Sunday, 18 December 2011

Engrenages [Spiral]

Captain Laure Berthaud (played by Caroline Proust)

The French TV drama Engrenages — released as Spiral for English-speaking audiences — inhabits a terrain somewhere between the Baltimore depicted in the The Wire and the Copenhagen of Forbrydelsen [The Killing]. Set in contemporary Paris, Engrenages is based around a series of grisly crime investigations that evoke a dark archaeology of the city as a nest of corruption, deceit and violence. The pivotal character is undoubtedly the police captain Laure Berthaud, played superbly by Caroline Proust, who fearlessly pursues her opponents with a combination of recklessness and vulnerability. The “baddies” that we encounter are a truly remarkable menagerie of monsters, ranging from corrupt lawyers to various psychopathic murderers, who at times correspond to various pre-conceived stereotypes ranging from Arab hustlers to eastern European pimps. At a political level, therefore, the drama is not particularly incisive: unlike the multi-layered Baltimore of The Wire we never get a compelling sense of how Paris works as a city. Many of the characters are too one-dimensional for us to invest much emotionally in their respective fates and the lines of sexual and racial difference evoke little more than a claustrophobic ambience of danger and paranoia. Ironically, Engrenages owes too much to second-rate crime dramas and not enough to more experimental TV drama. For a city that is as much shaped by its post-colonial present as its imperial past the Paris of Engrenages seems somewhat limited in its scope.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Cosmopolitan urbanism

Bombay/Mumbai, VT station (2006)

Out of curiosity today I checked the etymology of the word "cosmopolitan" and found that it is of seventeenth-century French origin, derived from the Greek word kosmos meaning “world” and polites meaning “citizen”. The word “cosmopolis”, which combines kosmos with polis (the Greek work for city), appears to have first been used in the nineteenth century. So the ideas of world, citizen and city come together through these words and appear to offer an alternative set of ideas to that of an urbanism determined by boundaries, distinctions and exclusions. An enlightened conception of urban citizenship can be conceived as a form of belonging or identification that lies in contradistinction to more narrowly defined notions of ethnic, religious or nationalist affiliation. But who are cities for? Has the progressive promise of the “open city” been captured by transnational elites? Can a liberal city also be a just city in both social and economic terms? A cocktail in a swanky neon-lit bar in downtown Bombay/Mumbai can cost more than the debt that may drive a farmer on the urban fringe to suicide.

The historian Mark Mazower argues that the rise of ethnically defined nation states in the twentieth century, combined with the rise of European fascism, led to the brutal reorganization of previously mixed cities such as Salonica (now Thessaloniki) in Greece.1 One of the calamitous side effects of Western intervention in Iraq was the destabilization of the mixed character of Baghdad and other cities as new forms of religiosity were unleashed. In Nigeria, for example, there are latent tensions between “generous urbanism”, and the absorption of economic migrants and refugees from elsewhere in Nigeria and West Africa, and underlying ethnic or religious tensions that can easily be exploited. It is striking, however, that in spite of everything, cities remain relatively safe havens from poverty or violence in comparison with their rural hinterlands. Yet under such intense and uncertain conditions, especially in the global South, it remains to be seen whether cosmopolitan urbanism can vie successfully with its intolerant alternatives. Just as cities can also serve as the fulcrum for progressive change they can also serve as citadels of injustice and repression.

1 Mark Mazower, Salonica. City of Ghosts. Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950 (Harper Collins, London, 2004).

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Britain on the edge of Europe

Last night the British Prime Minister David Cameron held a celebratory dinner party with right-wing MPs after he used his veto against closer European political cooperation to stabilize the euro which has left Britain more isolated within Europe than at any time in the post-war era. It seems that the upsurge of “Europhobia” fostered by the current government and their media allies has led to a situation where foreign policy is being driven by a few dozen MPs agitating to take Britain out of the European Union along with the lobbying of the financial services sector to prevent the possibility of tighter regulation or the imposition of a transaction tax. Meanwhile, pro-European voices across Britain have been muted and scattered as the longer-term implications of this debacle have yet to be widely recognized. For many in the Conservative Party these events mark the first steps towards a national referendum and the longed for exit from the EU altogether. Isolationist fantasies are gathering momentum as if Britain might be transformed into a larger version of Switzerland.

Britain’s antipathy towards Europe can be read as a kind of neo-colonial fantasy of imagined grandeur: it is interesting to contrast Ireland’s embrace of Europe with that of the UK. Indeed, an independent Scotland, as Alex Salmond points out, would seek closer ties with Europe. Although Cameron’s move appears superficially to safeguard the financial services sector of the UK economy the rationale for London’s economic role within Europe looks set to change as the relative importance of Frankfurt, Paris and other cites begins to grow. The apparent strength of Britain’s separate currency is built on shaky foundations and as the strengthened eurozone pulls away in coming years the economic and political marginalization of the UK looks set to intensify. My political antennae tell me that the eurozone will not break up: one or two countries may partially or even completely default but the overall project has too much political capital invested in it to fail. More broadly, however, we need to rebuild political legitimacy for a progressive European project that can demonstrate real benefits for its people. The underlying tensions between technocratic austerity and neo-Keynesian strategies for growth have not been resolved.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Science, nature and the public realm

From Rodney Burton, Flora of London (1983).

The current political emphasis on greater accessibility and public engagement in relation to urban nature raises certain difficulties. Professional botanists, entomologists and other scientists tell me that public policy towards biodiversity and the protection of “wild nature” is being driven increasingly by a public-relations emphasis on certain “flagship species” or vague notions of sustainability rather than detailed knowledge about sites, species and the ecological dynamics of urban space. Those agencies charged with the protection of nature or the fostering of environmental education often lack any specialist expertise leading to a repeated emphasis on a small number of easily recognizable animals or plants. The idea that deeper knowledge requires years of patience and dedication has been supplanted by a culture of immediacy. In such circumstances how can cultural or scientific complexity be effectively communicated? What happens when autonomous criteria for scientific evaluation conflict with externally imposed agendas for reshaping knowledge? The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls for the defence of the “inherent esotericism of all cutting-edge research” yet he also insists on the development of appropriate strategies for the scientific enrichment of the public realm.1 In the case of urban ecology there is a glaring disjuncture between specialized scientific understandings of urban space and mediated discourses of consumption.

1 Pierre Bourdieu, Sur la télévision (Raisons d’Agir Éditions, Paris)

Monday, 14 November 2011

Wuthering heights

I prefer not to read reviews of films before I see them. In the case of Andrea Arnold’s latest film Wuthering heights a small amount of research would have saved me some embarrassment. As her visceral adaptation of the Emily Brontë novel opened I leapt from my seat to complain to the projectionist that the film was being incorrectly shown. It turns out, however, that the compressed aspect ratio is intentional, but in my confused state it merely added to what was a perplexing cinematic experience.

Elements of the film break new ground: her portrayal of Heathcliff as black intensifies a mood of cruelty and claustrophobia in nineteenth-century rural England. Yet the lack of continuity between her depiction of the characters jars: the older Cathy bears little resemblance to the younger whilst the older Heathcliff can’t match the magnetic presence of his younger self. The moorland landscape provides a relentlessly bleak backcloth to the emotional torment of the protagonists yet there are also moments of great tenderness and beauty. Despite its weaknesses this is a film of striking and enduring originality.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The same old rock: Roy Harper at the Royal Festival Hall

The atmosphere in what is ordinarily a classical music venue was raucous and emotionally charged. The English singer-songwriter Roy Harper — a contemporary of long departed figures such as Tim Buckley and Nick Drake — was here for what felt like a valedictory concert. Harper is now 70 but his voice remains in remarkably good shape, accompanied by his distinctive acoustic guitar and a small orchestral ensemble.

Before yesterday’s show Harper had distributed a sheet of paper for the audience, a kind of free programme, that contained John Keat’s poem “To autumn”, written in September 1819, with its “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. Harper’s England is an evocative working landscape yet suffused with bitterness towards the church, landowners and their contemporary equivalents. It is an atheistic vision of joy in life and nature made poignant by the finitude of time.

The sense of occasion grew through the concert as he was joined on stage by his son Nick on second guitar, then by Joanna Newsom, whose luminous voice alternated with Harper for “Another day”, and then finally by former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, who provided cascading arpeggios for “The same old rock”. As Page sauntered on stage I thought of Jorge Luis Borges’s parable “Ragnorök”, where “The Gods” unexpectedly arrive in a lecture hall. Harper kept apologizing during the show for small errors — even starting one verse all over again — but it didn’t matter at all. Like blotched leaves twirling through the autumn air everything seemed just as it should be and there was scarcely a dry eye in the house.

Friday, 4 November 2011

To open a wasteland

Lucien Freud, Waste ground with houses, Paddington (1970-72)

The view from my office window at UCL in Bloomsbury, central London

Photos from the site visit in September

The Spanish artist Lara Almarcegui has a wonderful photo entitled “To open a wasteland” that depicts some kids rushing into a patch of waste ground in Brussels. The sense of an urban enclosure being revoked is captured in the blurred movement of figures surging forward.

I think I first reflected on the presence of “enclosed” waste spaces in cities whilst writing about Lucien Freud’s Wasteground with Houses, Paddington (1970-2) which provides a view from the window of his West London studio. Freud depicts the rear elevation of shabby Victorian terraces, with their jumble of aerials and chimneypots, interspersed with an area of overgrown wasteland. So precise is his painting that we can identify many of the plants he observes.

From my office window at UCL in central London a few years ago I noticed a similar anomalous space that had developed spontaneously between other buildings. As I looked down one winter afternoon a fox sauntered past and in summer the honey-scented flowers of Buddleia davidii are visited by bees and butterflies. This summer I decided to pursue my curiosity further and arrange access to the site. After opening a metal gate I made my way up some slippery rubbish-strewn steps and entered a strange world of tangled vegetation. Accompanied by the artist Carolyn Deby and the botanist Nick Bertrand we surveyed the site, finding over thirty species of plants, including three kinds of oak trees. Nick’s expertise was inspirational as he pointed out different species that had colonized the site. A seemingly empty space was brimming with life.

What struck me immediately was that this space has become a kind of miniature urban forest with its own mix of plants from all over the world. Instead of looking down onto the site I was now looking up at the brutalist façade of the university building with leaves touching my face. For a moment I became aware of myself at another point in time gazing distractedly from my window just metres away.

This afternoon, however, I glanced towards the site and noticed that it has just been cleared, leaving an expanse of rubble with a few plants left where they could not be scraped away by heavy machinery. The cycle of entropy and ecological succession must begin anew amid the vagaries of urban development and yet another planning application.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Let England shake: PJ Harvey at the Royal Albert Hall

Otto Dix, Verwunderte [Wounded Soldier] (1916)

Polly Jean Harvey, currently artist-in-residence at the Imperial War Museum, played a sold-out gig last night at London’s Royal Albert Hall. There was an unmistakable buzz about the venue as the cavernous auditorium filled to capacity amid a roar of excited conversation.

And then the lights dimmed and she was there. Dressed in black, and standing to one side of her small backing band, she briskly played the whole of her prize-winning new album. Although the acoustics of the space are famously muddy her searing anti-war lyrics were clearly audible, the words leaping from the shadows, and providing a poignant contrast with more jingoistic connotations of the venue. Though a response to contemporary wars, PJ Harvey’s latest work draws on the elegiac futility of the First World War as a symbol for all wars, and the shattering and splintering of young lives. “Soldiers fell like lumps of meat,” she sings to the incessant rhythm of “The words that maketh murder”. It is not just the mist-shrouded battlefields, swarming with flies, that Harvey evokes, but also the poisoning of England itself:

Let me walk through the stinking alleys

to the music of drunken beatings,

past the Thames River, glistening like gold

PJ Harvey is an uncompromising artist: critically acclaimed yet meeting with only modest commercial success. She exemplifies a paradoxical outcome of the political economy of music marked by a renewed re-orientation towards live performance: since it is increasingly difficult to make money from selling music, or even control the sequence of tracks on an album, the artist must look towards the live performance not just to sustain their living but also as a means to impose their artistic vision: for Harvey to play her new album in its entirety is a real-time artistic statement of how it should be heard. In the encore, however, she delves into her back catalogue, with mesmerizing renditions of “White Chalk” and “Angeline” that send shivers down the spine.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

City of puke

Making my way to the railway station in Manchester this morning I had to step carefully to avoid puddles of puke, discarded takeaways and other detritus littering the city streets. In the bright sunshine of a Sunday morning it is apparent just how many shops are boarded up or empty just beyond the recently revamped city centre with its glitzy bars offering “after work drinks” and other cheap alcohol promotions. The red-brick buildings allude to a faded industrial grandeur now superseded by a cacophony of consumption. If buildings could speak they might be telling us of better times with a strong local economy making high-quality products sold throughout the world.

In many ways Manchester represents a microcosm of the UK economy over the last fifteen years: a flimsy property-led boom over a declining industrial base. Thirteen years of “New Labour” oversaw Britain’s continuing crisis in manufacturing on the back of the devastation of the Thatcher era of the 1980s with its squandering of North Sea Oil revenue, overvalued Sterling and high interest rates. Skills and capacity left to rot.

So what’s wrong with Britain? The French engineer, economist and green politician Alain Lipietz has suggested that regions and economies face two main strategies in the face of intensifying global competition: “flexibility” or “skill”. We can engage in a race to the bottom in terms of labour flexibilization and the dismantling of public services or throw everything into improving competitiveness by making better products, design innovation, and most critically, investing in the skills and capacities of people. We know the “skill” strategy works in a European context as the hi-tech industrial renaissance of southern Germany or the “Nokia effect” attest. Why have successive UK governments got their industrial strategy — and by extension their economic policy — so disastrously wrong? I suggest it’s a matter of class and power: complacent and incompetent upper middle-class management rooted in networks of privilege; a nefarious neo-colonial banking system that has never shown much interest in manufacturing industry; and spineless cabals of “post-political” politicians, “consultants” and others with their visionless visions for the future. An artificial regionalism such as the hi-tech gulag of Salford Quays and other “creative city” strategies merely masks the underlying dynamics of decline, falling real incomes and rising inequalities.

Drive: a journey through LA

Carson-Dominguez, Los Angeles (2002)

From the opening moments of Drive (2011) we are immersed in a riveting depiction of Los Angeles at night introduced via a dramatic chase scene, as the main character, played by the almost impassive Ryan Gosling, acts as getaway driver for a heist. Pursued by a swarm of police cars he swerves through the city, pausing briefly beneath an elevated expressway as helicopter searchlights scour the landscape.

With Drive, the young Danish film director Nicolas Winding Refn has created a stunning drama that exudes a certain effortlessness in its sparse dialogue and tight narrative structure. The first half of the film in particular builds a sense of extraordinary tension as Gosling’s driver befriends a neighbour (played by Carrie Mulligan) whose husband is about to be released from jail. The gradual descent into terrifying and at times unwatchable violence (for me at least) is reminiscent of Gasper Noe’s Irreversible (2002) in its nihilistic excess.

What strikes me most, however, about Drive is the strange retro feel of Los Angeles itself with its honeycombed structure of parking bays, elevated highways and the sci-fi space of the LA River, which forms the background to a tranquil interlude before the descent into chaos. Notwithstanding the comical excess of the second half of the movie, Drive is destined to be a classic LA film, that pushes the symbolic dominance of the car to a new level of claustrophobia and exhilaration.

Thursday, 8 September 2011


The musical chronicle of the life of the extraordinary Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti — Fela! — has received rave reviews and met with significant commercial success. It was with a sense of excitement mixed with curiosity, therefore, that I went to see the show at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. The stage set evokes Fela Kuti’s final concert at The Shrine in Lagos in the summer of 1978 and weaves together a history of his life with a series of set-piece music and dance routines. The central performance from Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti and many of the supporting cast are excellent but something is lacking.

The difficulty with placing Fela Kuti at the centre of the musical, however, is that we experience little sense of emotional depth or insight beyond a series of events. A better narrative structure might have evolved around the life of an ordinary Lagos family with the music forming a dramatic backdrop. At times the musical felt like a compressed history of modern Nigeria: details of atrocities committed by the military were projected onto a screen at the back of the theatre and were at first met with laughter from the audience then hushed embarrassment. The backing band, though good, lacked the dramatic intensity of the original music and were not loud enough. I longed to hear Fela Kuti’s own voice and be immersed in the soundscapes of the real music.

So I left the show with mixed feelings: a sense that the production had not really revealed much about Nigeria or the music and that in trying to inform and entertain at the same time the essence of Lagos was strangely absent. The atmosphere felt oddly flat.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London calling

An initially peaceful demonstration over the death of a man in a police shooting incident in Tottenham, north London, has now escalated into the worst social unrest seen in London for decades. The original protest has morphed into extensive violence across the capital drawing in disparate and opportunist elements such as gangs, disaffected youth and looters motivated purely by greed. Huge fires have raged out of control for hours. Desperate shopkeepers and small business owners have seen their livelihoods destroyed, families have lost their homes and communities have been torn apart. Overstretched and badly coordinated police services have been unable to cope leaving people frightened and isolated. A political vacuum has been exposed within London itself as the mayor and the prime minister eventually scurry back from their holidays.

Though these disturbances bear some superficial similarity with the riots of the 1980s the most significant recent precedent is something quite different: the Ikea riot of 10 February 2005 in which a new superstore in Edmonton, north London, provoked mass greed by slashing its prices for a limited period. Vast crowds stormed the store and roads were blocked by abandoned cars as people feared missing potential bargains. These surreal scenes are much closer to the type of violence experienced in London that was not being driven by a clearly defined political agenda and had little or no connection with the original protest in Tottenham. A consumer society in which many are reduced to passive onlookers has instilled a pent-up fury that has morphed into a nihilistic desire for destruction. Though recent public spending cuts and other issues have generated a sense of anxiety the current wave of violence cannot be attributed to the last few months of public policy alone. Extensive cutbacks in youth services in deprived neighbourhoods, the curtailment of the Educational Maintenance Allowance and other deleterious developments all play a role in the wider context for what has happened but they do not fully or even partly explain the indiscriminate nature of the violence. A society which peddles false aspirations but fails to invest adequately in its own future can only drift into a further spiral of decline.

Friday, 5 August 2011


The on-going global financial crisis of 2007-8 has been transformed through ideological sleight of hand into a public sector debt crisis. The underlying causes of this economic turbulence — the criminality, negligence and irresponsibility of the banking and finance sectors — have been occluded by a renewed political assault on the public realm. Momentary political commitments towards more effective global regulation have faded away as power elites regroup to protect their self-interest.

Pivotal to this crisis is the existence of a shadowy second global economy into which ever more resources flow against a background of fiscally starved national economies that are politically prevented from raising their tax bases. The haemorrhage of capital from the global economy out of productive circulation into offshore tax havens is conservatively estimated at about a third of global GDP. This enormous loss of wealth undermines the possibilities for greater investment in infrastructure, health care, education, science and all those other fields essential for human well-being. As the journalist Nicholas Shaxson argues in Treasure Islands, “tax burdens are being shifted away from mobile capital and corporations, onto the shoulders of ordinary folk”.1 In the United States, for example, the political impasse faced over raising taxes is contributing towards a long-term slide in global competiveness because of stymied resources for investment in those critical areas essential for future prosperity. Indebtedness and declining competitiveness become ever closer entwined generating further economic woes and political polarization.

The causes of this global political and economic crisis are interrelated. News Corporation, for example, now mired in scandal for criminal activities, also has more than 150 overseas subsidiaries set up to avoid paying tax (located principally in the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and Hong Kong). The unravelling of News Corporation’s political influence in the UK is welcome but beware their quiet return in eighteen months or so to make another attempt at gaining control of BSkyB to further extend their control of British media by stealth. Note also that they and their political acolytes are committed to undermining the BBC and public sector broadcasting in order to increase their market share.

Shaxson argues persuasively that it is time to tackle the “offshore system” but this will require a reshaping of the political Left as a coherent global force to be reckoned with, capable of championing the public interest whether this be Tsetse control in sub-Saharan Africa or the closing of tax loopholes in the Caribbean. In the mean time we should remain sceptical of charitable foundations and other forms of corporate responsibility that mask the real dynamics of wealth and power in the global economy until there is true accountability and transparency.

1 Nicholas Shaxson, Treasure islands: tax havens and the men who stole the world (London: the Bodley Head, 2010).

Tuesday, 2 August 2011


The Danish film Hævnen (2010), also released under the English title of In a Better World, is a real gem. Directed by Susanne Bier, Hævnen, meaning revenge in Danish, is a subtle and powerful exploration of anger, grief and violence.

A bullying incident at school invokes a brutal retaliation that leaves us feeling decidedly uneasy: the bullied boy’s new friend is struggling with grief over his mother’s death which he channels into a ferocious assault on the school bully. We want a decisive retaliation but the incident goes too far. At this point the film bears some initial similarities with David Cronenberg’s A history of violence (2005), but in Hævnen the sense of emotional tension is sustained throughout and there is no descent into cartoon mobsterism.

The bullied boy’s father, played superbly by Mikael Persbrandt, is also caught in an ugly street incident watched by his son and his new friend (and protector). The father is slapped and insulted by an aggressive stranger but does not retaliate. He tries to explain that his passivity is a sign of strength but his son and his friend cannot accept this and secretly plan a revenge attack of their own.

As a parallel narrative, the father of the bullied boy works regularly as a doctor in a refugee camp in war-torn east Africa: a few days later he is faced with the moral dilemma of treating a man who has brutally attacked women in nearby villages. After his treatment, however, the man begins to taunt the doctor over his crimes and in a sudden rage the doctor pushes him to the ground. It is a striking and extraordinary scene that profoundly tests our emotional response to anger.

Using the tranquil Danish countryside as a backcloth Hævnen is a multi-faceted exploration of how anger drives and distorts human relationships. Bier presents a much more effective exploration of violence than Cronenberg because she detects the incipient traces of violence all around: there is a pervasive sense of fury that leaps like sparks between the main protagonists. The eventual denouement, following the boys disastrous attempt to avenge the street incident, is all the more powerful because we have grown to know the complexities of the individual characters and we as an audience have made an emotional investment in the final outcome.

City of geckos

I arrived yesterday for the first time in Singapore and muddled my way from the airport to the university by public transport. That night I lay awake with the time difference, gradually becoming conscious of the incessant hum of the air conditioning unit in my room, yet after switching it off I noticed the sound of yet more units everywhere, creating a permanent orchestra of temperature and humidity control. Since there was little chance of sleeping I went outside and wandered along neon-lit walkways expecting to find every light surrounded by night-flying insects but the pristine white surfaces were oddly deserted of life. I realized after a while that every light fitting had its own resident gecko, ready to dart out and feast on any unlucky visitors. Looking out at the city itself everything seemed shrouded in a humid haze rendering shapes and distances indistinct.

Earlier that evening I had left a restaurant and one of my colleagues remarked on the absence of the homeless: poverty does exist in Singapore but it has become relegated from the public realm. Visible signs of social inequality or exclusion are more subtle: the lone figure at a bus stop who never leaves their seat or the sun-wizened faces of labourers weeding the university lawns.

Like Hong Kong, Singapore plays a complex and largely hidden role within the global economy, its networks and connections significantly shaped by its colonial history. With its separation from Malaysia the city-state of Singapore has had to build its wealth almost entirely on the basis of human capital and from its role as a global entrepôt for trade and finance. Yet Singapore forms part of an ambivalent zone where capitalism and democracy are only nominally connected: if anything or anyone should unsettle the status quo the political geckos of state power are ready to spring into action.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde!

The Montreal-based choreographer Dave St-Pierre has arrived for the first time in London to present the second of his trilogy about human emotions entitled Une peu de tendresse bordel de merde! [A little tenderness for crying out loud!] at Sadler's Wells theatre. St-Pierre’s dancers, who were once described by Pina Bausch as “my pornographic illegitimate children”, bring a raw physicality and expressiveness to contemporary dance. St-Pierre himself no longer dances — he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of 17 — and his work is suffused with a sense of his own vulnerability and mortality.

Central to St-Pierre’s vision is the destruction of the “fourth wall” — the theatrical taboo of connecting directly with the audience — which is pursued to dramatic effect in Une peu de tendresse. Not only does the narrator repeatedly taunt the audience but at one point naked dancers swarm across the seats including the upper balconies. At this point some panic-struck members of the audience fled the theatre but the corporeal spectacle created a lingering mood of uncertainty.

There are similarities with the confrontational works of the German theatre director Christoph Schlingensief but St-Pierre lacks the political edge of Schlingensief. At times the theatrical transgressions of Une peu de tendresse tend towards a slapstick anarchy that occludes the more subtle elements. In the poignant finale, however, set to Arvo Pärt’s ethereal Spiegel im Spiegel, the mood becomes more introspective. The dancers pour water onto the stage, the splashes sparkling in the theatre lights, and then glide their bodies across the floor. Eventually they lie flapping like landed fish gasping for life as the lights fade. Oscillating between the sublime and the puerile St-Pierre is one of the most innovative and thought-provoking contemporary choreographers.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Earth [Zemlya]

One of the opening scenes of Alexander Dovzhenko's Earth (1930)

At the BFI Southbank today I had the chance to see Alexander Dovzhenko’s rarely shown silent film Earth [Zemlya] accompanied by live piano music. Made in the summer of 1929 in rural Ukraine the film opens with a swirling sea of wheat that is reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s Days of heaven (1978). This is followed by a series of delicate images of human faces, sunflowers and apples. The low position of the camera lends the human faces a “heroic quality” outlined against the vast sky.

The core theme is the coming collectivization of Soviet agriculture centred on the arrival of the first tractor — the “iron horse of Bolshevism” — and the latent tensions between peasants and kulaks. For contemporary Stalinist critics, however, Earth was not considered political enough and Dovzhenko was widely vilified for his lyrical and sensuous vision. By the film’s release in 1930 the brutal aspects to collectivization were becoming increasingly apparent and the idyllic landscapes depicted in Earth were to become spaces of devastation.

In the closing scenes we see apples, melons and pumpkins in the rain. Yelena, the bereaved wife of the young farmer Vassili, has found a new lover. And the poetic qualities of the film leave us to reflect on time, nature and the yearning for a “new life”.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Fish Tank

In Andrea Arnold’s extraordinary film Fish Tank, first released in 2009, we encounter the landscapes of Rainham on the London/Essex border experienced largely through the eyes of fifteen-year old Mia, played to incredible effect by the unknown actor Katie Jarvis, who was apparently spotted by the casting agent on a railway platform. Though Rainham is not quite an explosive banlieue in the French sense it is nonetheless portrayed as a space of intense social and cultural marginality.

In Fish Tank Arnold builds a profoundly claustrophobic mood that is matched by an oppressive “edge” landscape of utilitarian functionality dominated by highways, pylons and superstores. In perhaps the most striking scene, however, Mia, along with her mother, her younger sister, and her mother’s new boyfriend, enter a hidden space of “wild urban nature” where they encounter the beauty of nature, symbolized by the fleeting appearance of a blue damselfly by the edge of a small lake.

Arnold may well be the most exciting contemporary British film director. There is an enigmatic dimension to her work — also reflected in Red Road and the short film WASP — that builds a sense of emotional complexity and unpredictability. Her cinema attains a certain kind of vivid realism that is rooted in an uncompromising corporeality combined with an exploration of the inner foment of her cinematic protagonists.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Is terrain vague a vague concept? Reflections from Brussels

A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference in Brussels and was intrigued by an “empty space” just next where I was staying in the centre of the city. Bordering the busy Avenue de la Toison d’Or is a large plot of land — overlooked by billboards announcing the imminent “city of tomorrow” — that is currently a jumble of rubble and weeds fenced off from the rest of the city. Having climbed through the wire mesh on a bright Sunday morning I wondered whether this might be the kind of space that the Spanish architect Ignasi de Solà-Morales has termed terrain vague.

In an essay published in the collection Anyplace, Solà-Morales sets out his definition of terrain vague in some detail. He begins by locating the concept within the history of urban photography:

“Empty, abandoned space in which a series of occurrences have taken place seems to subjugate the eye of the urban photographer. Such urban space, which I will denote by the French expression terrain vague, assumes the status of fascination, the most solvent sign with which to indicate what cities are and what our experience of them is.”

Having explored the origins of the word vague and its “triple signification” as “wave”, “vacant” and “vague” he then adds:

“Unincorporated margins, interior islands void of activity, oversights, these areas are simply un-inhabited, un-safe, un-productive. In short, they are foreign to the urban system, mentally exterior in the physical interior of the city, its negative image, as much a critique as a possible alternative.”

And then a few paragraphs later the crucial sentence that seems to capture perfectly the essence of this plot of ground in Brussels:

“When architecture and urban design project their desire onto a vacant space, a terrain vague, they seem incapable of doing anything other than introducing violent transformations, changing estrangement into citizenship, and striving at all costs to dissolve the uncontaminated magic of the obsolete in the realism of efficacy.”

The concept of terrain vague seems, however, to be overwhelmingly visual in its scope. It is difficult to connect the essentially aesthetic response of Solà-Morales to a consideration of how such anomalous spaces appear and disappear within the city and how they might connect with or illuminate wider processes of urban transformation. In the case of the Brussels quarter of Ixelles/Elsene this is an area that is undergoing rapid change: a vibrant predominantly Congolese community is being gradually squeezed out, house by house, to enable a new kind of “international city” to be created. In fairness to Solà-Morales his concept is rooted in the history and theory of urban photography but how do images intersect with urban theory? And what can “territorial indications of strangeness” — to use another phrase of Solà-Morales — actually reveal about the urban process? It may be that terrain vague cannot easily be used in isolation and is best considered as one of a number of interesting terms that adds to the lexicon of urban thought. And of course there is a contradiction to my response to Solà-Morales since I am also wandering around the streets of a city I hardly know with a camera in my hand.