update that soon vanished into the recesses of the Guardian website, reporting that in western Iran a case of adultery in which the defendants – a woman and man – had been found guilty and were due to be stoned to death in a Takestan cemetery had been halted due to international condemnation, primarily by the Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Stoere.

I'm rather fond of the Norwegians at present, here is link to one of the royal princes eulogizing the merits of immigration,

As well as pointing out that execution by stoning is a sentence that is ‘barbarian’, Gahr Stoere warned the Iranians that a Norwegian delegation due to visit Iran this week would not travel if the execution were carried out. This is precisely the kind of diplomacy I found myself arguing for earlier, a little meakly because I believe strong carrots verge on an economic imperialism that is all to prevalent today. Hardline Western liberal democratic zealots condemn nudges such as ‘we think this is wrong’ as stating the bleeding obvious to people who enjoy disregarding liberal values and therefore being futile. They point to particular nutters, (Mugabe, Saddam, Ahmedinejad often crop up) and then hit you with the ‘if you really cared…’ line, one that I always find difficult because the contradiction seems to be in their court. The heavier we get, the more extensive the resentment, and the more fundamentalist the domestic shift my line when it comes to the Islamic attitude towards gender equality goes.

Whether we like what they do internally or not states are sovereign and the best chances of moderation and reform come when states feel secure in their relationship towards the titans of global power. Of course the Wahabi record on the treatment towards women is abominable by western yardsticks, but the only way we can hope to have any effect in improving it is through our own education in Muslim heritage – why is it so – that is non-judgemental, along with the best possible diplomatic relations rooted in respect and trust. Just don’t mention arms.

sleepy me

The Roky Enchantment Show

Went to see Roky Erickson, the founder of the 13th Floor Elevators last night. He’s a man who’s led a jinxed existence, (one hopes its got nothing to do with him choosing a name that uses 13 as its starting point) and last nights gig was a very moving affair.

Roky, a month short of his 60th and in one of the most influential rock ‘n’ roll groups that ever toured the Southern States, had never been to London before. Roky was incarcerated in a psychiatric ward during the early 70s and subjected to electroconvulsive therapy and Thorazine, and my guess is he didn’t get around like he once did after two of the heaviest antipsychotic treatments mankind ever came up with.

He was sent to an institute for the criminally insane after pleading insanity to the charge of possessing a single spliff, a crime that in 1960s America came with a 10 year stink in the clink. Instead of taking that rap he thought leniency might come his way were he to declare himself just the wrong side of reason, unfortunately the judge thought otherwise. He received his two courses of treatment and lost his driving licence as well as his right to vote.

This FAQ on him has him down as a schizophrenic, a condition that I’m fairly certain was helped on its way by his ingestion of quantities of acid, heroin and glue that would sink a large ship, and last night he needed to maintain eye contact when not at the mic with his lead guitarist in order to keep track of the arrangements. The sound however was amazingly tight, he never missed a beat, and hammered home riff after riff whilst delivering vocals that would send a white rabbit back into its hole and deep underground. The crowd were dancing in their seats, (this being the newly refurbished South Bank Centre) and marauding in front of the stage. At the end of the final encore Roky hung off the front of the stage and just shook hand after hand, eventually being gently led away by aforementioned guitarist leaving an audience so diverse in such rapture, our Jarvis couldn’t have written a better evening…
sleepy me

Tom Reiss and the FT - Together we can make the world a happy place...

 In his fulsome review of Paul Strathern’s new book Napolean in Egypt: The Greatest Glory, Tom Reiss – a self-proclaimed ‘Jewish Orientalist’ – asserts one feckless remark after another. I had never heard of him until I came across this review in the weekend FT books section, quite what the FT are up to getting this Harvard educated twit reviewing their Middle Eastern history books I do not know.

What I do know is that the Mamluk (not ‘Mameluke’ as Reiss transliterates) dynasty ruled not only throughout Egypt, but also as far as India and Baghdad. They cannot be deduced simply to be a, ‘fierce parasitic military dictatorship of foreign mercenaries’ whose idea of good government was ‘head hacking and full-body impaling’. The Cairene were not in need of ‘modern bakeries’ and ‘illumination’. Creating a dark, violent ‘other’ is elemental orientalism, a peccadillo that in a country in which the government legislates against racial incitement should be prosecutable.

Not only a sultanate in need of good cakes and more candles, who had forgotten to look in the pyramids, the Mamluks were one of the most unified dynasties that ever came to power in the Middle East. They remained in power for considerably longer (roughly from the early 1200s to 1517) than any other Islamic dynasty bar the Ottomans, who were forced to co-opt them.

They did this through a formalised structure of state governors and officials that was repeated and linked through every territory. Nearly all taxes were collected locally and spent locally, imbibing a trust between official and citizen throughout their empire that was certainly lacking in the European nations of the time. Because of this when it came to driving out the Franks, (they were the first dynasty to whole heartedly beat the Europeans, finally bringing an end to nearly two centuries of crusades) they could easily rely on a vast (and I mean vast) base of diverse auxiliary troops that included Kurds, Turks, Mongols along with various amalgams of Shi’ites and Sunnis.

Of course they were a military dynasty – their origins lay in the tradition of being raised a soldier and then rewarded with land and a home – and as an army they were ruthlessly trained. Children would learn to ride soon after learning to walk, and most games involved horses in some way, (they also built enormous and stylistically intricate hippodromes.) By the time soldiers were in their young teens they could happily ride at great speed whilst carrying two gigantic swords. Often Mamluk paintings depict the cavalry with a sword and a mace, or a spear and a lance meaning one Mamluk soldier could do the job of two Frankish crusaders. They also didn’t go in for cumbersome armour in the style of a 13th C. knight, preferring speed, nimbleness and vision (I can’t imagine one could see much out of those tiny visor slits.) They were brave and the Franks didn’t stand much of a chance against them.

Reiss then makes the bizarre request for someone attempting to educate in these matters for the reader to, ‘when reading “Mamelukes”, try substituting “Ba’ath party”, just for fun’. What! Why, is this a boring book? Certainly not according to the rest of the review. Do we need to equate two wholly different regimes (one Islamic, the other nationalist,) that existed five centuries apart for a laugh? Sometimes I must forget these darkies are all the same, all a bunch of ‘parasitic military dictators’. In this age of post-colonialism we must all be so well educated in these matters, our understanding of Middle Eastern history nuanced enough that we can happily do this for kicks. Edward Said hasn’t been dead four years and it’s as if his entire life’s work has been forgotten. I’m flabbergasted.

sleepy me


Following on from yesterday’s theme – Paul Chan’s reflected installations – here is a photograph of a reflection.

A reflection is (according to Apple’s Dashboard dictionary) ‘the throwing back by a body or surface of light, heat or sound without absorbing it.’ It is of course, also a period of calm, lengthy, intent consideration, which seems to be somewhat paradoxical when sat next to ‘throwing back…without absorbing it’.

What I like about this photo is that in a very simple way it seems to sum this dialectic up. It seems normal enough – a calm, quiet spot in Hyde Park on a summery day, quite possibly somewhere one might sit and ponder a thought, or hold a situation up for ‘intent consideration’. Yet the very fact that it is a reflection makes it blurry and faded, it’s not right – it hasn’t quite absorbed something.

I’ll put some more reflected photos up tomorrow, (possibly even the right way up)…
sleepy me

Chan's Light

I'd like to start this blog with few words inspired by the Paul Chan show at the Serpentine, a show I would happily challenge anyone to go and see and not be moved by in some way.

Born in Hong Kong, Chan grew up in the Nebraskan prairie plains and his work grapples with the unusual place American artists no doubt find themselves today - dissent is condemned as unpatriotic, and yet not to politically engage must seem curious in such an age. To deal with this Chan separates his work as an activist and an artist, and makes art that is difficult to politically pin down. Instead Chan makes us very aware of our own presence, something too many of us here in the West, (including myself of course) are painfully unaware of.

He does this using darkness, light, projected animation, and elements we are - unhelpfully - quick to label 'surreal'. We see an object we know and many of us like, and it moves or changes, often in way we might not expect. A chair might float upwards or a flower might flicker into view. So one moves closer to inspect it, but unfortunately we cast a shadow over the carefully directed projection. What we wanted to see is gone and we are made aware that it was our being there that made it disappear. So one stands back but by now the projection has changed and we move on, a little more cautiously this time.

Walking around the show I couldn't help but think about the US policy of flying 'terror suspects' around the world on planes whilst beating them up and making statements about their supposed actions to them, then hoping they'll admit to these allegations. Dubbed 'extraordinary rendition' I thought to myself that what we have in this gallery are some extraordinary renditions of light and darkness on the walls and floors around us. There I was thinking about US policy in an exhibition that is on the surface, a deliberately unpolitical exhibition. Very clever I thought. He has done this by showing us our shadows matter, that we need to observe how things we are familiar with change - everything is always moving and altering, (including one hopes the political direction of the US.) This all done by the use of something that is forever changing: Light. I do believe there is much more to this world than light and darkness, but not much that can escape its grope.