The War On Culture

The destruction of the 2000 year old Baal Shamin temple at Palmyra, Syria, by Isis militants.

The destruction of the 2000 year old Baal Shamin temple at Palmyra, Syria, by Isis militants.

It is heart-breaking but horrifically fascinating to see Isis use culture as a weapon of war. Ironically it would appear that they fully appreciate the power of cultural language embedded in design and architecture, in a way that western governments currently cutting their arts funding are failing to grasp.  What is it about these ancient historical objects that make them so powerful and threatening today? What fear is driving this extreme erasure? A small part of me gives an angry cheer at the status and value awarded these objects through the prioritising of their destruction. Isis are unwittingly making martyrs of stones and the act of destruction may haunt them longer than the stones stood. Iconoclasm has been a weapon of war for centuries, the Christian church has quite an extensive record in this area of activity. Protestant iconoclasm in the summer of 1566 referred to as the “Beeldenstorm” began with the destruction of the statuary of the Monastery of Saint Lawrence in Steenvoorde the Netherlands and continued through Europe. But what powers such a strong the fear of objects that they have to be destroyed? In a consumerist western culture it would be remarkable if Louboutin burnt down the factory making Jimmy Choo shoes, but then perhaps they are the same factory in China anyway. Maybe this points to the core of the issue, western culture has largely separated the value of meaning from objects through mass manufacturing. If something breaks we just order another one from the same mould. 3D printing will not change this, just extend our consumption to printing another at home. The slow making and skill of crafting unique objects has been side lined to the luxury market of an elite who can afford the expense and we have mostly lost the skills to make things ourselves.

In the war on culture, it is hard not to dream up reprisal acts: 3D printing thousands of miniature models of the Baal Shamin temple in itching powder and dropping them on Isis camps etc… But reprisals are never the answer and just escalate the cultural war. It is more vital to use this event to help us reflect on how valuable culture is and to invest in it now in the UK. Otherwise our descendants will be in the embarrassing position of having nothing of cultural value to blow up in 2000 years time.


Everything is Architecture…

Everything is Architecture: Bau Magazine from the 60s and 70s – An Exhibition at the ICA

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Some times there is a gap in the clouds and radical sunshine from the past shined through with surprising brightness. Perhaps it is indeed the case that a truly clear thought always holds its charge and can speak from the depths of the past with a sparkling relevance.

Hans Hollein and Walter Picher writing in 1962 penned a manifesto called ‘Absolute Architecture’ in which they declare, to paraphrase: that physically and psychically we repeat, transform and expand our physical and psychical sphere. We determine our “environment” in its widest sense. The spring board of this thought leads us down the walk way of fashion-is-architecture; jewellery-is-architecture; makeup-is-architecture and of course shoes-always-feel-like-architecture, a crossover already extensively explored by Zaha Hadid, Oscar Niemeyer and Julian Hakes. But this declaration goes further than just packaging the body either spatially or stylistically, it declares architecture as a way to communicate a new vision. The optimism of revolution is imbedded in this suggestion that everything is open to be restructured, or constructed in new and exciting ways. ‘Everything is Architecture’ is offering the possibility, that if only we could build our ideals and dreams then they would become real is tantalisingly attractive. This new ‘architecture of everything’ would offer a way to physical and psychological health, through the desired shelter and protection of society itself.

If everything is architecture, then we are all architects. This collapses the hierarchy and elitism of Architecture and suggests that we are all empowered with valid social visions and already have the skills to implement them. In todays context this sounds like the rallying cry for a social media movement, a sort of new build optimism where everything is constructed by the masses for the masses to quote the sci-fi film THX 1138. Twitter, Facebook and the internet have provided the architectural tools to empower people to consider new ways of building societies. The now fading ‘Arab spring’ seemed to offer a new architectural style, as have the new people’s movements such as Podemos in Spain and Syresia in Greece, who have only recently become  dampened and constrained by the uncomfortable realisation that money-is-also-architecture, and that those who already have it, often get to decide the form of what gets built. The rancorous public debate around Jeremey Corbyn’s leadership bid for the Labour party reveals how those already in power are horrified at possible new styles of building.

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www.uncubemagasine.com

So maybe the contradiction that undoes the brave new architectural world is embedded at the heart of the statement, lying dormant waiting to sabotage new building like a virus deep in a hard drive. All of us positive and negative ‘according to his needs and wishes uses the means necessary to satisfy these needs and to fulfil these dreams. He expands his body and his mind. He communicates. – ALLES IST ARCHITEKTUR.’ Indeed, unfortunately we do.


Why is the Alexander McQueen exhibition so impressive?

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It would be easy to view a fashion designer as popular as Alexandra McQueen as overblown and over rated, whose fame is overinflated by the hubris surrounding his death. The cult of doomed youth has such a pungent smell in the fashion world that it tends to overpower the more delicate scent of genuine creativity and fresh thinking. Such a large career retrospective in a major museum does not often favour the latter. In addition, the waiting list and queues to this exhibition are likewise overpoweringly long and a real deterrent unless the visitor is armed with a suitably sharp V&A membership card to cut down the wait. However, if there is one exhibition that is worth the challenge of entry it is this one. Rarely does a specialist in a creative field seem so fresh and clear in their communication. It is as though McQueen has made his collections after entering fashion from another field, working as a skilled outsider who has not been trapped by the traditions, assumptions, and tired routines of the fashion world. Yet strangely this is not true, he spent years perfecting tailoring skills, working in one of the most stylistically constrained areas of the fashion industry.

So where does this clarity come from? how does McQueen achieve the simplified overview that is fresh, creative and approachable, interesting yet understandable by all of us? It is perhaps his ability to raise his head above specialist and localised thinking of his trade, to genuinely combine different perspectives of knowledge in a way that is intelligently enriching. This is not the form of appropriation that often happens where surface visual references are grabbed and consumed by the trend machine of fashion, but a deeper understanding of culture’s structure in a simpler and more fundamental way. His work has almost a child like in its desire and clarity, which is combined with advanced technical skills and a seemingly unending stream of creative options. Perhaps he exemplifies ‘beginners mind’ for as Shunryu Suzuki says ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.’


Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers

Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers.

This diagram is really useful to try out different scenarios with ….

 


Fiera – 1st issue

Fiera.

Featuring this text in Opinions : ‘Should We Be Making Polychronic Objects?’

(Edited text from the Studio Viatopia stand at designjunction 2014)

There is currently a shared sense of wonder at developments in object making, often followed by uncertainty about what this means for us as consumers and designers. This is fuelling a re-evaluation of ‘progress’, driving questions about sustainability and consumption. Traditional craft processes have re-gained currency, with a greater value placed on the handmade, local materials and unique or small batch production. The recession may have been a stimulus for this, with the reassurance the heritage industries offer in uncertain times. However there seems to be more significant influences. One of these is perhaps anxiety and disorientation in relation to making, progress and the future. There is a sense that we should change, but how and to what is not clear. Is mass-manufacturing terminally damaged? Will our consumption of global resources inevitably lead to our own downfall?

Embedded in this anxiety is a reappraisal of the future itself. The blog by Ross Wolfe: Memories of The Future states: ‘Today it is well known that the future has become a thing of the past.’ This revision of ‘futurism’ has gathered momentum in recent years, bringing about a growing critique of a linear model of time, a model that was associated with Modernism, and which in turn has become linked to the growth of capitalism and the rise of consumerism. The 19th century ideal that the future would automatically bring progress and improvement has started to appear a tragic illusion. The narrative of endless development has lost authority as cheap mass-produced goods fall apart and we question the wisdom of over production, requiring us to re-think the mantra of progress. Meanwhile we have shifted our sense of time to a new orientation. Amelia Groom, editor of Time observes that: ‘the dislocation and non-fixity of networked digital space is both symptom and catalyst of the broken, multifarious time that we find ourselves in.’ (Groom 2013:13) This digital ‘dislocation’ uncouples us from a linear viewpoint, and shifts us to experiencing an aerial view of time that connects many different times and events laterally.

We experience a growing temporal dizziness as we adjust to fresh viewpoints. Video artist Hito Steyerl describes this as feeling ‘out of joint’, and suggests that being out of control of time and its accompanying sense of dizziness are produced by society being in a dream like free fall. James Bridle champion of The New Aesthetic, has described the aerial view as the view of our age. Our default perspective becomes images from Sat Navs, Google maps, drone targets, etc, offering apparent reference points within a sea of digital content. However Bridle invites us to ‘remember, digital maps are animations on pause’ (Brindle 2013). A time based perspective that is disorientating and disturbingly difficult to adjust to.

The artist Paul Chan discusses Greek notions of time: ‘Chronos’ as the concept of time as a measure, that progresses in a uniform and serial order, and Kairos as time that describes quality and is rich with experience and aptness or ‘right timing’ (Chan 2010:84-85). In a digital world of constant high speed information, activities such as learning skills or making objects by hand become rare and prized, physical presence and tactile experience becomes the new luxury. The resurgence of Craft could be framed as nostalgia for a golden slower age, without the information overload, but perhaps our rehabilitation of craft has to do with our shifting view of time. Once Chronos was seen as a mark ‘civilisation’, organisation, and orchestrated train timetables, now perhaps we can see with the rise in valuing Kairos a review of the quality of our relationship with time and objects. This may offer us a different paradigm for making and understanding objects. Artists, designers and crafts people have always experienced Kairos in the process of making, ‘getting lost in your work’. However as consumers, what does it mean to view and buy objects from a time based perspective?

The French philosopher Michel Serres presents us with a beautiful simile: the crumpling of time that produces polychronic objects: ‘Time can be schematised by a kind of crumpling, a multiple, foldable diversity… this intuition is clearer than one that imposes a constant distance between moving objects, and it explains more… An object, a circumstance, is thus polychronic, multi-temporal, and reveals a time that is gathered together with multiple pleats.’ (Serres 1997:16) These pleats of time in polychronic objects, offer a map-like view connecting knowledge and experience of materials, cultural forms, and historical functions from many different times layered into one item. Objects are no longer on the end of a long narrow evolutionary chain of improvement, as Bruno Latour states in We Have Never Been Modern ‘I may use an electric drill, but I will also use a hammer.’ (Latour 1993:166) We are accustomed to viewing objects in terms of function, cost of materials, or by their semiotic reference to cultural values. Valuing the combination of different ‘times’ within an object, offers a new paradigm for both making and consumption. Time as a reference point significantly shifts our value systems from the constant present tense, to an overview.

So what does it mean to approach making from this paradigm? Is this mining of history for the discarded diamonds of past materials or process, just extending our consumerist thirst for disappearing materials and skills, re-packaging them as the new and the interesting? A revisiting of waning crafts sometimes acts as a sticking plaster that emphasises ‘lost’ skill, in effect enhancing the linear timescale of modernity. This does not change our perspective on time or making but reinforces a sense of nostalgia. However crumpling together materials and techniques from different times, from an informed overview, stabilises the rush for the next trend, and offers localised solutions in post/non mass-manufacturing societies. The same object (perhaps a bowl) can be made from different time combinations in different places reorienting traditional practices.

Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges offers an aerial approach: ‘Every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.’ (Borges 1962:195) This suggests that making and objects have a dynamic relationship to time, and that craft, has the potential to rearrange the past and construct the future. This perhaps indicates a more fundamental shift in making. By crumpling materials and time we incorporate the dynamic scope of the aerial view, leaving a linear hierarchy of materials. Crumpling stimulates making through connecting dynamic possibilities.

References:

Borges JL, (2000) Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writing Penguin Classics; New Ed edition p195

Brindle J, (2013) http://booktwo.org/notebook/new- aesthetic-politics/ 20.2.14

Chan P (2010) A Time Appart ed Klaus Biesenbach Greater New York pub MOMA PS1 p84-85

Groom A, (2013) ed Time – Documents of Contempo- rary Art co-pub Whitechapel Gallery, MIT. p13

Latour B (1993) We Have Never Been Modern trans Catherine Porter pub Cambridge University Press.

Serres M, (1997) Science and Humanities: The Case of Turner SubStance vol 26, no 2 p16

Steyerl H (2011) Free Fall e-flux journal 4 p24

Wolfe R, (2012) Memories of The Future [Blog] 8th August http://thecharnelhouse.org/2012/08/10/memories-of- the-future/ accessed 20.2.14


Limits to Growth was right. New research shows were nearing collapse | Cathy Alexander and Graham Turner | Comment is free | theguardian.com

Limits to Growth was right. New research shows were nearing collapse | Cathy Alexander and Graham Turner | Comment is free | theguardian.com.

This is a sobering article, that shows research by M I T back in the 70s puts us on course for real problems in terms of consumption and mass manufacturing – as if we don’t really no this ! It makes for depressing reading as it belives it is too late to alter behaviour, and doubts whether governments have the power to respond. It is merely a case now of individuals planning and protecting themselves…


Playing to the Gallery review – Grayson Perry delivers a passionate defence of art | Art and design | The Observer

Grayson on Patience

Playing to the Gallery review – Grayson Perry delivers a passionate defence of art | Art and design | The Observer.

A powerful defence of the act of creation, and of blurring categories …


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