Tuesday, 27 October 2009


I love Halloween (especially Martha Stewart style). It's my favourite holiday. I think all Americans love Halloween. Not only does it kick off the holy trinity of Yankee holidays - Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas - but it also marks the single night of the year when nearly the entire country turns off the tv for the night and hightails it outside. Because Halloween has only really taken off in the UK over the last few years - primarily pushed via shops as a Hallmark holiday - people here just don't understand the spirit of Halloween.

Despite what people in the UK might think, Halloween is not primarily about dressing up. Moreover, it's not about dressing up like a slut or a zombie. I don't know where this came from (internal collective psychological trauma?) people in London seem to think that there are only two options for dressing up on Halloween: like a zombie or like a slut. On very rare occasions you'll get someone with some subtlety who goes for the slutty zombie look, but that's not very often. Given that the only difference between a normal Saturday night - because another thing people here don't get is that Halloween is on the 31st, not on the last Saturday of October - and Halloween is that girls might smear a little fake blood on their faces as well as glitter. I digress.

If you consider that most Americans live in suburban planned communities and drive everywhere, interaction with neighbours is very limited. Also, unless you're downtown or taking your dog for a walk or going to the park, you never walk anywhere. When I was growing up, the most exciting thing about Halloween was that we spent all night walking around the neighbourhood filling up pillowcases with candy by going door to door. Families set up chairs and sat outside, people got out bbqs and had big street parties - for one night, everyone was outside and everyone was friendly. Sure getting dressed up was a big part of the fun, especially because my aunt always made us amazing costumes, but it was more about being able to run around the neighbourhood with everyone else and just have fun.

Like Christmas or Easter, Halloween in America has its own set of traditions that haven't made their way across the Atlantic. When you disassociate these traditions, then you have Halloween a la UK: fake blood, slutty zombie costumes and lots of alcohol. There's no pumpkin carving, bobbing for apples, trick-or-treating, spending a month making an amazing princess costume, or any of the things that really make Halloween so fun and so different. Halloween isn't about zombies, it's about community.

Friday, 23 October 2009

christmas in, ummm, october?

image © ladybanana

Dear Shop Retailers, Evening Standard, and People Who Decide When To Put the Lights Up On Oxford Street,

Today is October 23rd. It is not even Halloween. November is a distant dream. December is a foreign country. Shop window displays should NOT be full of tinsel and ornaments. The Oxford Street Christmas lights should be gathering dust in a Croydon warehouse, not creeping us out (IN THE MIDDLE OF OCTOBER!) with their ghostly hints of impending holiday doom.

While I realise that you would like us to spend the next two months in a Bacchanalian, Christmas-inspired retail frenzy as some sick means of propping up our tired economy, I would quite like you to fuck off and leave us in peace. Toys will not sell out by mid-December because buyers didn't order enough stock. Remember what they said about the millennium? Exactly.

Christmas is one day. ONE DAY. Please do not force us to spend 1/6th of the year thinking about a single day.

That is all.

Yours eternally,


Monday, 19 October 2009

i am here

photo credit: Rowan Griffiths

i am here

13 September 2009 – Autumn 2011

Samuel House Estate, Dunston Road, E8 4HN

[a shorter version of this review appears in The Architectural Review, November 2009]

Boarded-up housing estates have become clichéd, yet increasingly prevalent, symbols of doom and gloom in the modern urban landscape. Thankfully there are those willing to push the boundaries of such clichés, as evidenced by new installation, i am here, by artist collaboration Fugitive Images (FI). Their installation replaces 67 bright orange boards – which have covered the windows of empty flats in Samuel House since April 2007 – with large-scale photographs of residents of the estate.

Though Samuel House was formally transferred to housing association London & Quadrant Housing Trust (L&Q) in October 2008, it is not scheduled for redevelopment until late 2011. In the meantime, there has been, ‘a gradual wearing down process’ as artist Lasse Johansson calls it, in order to get residents re-housed before development works begin. As long time residents of Samuel House, Johansson, along with FI colleagues Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Tristan Fennell, have lived through flats being bricked and boarded up.

The three have been documenting the drive toward the estate’s redevelopment over the past six years in a variety of media. In addition to the ‘i am here’ project, they are also collaborating on a book and a film, both aimed at catching this particular moment of imminent change in Hackney’s urban landscape.

Johansson is surprisingly candid and captures the crux of the underlying problem with urban estate housing, especially given last year’s furore over London’s Robin Hood Gardens estate and a failed campaign to obtain listed status for the building: ‘I’ve learned a lot, both from this project, but also just from living here. Initially, I had a very black and white view of redevelopment and I began to feel very nostalgic for what we would lose, but I also could see that residents who have lived here for 20 years deserved better facilities.’

photo credit: Rowan Griffiths

Speaking about their inspiration for the project, Zimmerman explains that it stemmed from a desire to confront this pessimism, from the estate’s residents as well as from outsiders. The charming top-floor flat Zimmerman and Johansson share faces the Regent’s Canal and both say they often struggled with comments made by passers-by. ‘People were always speculating about who lived here, whether anyone lived here’, Zimmerman says, ‘but also, there was the issue that the people who do live here were unable to project any kind of positive future for the estate. There was this idea that even in 10 years time everything would still be the same and we wanted to challenge these preconceptions.’

Zimmerman continues, ‘people saw a failed building and immediately equated it with failed inhabitants – we needed to challenge this one way dialogue and so we thought how can we make a work that addresses this idea and involves the individuals in the community.’

Armed with signatures from 98% of the estate’s residents, FI took advantage of a Community Growth Fund set up by L&Q for residents and presented their project proposal in February of this year where they were granted one-third of their budget, the rest of which was fundraised.

As to the project’s reception, Johansson says that it has definitely changed people’s perception of the estate, but he also points out that, because of city space and collective memory, the project has an infinite number of receptions: ‘it’s like Melanie Counsell’s installation at Matt’s Gallery [in 1995] when she lowered the ceiling - for those who were familiar with the gallery space, there was an immediate realisation of what had happened to the building, a different level of understanding for those in the know.’

Zimmerman chips in to clarify, ‘Of course, there are two different audiences for our project and for us they are very clearly defined: there are the people who live here and the outside world. Some of the people who didn’t live here will have remembered the orange boards and notice the difference immediately. People who have never seen the orange boards have a completely different reaction to the photos.’

Zimmerman crosses her legs before concluding, ‘A question that interests me, especially about social housing, is whether it is the building itself or the people who live in the buildings that makes it architecture? Perhaps the obvious answer is a bit of both and this project is about highlighting that.’

Samuel House before...

and after

Friday, 16 October 2009

people are strange

Plenty of culture to be had à Londres just now. It's art week mania with Zoo and Frieze and various spin off and satellite events. I'm off to Frieze this afternoon - with the AJ interns in tow - so will report back later. The London Film Festival also kicked off a few days ago and I went to see my first festival film yesterday. I should say films, rather, as I went to see the aptly titled 'People Are Strange' collection of short films.

First of all, let me make no secret of the fact that I love short films. Short films are to features what poetry is to literature. The best short films say more in 10 minutes than most features manage in two hours. In the same way that too many people say they don't like or don't get poetry, many film goers tend to say the same about short films.

Of the seven films I saw yesterday (4 from the UK, 1 from Australia, 1 from Iceland and 1 from Poland), all were very good, three were outstanding and only one felt mildly unoriginal. Most of the film-makers were present at the screening and a few things struck me as peculiar: two of the films were co-directed by brothers (have the Cohen's really had this much of an impact on an entire generation of film-makers?) and only one of the films was directed by a woman. As soon as I started to wonder why cinema - or at least this screening - was so male dominated, it also hit me that the film I thought was the least original - After Tomorrow - was also the only female directed film. Even though I wasn't very keen on the bizarrely titled, Spunkbubble, there's absolutely no way anyone could suggest the film was unoriginal.

Still from The Continuing and Lamentable Saga of the Suicide Brothers

It was a bit of a surprise to see Keira Knightley and Rupert Friend on screen in the short film, The Continuing and Lamentable Saga of the Suicide Brothers, though I've since discovered that Friend wrote the film alongside its third actor, Tom Mison. While the film is sinisterly beautiful to behold, there's something of a vanity project vibe about it. Though another benefit of short films is that you can forgive a 10-minute beautifully shot vanity project in a way that you simply can't forgive a 2.5 hour vanity project. Everyone wins with short films.

Still from Cicada

I think my favourite of the lot, though by no means the most creative or most original, was Amiel Courtin-Wilson's Cicada. In fact, it wasn't so much a short film as it was a mini documentary. It's just ten minutes of one man telling a story - in extreme close up - straight into the camera. Given that there are few cuts and that it's nothing other than this man's face, the ten minutes are absolutely gripping. I could only find a few stills, but what sadly doesn't come across in the stills photography is the quality of the cinematography. It's beautifully back lit so that the intense blue of the man's eyes are perfectly set off against the white glow of the background. My only complaint is that Courtin-Wilson mucks up the end a bit, by putting in some arty hand-held shots of the man walking through darkened streets - totally gratuitous and unnecessary given the power of the simplicity of the previous nine minutes. I suppose though, that this is the thing that distinguishes the truly great artists from the just plain good: knowing when to stop.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

black photo berries

Went and got a new crackberry few months back. It doesn't have a great camera (3.2 mp) and therefore doesn't take great pics, but frankly I hate carrying around more than I have to. In any event, I've been snapping like mad. A lot of these are from the London Design Festival, but other than that, just a bit of what I've been up to in the last little while. Can't be bothered to caption, so if you can't work it out, have a guess or something.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

welfare state

'The project developed by Democracia conceives the staging of the demolition of this marginal community as a performance for all members of civil society. Over and above considerations such as the disappearance of specific cultural forms (that of the gypsy culture), the civil society celebrates the disappearance of the ghetto via a media performance. The “integrated” civil society are the hooligans who applaud the action of the diggers demolishing the ghetto. The path of the marginalized society is its integration in the spectacular consumption society, which will assure them of their basic rights.'

If you made it through that paragraph, I applaud you. If you're interested in reading this sort of thing, there's a whole lot more where that came from here. What is it about contemporary artists that makes them utterly unable to resist this kind of pseudo-intellectual, vacuous and insipid justification of their work? The funny thing is that I think the project the above paragraph is referring to is actually quite good. It's a video called 'Welfare State' which takes the demolition of the El Salobral slums in Madrid and turns it into a bizarre, WWF-like, spectator sport. The concept is extended through presentation. When I watched the four-screen video at the Rochelle School during London Design Festival, it was sitting on the steps of bleachers. A clever bit of self-referencing meta-theatricality at work - it doesn't need the essayistic jargon of its long winded artistic defence. When will artists realise that good work is more than strong enough to stand on its own and speak for itself.

Aside from bonus points for craftsmanship - it's well shot and edited with a perfect soundtrack - the film is fantastic because it's clever and touches on a universal, if creepy, truth about human nature. We're rubberneckers: annoyingly, insatiably curious - especially when it comes to death and destruction. Conrad called it the 'fascination of the abomination'. It's the lady glued to CNN in the days after 9/11 or the crowds of people who gather every time a Vegas casino goes up in smoke. Whatever the reason, Democracia's video takes this obsessive need to watch even though we probably shouldn't and throws it back in our faces, forcing us to be aware of the fact that we are spectating on something that should not be made into public entertainment. This is vastly powerful stuff - it doesn't need to be weighed down with overloaded tracts by the artists.

I haven't been able to find a copy of the actual video online, but this little 'making of' provides a half-decent representation of the overall installation.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

screw anonymity: I want snow

I've been sitting on this for a few days as I couldn't decide whether I hated it or loved it, but I think I'm coming down in favour of the latter.

This video is part of a new ad campaign by Sony. Sony invaded the village of Seyoisfjorour in Iceland, set up speakers absolutely everywhere and pumped out music for 3 days and nights. On the project website, Sony says that they collaborated with a number of artists including Richard Fearless and the Guillemots, but it isn't quite clear whether new music was specifically commissioned for the project of if 'collaborated' just means that the artists agreed to allow their music to be used in the ad.

I've seen a number of cynical comments on various blogs where Sony is accused of Big Brother-like intrusion into an unspoilt Icelandic village. There's something not only very simple minded about such comments but also remarkably naive. In the first place, there would have been no way Sony could get away with such a project without the collaboration and agreement of the residents of Seyoisfjorour - the village also probably got a nice chunk of change in return for their participation, but these issues are pedestrian and ignore the most interesting aspects of the project.

Just a guess, but if some hip, young, Berlin-based artist initiated the project instead of Juan Cabral for Sony, I bet the general reaction would have been completely different. The idea behind the ad is fantastic. I can't remember the number of times I've thought how cool it would be to have a soundtrack for life which is exactly what's happening. I don't think anyone could stand such a thing for more than a few days, but I love the idea of an experience shared by an entire community.

I only know of one other similar project - one that aims to tap into this idea of a city-wide shared experience - and that's the Emotional Cities project in Stockholm. A Swedish agency Farfar collaborated with artist Erik Krikortz to design a project which reflected the emotional state of Stockholm-dwellers and projected it via coloured lights onto sky scrapers in the centre of Stockholm. To get involved, residents log in to the EC website to update their mood, which is then collated and averaged with all other respondents and the corresponding colour is projected on the building 24-hours a day. Such an interesting idea to have a visual gauge of how everyone in the city is feeling.

While I think the Sony project only works because it's in a small village, I don't think the results are any less interesting - perhaps even more so - in big cities. In fact, it's probably more important to encourage large-scale collaborative projects in big cities, where a sense of community is often difficult to come by. And before you say that people live in cities for the anonymity and don't really care about that lack of community, I charge you to think of the NYC blackout in 2003 (a lovely post of someone's experience of the blackout here) or the big snow storm in London earlier this year where everyone I know took the day off to go play in the parks. City-wide shared experiences change people for the better, even if only for a day or two. As far as I'm concerned, the more of that the better, and while I'd prefer if such endeavours weren't financed by corporate communications companies, if that's the only way to make it happen (apart from mother nature and father energy grid), then so be it.