Saturday, September 30, 2006

Scarface, Sirk, Bling, Geopolitics

What have they done to my Centre, Ma?

Having a sentimental attachment to post war buildings made from concrete that may or may not have become apparent to readers of this blog (all 34 of you!), one often finds oneself in a conservationist frame of mind, as if it were not entirely contradictory to make like Betjeman with a Victorian town hall when talking about Modernism. So often in such instances you have to suiggest that big business could possibly do good things with one's favourite brutalist megastructure, like when on Chennel 4's foul Demolition Owen Luder claimed his Get Carter car park would make a great shopping and arts centre.

And while it's better than demolition, there is something not right about the spanking new refurbished Brunswick Centre, an almighty brutalist structure based by its designer Patrick Hodgkinson partly on the plans of the Italian Futurist Sant-Elia, which until a year or two ago housed the excellent Skoob books, a 60s formica caff and the Renoir cinema (OK I grant you that sounds like my ideal world). It's now known as the 'Brunswick Bloomsbury'.


I overheard a particularly fresh fresher coming out of a WC1 halls of residence saying 'have you seen our shopping centre! It's got the biggest Waitrose in central London, yah?' And that's before we even get started on the horrid posters: 'Bloomsbury, home of intellectuals, bookworms and shopaholics' or somesuch. I'd like to be glad that it's now a popular, working place, that it can prove to people that 60s architecture isn't all inhuman, etc etc, that it hasn't met the fate of the concrete precincts in Southampton that used to evoke Cabaret Voltaire records in their every right angle; but honestly, I want it windswept again. Desolation seems somehow geopolitically appropriate. And besides, grey is apparently in this season.

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Seeing as it worked well first time, a red star will be awarded to whoever (incidentally- no Russian speakers admitted to the contest) can guess what Lily Brik in this Rodchenko poster- as plagiarised by such luminaries as Mike and the Mechanics and Franz Ferdinand- is actually shouting.

'I've got friends all over the World! None on this street, but all over the World!

An instructive thing when visiting other European cities is finding that their true talent is acknowledged all over the place- in Berlin for instance, there are streets named after everyone from Walter Benjamin to Bertolt Brecht, John F Kennedy to Hanns Eisler, Vladimir Mayakovsky or Kathe Kollwitz; similarly statues tend to be of such people rather than the 19th century politicians and generals that still bafflingly grace public spaces all over Britain. A friend thought for a while that De Beavoir town in Hackney was named after Simone, but alas not. So it's strangely inspiring to learn that there is this statue of Tony Hancock in Birmingham.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

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Prizes, or at least a gold star, is available for guessing what famous abstractionist did this First World War recruitment poster

'We're the Human League, and we're much cleverer than you'


Robin Carmody, in one of his Alan Freeman/Michael Bracewell/Jeremiah/Hobsbawm chart rundowns, had interesting things to say about The Human League's 'Open Your Heart' as a piece of gleaming, Trans-European affirmation. But after a week of obsessive listening to Dare, on the contrary what seems to be at work is a Europeanising, a making-strange, of England itself.

It's appropriate that one of Carmody's commenters fixes onto the version of Roy Budd's 'Get Carter' theme that appears for a few seconds in the middle of the record, as the film follows a similar process, taking a decaying Northern city and making it as odd, as alien and exciting as any fantasy Bronx; a tangled maze of iron bridges, sculptural brutalist carparks, suited boys combing their hair in Northern Soul clubs. Remarkably, there's a site where the film's locations are re-enacted.

A similar thing is at work, again in the North East, in Pulp's best records (the party line is Separations, Intro and His & Hers, incidentally), and this is the diametric opposite of what, say, the Arctic Monkeys do with Sheffield, where the detail of the lyrics only adds to the mundanity, no transformation is achieved- you could never imagine them claiming 'everyone on Park Hill came in unison' (incidentally, I've always wondered if those were the streets in the sky walked around in the video to 'Love Action'). Post-Oasis, the working class has to present itself as mundane in order to be accepted as authentic.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Boy Meets Tractor


While reading Evgeny Steiner's book on Constructivist children's books Stories for Little Comrades, I had a wonderful realisation that, rather than looking at pretty pictures of stylised, faceless mini-people on tractors for fun, what I was actually involved in was research! Hurrah for academia. This book elucidates an area where the youth are instructed in important subjects, such as how trains work, the joy and complexity of technology and revolutionary war, rather than milquetoast petit-bourgeois subjects like dragons and castles.


The International Institute of Social History has lots of reproductions of said books. Steiner's book, though rather too tainted by the Boris Groys line that Constructivists were all evil Fordist proto-Stalinists, is fascinating for the comments from actual child audiences from the books at the time- 'why are these people all broken up?', most poignantly. Mainly though they just wonder why people don't look realistic, and seem rather annoyed by it. Certainly I remember thinking like this- I couldn't understand why Quentin Blake was allowed to draw like he did, for instance. I could do that! (the moral of this is that children, contra the situationist idea that they're all little nascent abstractionists, are in fact aesthetic reactionaries.)

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'I used to go on Lenin weekends in Liverpool'

Unsurprisingly, I think this looks intriguing- perhaps if any of my family members had the bottle this could have happened to me! Hmmm. Also evokes the (arch-Thatcherite) claim in top historical revisionist documentary The Filth and the Fury that 70s Britain was like the Eastern Bloc.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Where the People Look Good and the Music is Loud

A place I should have linked to a while ago...what magnificent haircuts they all had.



A post on Soviet travelogues through America, some of the topics of which shall be familiar...while on the Soviet Taylorism subject, I was sent this terrific piece on Taylor and Meyerhold a little while ago.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

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A Confederacy of Creatives

Due to my gallivanting around Poplar, I enturely missed the Deptford Design Festival. However I did pick up one of their programmes gratis, which informs us on the cover that 'gentrification will take a different form in Deptford'. Seeing as the place has, as this pamphlet points out, been home for years to 'thousands of creatives' without turning into Chelsea (or worse, Dalston) it doesn't seem too scary, at first.

Moving over the worskshops on 'attainable utopias' to the adverts at the back tells a more interesting story. The sheds, warehouses, caravans and general detritus between Deptford Creek and the amazing technicolour Laban Centre shall soon be swept away, and glittering and pulsating in its place will be this a 'safe and secure creative village'.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

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Shut up and keep serving the Cause


'In a series of mid-20th century essays the Hungarian historian, Istvan Bibo, attempted to explain the blindness and irresponsibility that has characterised the interwar policies of the Central European states and led them to catastrophe. In doing so he proposed a new concept, that of political hysteria. Bibo's central hypothesis was that when a community fails to deal with a problem that challenges, if not its existence, then at least its way of being and self-image, it may be tempted to adopt a peculiar defensive ploy. It will substitute a fictional problem,which can be mediated purely through words and symbols, for the real one which it finds insurmountable. In grappling with the former, the community can convince itself that it has successfully confronted the latter. It experiences a sense of relief and thus feels itself able to carry on as before.'
Emmanuel Terray, 'Headscarf Hysteria', New Left Review Mar/Apr 2004

Hetjagd auf Nazis!


Earlier this year, the city of Dresden sold off its entire stock of social housing to an American investment bank, partly in order to fund the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche, left as a ruin by the East German government.

It's things like this, sanctioned by the SPD, which should be borne in mind when appraising worrying phenomena like this. Also depressing is the collapse in the vote of the PDS, which has been at the centre of some good old Leftist sectarianism of late. Though, unlike the Social Democrats their posters in Berlin weren't defaced with the words 'Sozial-Killer', the former Communists's acceptance of cuts and privatisation, led to a faction of their partners in the Left Party splitting off to run on an anti-cuts ticket. The more things change, etc...

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Open House and its Enemies


A resident of the Erno Goldfinger designed Brownfield Estate in Poplar, walking past its vast Balfron Tower, said, loud enough for everyone to hear; 'fucking hell, that's a long queue for the intercom'.

Such is Open House, London's annual event where suddenly, for one weekend, it becomes an open city, welcoming all and sundry to queue for a very long time for admittance to everything from centres of plutocracy to 60s council estates. Except it doesn't quite work like that. Leaving aside a truly disturbing bit of opportunist Speerism from Anschutz Entertainment Group at the Dome (which really was as terrifying as this sounds), my open house was spent in the depths of the East End, in the truly inexplicable landscape that is Poplar.


Here, sandwiched between huge postmodernist confections, the sub-Blade Runner metropolis in the Isle of Dogs and the autogeddon of the Blackwall tunnel, from which Terry Farrell's ventilation shafts poke out as if they were in Chandigarh, are two of the most lumberingly powerful remnants of the municipal socialism once called 'Poplarism'- two 1960s estates, one by Alison and Peter Smithson, the other by Erno Goldfinger.

And the later of these- the Smithsons' Robin Hood Gardens- seems in much better shape than a year ago, a visit marked by the sight of burnt out mattresses and no people whatsoever. Thanks to the infinite generosity of the arts council, for one weekend the streets in the sky held a street market, with bingo and bombay mix; sound art installations play in the (working!) lifts, and unmistakeably bourgeois folk are taken round the flat of an elderly Geordie woman, admiring the awesomely kitsch internal furnishings as much as the Smithsons' protected kitchen appliances.


Our guide mutters that the 85% Bangladeshi estate wasn't too keen initially on them poking around, but other than the 'SHABZ IS GAY' graffiti everywhere, there doesn't seem to be that much hostility or ennui in this famously troubled estate. One wonders though how many of those of us admiring the concrete will be those who, when Tower Hamlets finally sell up, will force the residents out to Barking. Of course, as the very informative arts council girl points out, the space standards and facilities here are far more generous than those in the newbuild gated developments like the mini-Dubai on East India Dock...

Pirouetting Waif-Boy


In a year that has been one of the worst for pop in living memory, the last thing anyone had any right to expect was for it to be belatedly made less grim by Timbaland, of all people. That is, someone who hadn't made a memorable record since 2001 and had apparently spent the interim bodybuilding. But perhaps this choice of pastime is apt, since what his recent peaks- Justin Timberlake's 'SexyBack' and 'My Love', Nelly bloody Furtado's 'Maneater'- evoke more than anything else are the mechanical piston shifts and slurges of synth noise of Electronic Body Music. SexyBack in particular (from the man who gave us the number 1 with no bassline, here's the number 1 with no tune!) is Front 242 all over, tensed and tensile, gleaming and malevolent, with its preposterous lyrical claims backed up by futurist machismo. If only Justin had the visual charisma to match this persona. Evoking as it does Viz's Incredible Dr Sex, what it really needs is an Einstein hairdo, a leotard and a cape...

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Monday, September 11, 2006

Up They Rose

An interesting article and a list of structures designed by Richard Seifert, one of those oddly unspoken-of architectural firms that have shaped British cities. Like a kind of brutalist version of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the famous corporatisers of the International Style, his slabs and points are actually the most pervasive feature of the London skyline, certainly more so than Wren's spindles or Foster's phallus. From Centre Point over the river to Kings' Reach Tower, up to the Nat West Tower and down to the absurd 'Mini-Manhattan' of Croydon, these concrete lattices define the British version of the International Style from the early 60s to the late 70s. Slightly clunky, blank, yet forceful and futuristic.


These monolliths that so fascinated and horrified post-Situs like Jamie Reid's Suburban Press (see his Delacroix/Seifert juxtaposition above) are decidedly unfashionable, and all on the way out; the IRA had a good go at Nat West, while Drapers' Gardens is being dismantled at the time of writing - others have already gone. Perhaps they'll all be done with in 30 years or so, an entire skyline erected and demolished in the space of a lifetime.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Parallel Universe


My aunt Sarah, who was learning Russian at A-level and had family connections with, shall we say, proponents of 'Actually Existing Socialism'- you know the girl in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold who is lured into a fact-finding trip in the DDR for sinister purposes? I always think with that 'oh, that could have been my Grandma' - described her impressions of the Eastern Bloc in the 1970s as being 'like a parallel universe'.


A universe with a space programme more advanced than the USA's yet unable to produce wearable shoes, and with its own science fiction and pop artefact from this parallel universe currently in my headphones is the compilation ANS Synthesizer- Early Russian Electronic Music 1964-71 (Electroshock Records), documenting some music recorded at the start of the Brezhnev period of grim stagnation, shimmering with promise and dolefully bleak. Some of the music here (including 'Music from Cosmos' which should please Tim and I.T) is by Tarkovsky collaborator Eduard Artemiev, though seems more naif than say, the thick, noxious and oddly elegaic noises for Stalker. There's still a trace here of technological optimism- giggles buried in the mix, a future more yearned for than feared, though the imminent poisoned, blackened post-industrial Zone is hinted at.


The music here seems close to some Radiophonic Workshop at its most baleful- Derbyshire's Delian Mode or Daphne Oram's industrial Four Aspects. The parallels seem more obvious than the differences, with experiments at the time in the west; there's even a Wendy Carlos style Bach piece, though significantly less fizzy and peppy than his/her work. The prevailing mood here is tredpidation, with only a couple of tracks (eg Soviet electro-Cole Porter on Stanislav Kreitchi's 'Intermezzo') leavening the murk. The main sound source is the ANS, a deeply peculiar instrument. Not only for its synaesthetic properties - sounds 'painted' onto glass discs - but also the location of the one ANS, in Lev Rudnev's Moscow State University, one of the most terrifying of the Stalinist 'Seven Sisters'. How could one hymn the exploration of space in an edifice of such pure, terrifying power? Perhaps this gothic horror is what attracted Coil to the instrument for their COILANS project...

Thursday, September 07, 2006

I Travel

Plakaty 56

This, wonderfully, says 'Let's Deploy the Massive Construction of Canteens'! Note the very pre-Socialist Realist street scene...

Dock Strike

Deptford High Street is currently in the midst of a what Lewisham Council describes a 'My Street Makeover'. This, according to a note slipped through our door, entails cleaning off graffiti, filling in potholes, clearing undergrowth off the top of fried chicken emporia and so forth. (nb the Evening Standard once claimed this was the 'best high street in london' due mainly to, er, only having two or three chain stores, so make of this what you will)

Perhaps because they didn't specify that they would ensure that the Rail Station a) wasn't covered in wee and b) had working ticket machines, people seem generally oblivious. The double yellow lines are brighter, but as this is a street where people park halfway up the pavement, this is locking the stable door after the horse has been picked up for ram-raiding. The general look of crap delapidated Victorian architecture and general squalor is more or less unchanged. But worryingly, road and street signs have been replaced, and I fear for the one that points the direction to 'SURREY DOCKS' rather than the total shopping experience that is 'Surrey Quays', which was always a cherishable historical slip. Now we might have to assent to this least it wasn't called a 'Marina'...

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

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Communist Consumerism

Lenin Alley

In Brian Ladd's fine hauntological history The Ghosts of Berlin a 1990 letter to the Berliner Kurier is quoted, from someone plaintively stating 'every time I write my address, 'Leninallee', people know I'm from the DDR!'

One of the enjoyable things about an all-consuming wikipedia obsession is chancing upon unexpected sites. Like this, a page dedicated entirely to statues of Lenin. Such as the one above, which previously had pride of place in Berlin's Leninplatz, long since removed and, symptomatic of the change from action to inaction renamed Platz der Vereinten Nationen (i.e, United Nations Square). Most wonderful of all though, is the fact there is a statue to Lenin in Dallas. It won't be long, comrades...

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Establishing the Paris Commune

The campaign to get Ian Penman's Paris Hilton book published starts here. Anyone who wants to picket publishers with me, an e-mail at the usual address.

Constructions and Infections

Posting has been thin on the ground lately, partly cos of what my Doctor insists is not tonsilitis, as my tonsils were taken out when I was six, but is seemingly some bacterial variant making my throat swell up in a decidedly odd fashion (the other alternative had great headline possibilities, viz 'my mumps, my mumps..' good lord I've been subbing too long) and, more interestingly, because I've been creating and subsequently obsessively fiddling with a Wikipedia entry on Constructivist architecture. Annoyingly, it being Wikipedia, you can't stop other folk fiddling with it- so enjoy the photo above of a 20s Post Office in Kharkov which they inexplicably excised...

Also fun was being described by the Department of Work & Pensions thusly- 'Owen Hatherley is a 25 year old Man Lady'.

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The Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People

When I first saw this picture I thought it had escaped from the fevered politico-aesthetic imagination of (the newly aesthetically pleasing) Tim Fisken onto a sober article on photography in The Guardian – but it seems that this is an actual legit Nepalese Maoist girl wearing a Britney T-shirt.