Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Noises off

Noisy doors. Too true.

If you're still sweating over unfinished Christmas shopping, I always think that you can never go wrong with a Really Good Book. I keep trying to make Boccaccio's Decameron trendy so everyone buys (and reads!) it, thereby assuaging the last remnants of guilt I feel for never having read it at University when I was supposed to. I finally got round to it over the Christmas holidays a few years ago, and I'll probably preach the gospel of Boccaccio until I die. It's just brilliant. But, if you're looking for something a bit more contemporary, I started reading Hillel Schwartz's (the cover notes describe him as an “independent academic” - I don't know what that is, but I want to be one) new book on noise a few weeks ago; Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang & Beyond. A 900-page brick, it would be like gifting your significant other a new read and a weapon of limited destruction in one present. So far, I'm enjoying it immensely.

There are few types of books more satisfying to me than meticulously-researched, beautifully-written books about a single aspect of cultural history. There's also something very satisfying reading a book about a subject that has an undercurrent of interest to practically everyone I know. I mean, all Londoners loathe rouge noise. Hands up, how many of you have seriously considered wearing earplugs on the bus?

Indeed, just the other day on the tube, I sat next to a well-dressed gentleman, not wearing earplugs alas, but reading a newsletter for an organisation I'd never heard of: Pipedown. Pipedown campaigns for the elimination of piped music in retail spaces. I'm hardly surprised that such an organisation exists; if anything, I'm surprised that more people aren't aware of it and active members. As for Schwartz, well I don't know whether he has anything to say about the hell of omnipresent piped-in muzak; I haven't gotten that far in his book yet.

So, I'm reading this book about this history of noise as a social concept, and I'm thinking about earplugs on the bus and piped music in the shops, and I'm not quite sure how it happened, but all these thoughts led me not to noise or music or sound, but change. 

These are still rather muddled thoughts so bear with me, but I was thinking how peculiar it is that we love music when it's our own, we love raucous laughter when it's with our friends; when tunes are tinny and chirping through the headphones of someone on the bus or the laughter is exploding through the throats of kids in the cafe, we don't love it at all. We talk about and think about noise in relation to public and private spaces: noise in public, annoying, but necessarily unavoidable; noise in private spaces, an unforgivable crime.

The best thing about cultural historians like Schwartz is that they can remind us how much things have changed, and how much we take the meaning of concepts like public and private space or public and private actions (or noise!) for granted. There's a fascinating section in his book where Schwartz talks about how up until a few hundred years ago all classes of society lived their lives in full, noisy view of everyone else living theirs: private space was reserved for confession at church, and only then if one could afford it. Even when Schwartz speaks about the interesting shift that occurred in the 1600s when wealthy domestic houses started building separate service corridors so that servants could go about their business without having to be seen, he points out that many household activities still took place in full view of servants. Obviously these days most of us can't afford to keep grand houses with a brace of servants, but even if we could and did, the thought of having sex in the presence of one's lady's maid isn't particularly palatable to most people (I said to most people...).

I'm not entirely sure how I got from thinking about changing historical attitudes to noise, to how the idea of change more generally drives (or destroys) us culturally. Just to give an example, in my tenancy contract there's an explicit clause that forbids me from vacuuming after 11pm on a Sunday. You think I'm joking. Two hundred years ago this idea would have been met with incomprehension and disdain (not least because hoovers hadn't yet been invented!).

Someone somewhere has probably written a very elegant book about the cultural concept of change (if you know of one, let me know so I can add it to my Christmas reading list!), but it's kind of amazing that, as hyper-thinking beings, we manage to make any cultural progress at all. It's an incredibly tricky balancing act between feeling nostalgic for a probably misconceived golden age, pressure to situate one's works and thoughts in the greater 'canon' of born-this-way geniuses, and looking forward to see what changes can and should be made and how to enact such changes.

It's easy to see how this tightrope works itself out in an industry like technology – we didn't have mobile phones 15 years ago and now most people can't imagine how they'd live without one – but with art and literature, it's a bit more difficult to see the patterns of change until long after they've happened. This is why it's far easier to look back at the works of a group of Paris-based painters in the  19th century, clock the similarities and break out the Impressionist epithet, but far more difficult to look at current artistic output and make any sense of what's happening. That's probably partly thanks to the internet which has made the world feel as vast and unknowable as it is, despite what the monoblob international curators would have us believe ('making is, like, totally huge for 2012').

Cultural change is such a strange thing. How does it happen? How do we go from thinking that the advent of tunes in shops is a wonder to thinking that it's the most annoying thing ever to happen to the high street? How do we go from thinking that taking a piss is a performance fit for public view to thinking that weeing is for behind closed loo doors only? How did we shift from thinking of noise as an inescapable, though natural, part of city life to being intolerable of urban rogue noise, so much so that some studies have even claimed that white urban noise contributes to autism in children.

I'm not really sure how I got from thinking about noise in relation to changing cultural values to thinking about change in the contemporary art world. My hunch is that it's something to do with the impending new year, a taking stock sort of exercise. I'm about to finish my three-month stint at Icon, which means I'll be free to wreak havoc on the world (slash job market). I'm working on a few new top-secret projects, but I'm always looking for new projects to keep me busy. Thoughts of future job prospects are typically accompanied by thoughts on the states of my industries, and I find myself surrounded by industries in the middle of identity crises. As a writer and curator of art and architecture, I feel a bit like I couldn't be better placed, but also a bit like I couldn't be worst placed.

The reason I decided to start working in contemporary art was because I had finally had enough of looking everywhere around me and seeing only (mostly) absolute crap masquerading as show-boating conceptual art. I wanted to call emperor's new clothes on all this bullshit, especially since I didn't see anyone else saying anything that remotely resembled the truth (sticky concept, I know), but I also wanted to put my own theories into practice, I wanted to curate  my own shows and try to do things differently.

There's still a lot of bad art being produced by not unintelligent people, and a lot of bad exhibitions being produced by what ought to be good museums and galleries – I do wish this would go away. But, this year, I've also met a lot of curators staging thoughtful and beautiful exhibitions and a lot of artists producing interesting work. There's still much to be done, but when the National Gallery organises a show like Metamorphosis round about the same time that the National Portrait Gallery stages a show like Imagined Lives, while MA students at the Slade are actually making art not concepts, I feel like things are getting better.

I'm an optimist by nature; I prefer to cheer-lead rather than criticise, but the overwhelming sense of careerism and ambitiousness in the art world seems to have nurtured a desire to say what I actually think in the face of a never ending stream of descriptive mediocrity. I reserve the right to change my mind, or (even better) to be proved wrong by an intelligent counter argument. Alas, thus far, the best that most people seem able to come up with is: “who are you to say what's good and bad art?” Who am I indeed.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Occupy first. Demands later. Agenda now.


I've been following every twist and turn of the Occupy LSX movement on Twitter and in the news since the protesters first marched to Paternoster Square and ended up outside St Paul's nearly two weeks ago. But I hadn't actually been down to the camp until last night. Media coverage skews to make news and since pretty much every major industry that controls or regulates public life - banking, politics, media, policing, law - is consistently shown to be corrupt and self-serving, before I'd even set foot on the camp, my sympathies were with the protesters.

Despite the fact that I haven't pitched a tent at St Paul's I certainly side with those who believe the system as it stands is in need of some serious reform. The single most astonishing thing to me is that people defend, often aggressively, the same system that screws them over. The "yes, we bailed the banks out, but at least people didn't lose their savings, now deal with it" argument twists my brain in knots. The "yes, our politicians are corrupt and the energy companies are trying to fuck us over, but I pay my taxes, so should the protesters" argument baffles even more.

Not that I think everything is peachy with the Occupy LSX camp. Their "occupy first, demands later" position is problematic, if intellectually compelling. If you've been to the camp, seen how the working groups and the general assembly operate, you'll know why there aren't yet any demands. While nearly all the protesters agree that the banking crisis and corporate greed are the touchstones of the occupy movement, each individual has a different spin: it's the environment, stupid; wait, but isn't it also student tuition fees; are we reverse-capitalists or anti-capitalists; who cares, we must save the NHS! Here's the million-dollar question: when your house is burning down, which kid do you save first?

But while the occupiers shouldn't be mocked for taking the time to think about what it is that they actually want to say and how they want to say it, it's depressing that the conversations on Newsnight and Radio 4 have been about whether the protesters actually sleep in their tents at night or whether St Paul's really closed its doors because of health and safety violations, and not about raising the 'margin rate' charged to speculators or calling time on fractional reserve banking. Yes, there are a lot of people throwing about a lot of meaningless Hallmark-card style platitudes about loving thy neighbour and doing what Jesus would do on Twitter. But, if you actually go down to OccupyLSX and listen there are plenty of people discussing complex economic and political issues.

While at times I wanted to smack my forehead in annoyance with the obsession with process, process, process (the lethargy and mediocrity of the general assembly and the smaller working groups did, in truth, remind me rather of the lethargy and mediocrity of government itself), I was struck by the dynamics of a system where everyone gets a say. There are a few stronger personalities evident, which probably helps keep people focused, but I felt a sense of urgency was lacking. The protesters are all incredibly media savvy and aware of what's being said about the movement in the papers to the point that it feels a bit like the day-to-day maintenance is of responding to statements made by the press and others, not themselves setting the agenda for discussion.

If the City really is looking to take out an injunction against the camp, then despite what the occupiers say about being there until Christmas or longer, who knows how long they will actually be able to remain before being booted out by riot police and tear gas. Yet, within the camp there's no consensus on any urgent need to get a message out (though there were a few people trying to kick it up a gear so a statement of intent could be released in time for the G20). If the occupiers felt that the threat of removal by force was imminent, I wonder whether there might be less focus on organising lectures and meditation classes and more time spent on actually getting a strong message across to the people of this country. I don't agree that the most important thing for the movement right now is to be in and controlling public space. Maybe in America where being out en masse out in the open in public space is actually a really big deal in cities where people are never out in public together, but there have been people occupying Parliament Square for years and no one pays any attention to them anymore.

My guess is that there are a lot of people watching in the wings, waiting to see what the Occupy LSX movement does, wanting desperately for the protesters to say something that they can get behind. Because, yes, we all know that the system is screwed and that the bankers got a lucky break and that we shouldn't socialise banks but privatise profit and that Dave "greasy-hands" Hartnett shouldn't be able to sign off sweetheart tax deals and that one too many politicians, journalists and coppers are corrupt, but generic statements don't move the movement forward. Generic statements are elevator music and we're sick of holding the line.

Getting the public on their side is what Occupy LSX really needs. Most people reading this will know that the fear and misinformation propagated via many news outlets divides and that it divides on purpose. We, the 99% (to use a phrase I don't entirely agree with), don't have political power. Our power lies in the fact that there are so damned many of us, we have power in numbers. How to harness this power, I have no idea, but if the Occupy movement in London is going to gather momentum and not deflate, it needs to figure out how to get ordinary, disaffected people on its side, instead of alienating them to the point that they defend those who screw them in the hope that they may someday be those doing the screwing.

So, while not everything I saw at the Occupy LSX camp made me weep with joy, I felt plugged in, excited and hopeful that what they were doing could potentially affect change. I want very much for the protesters to gain ground, but I hope that ground is gained on points more important than whether the infrared technology that spied on their tents was or was not inaccurate. I hope they find a way to get people to pay attention because their broader points about social and economic injustice are a lot more important than what's happening on the X-Factor. There are plenty of bright minds and passionate people working at Occupy London, but it's time to turn that passion into something more. As the protesters have pointed out, no one will be able to appropriate and misconstrue their demands if they haven't made them public; equally no one will join a cause if they don't know what it's trying to achieve.




Images used under Creative Commons License. Credits: Hedonoikos, christopher a tittle, Loz Flowers and Hurwiti.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Artists are a moany bunch of bastards

Glenn Ligon's "controverso-neon" (barf) Warm Broad Glow II
Artists are a moany bunch of bastards.

Let me qualify that.

I don't mean all artists, obviously, but certainly those in the room for the panel discussion on art fairs at Sluice last weekend. To be fair, I'd been taken ill with a nasty flu on Friday evening and was drugged up to high hell, not really in the mood for moaning. What I was in the mood for was an articulate, engaging and inspiring discussion on the forward momentum of a new generation of artists doing things differently from the money-grabbing status-obsessed bastards that came before them. Ostensibly the panel debate was intended to be a discussion about the nature of art fairs. I assumed that because of the emergence of other far more interesting art fairs - Sunday, the sadly now defunct Zoo, and Sluice – Frieze would have lost its cache with the up-and-coming art set, but nope, Frieze still seems to represent the nucleus of the art world’s achievements to many in the room.

I don't want to go blowing my own trumpet, but if there's one thing I believe in, especially as a writer and curator, it’s that supporting one’s peer group is of paramount importance. The people around me, coming up with me (and we’re still working out how we define what “coming up” means), supporting me and vice versa – these are the people whose opinions I care about, not the old cranks exhibiting at Frieze or the entrenched critic writing about Frieze week in the Telegraph. My peers aren’t necessarily interested in the same answers as me but they’re interested in the same questions and these questions are not, "how can I be rich, famous and hanging with the YBAs at the Frieze hyper-exclusive preview breakfast" or "how can I be rich, famous and designing buildings that are exact replicas of my own face". The questions we’re asking are more to do with how can we rewrite the status quo, not try to become part of it.

That's why I was so excited about Sluice Art Fair. In the week when the eyes of the international art world were focused on London, two guys decided to do something a little bit different. They set up their own art fair that wasn’t really an art fair during the self-same week everyone would be in town for the granddaddy of art fairs in order to capitalize on traffic and press coverage (who says you can’t be different and savvy?), but also to comment on the nature of art fairs.*

Some of the art at the Sluice wasn’t to my taste, but I don’t really care about that. From an ideological point of view, Ben and Karl saw something in the art world that they didn’t like and instead of doing what so many artists do and moan about it, they simply started their own art fair. On their terms. Hence, Sluice focused on the galleries - artist-led and not-for-profit – that would never make it (for ideological or financial reasons) into the big art fairs instead of inviting commercial spaces. A success before it even opened, in my book.

Having said that, I appreciate that they organized a panel discussion to situate their own efforts among the broader realm of art fairs more generally. I thought that the panel discussion would be something along the lines of: “Are art fairs essential for today’s practicing artists?” No. “What alternatives are there to the current, though fading thanks to the economy, trend for overblown yet insubstantial art fairs like Frieze etc.?” Plenty, especially the innovative and inspiring alternative models such as Sluice, Deptford X, or unification under the banner of a locale as so many successful Peckham spaces are doing.

And yet, what came out of the discussion panel and comments from the audience was that so many artists who aren’t exhibiting at Frieze or the Venice Biennale – which is the vast majority of practicing artists in this country – don’t wish to challenge and innovate: they simply want to be part of that lofty group of chosen ones making and exhibiting the most embarrassingly ludicrous work the art world has ever seen. They don’t want to define their own measure of success; they’re desperate to be accepted. And that desperation results in petty insecurities that manifest themselves as moaning about what they haven’t got – fame, funding, free flights to every art fair on the planet – instead of getting off their asses and making things happen.

It's depressing how many people in that room appeared more interested in preserving the status quo - in the hope of being part of it - via passive, though pessimistic, acceptance. I can't say that I'm not interested in the "establishment" because it's one barometer against which I occasionally measure my own work (critically analyze), but also because some establishment figures are interesting (e.g. Cy Twombly, muf architects, Dave Hickey, Anthony McCall). My peer group – at least some of them - are demonstrating that it’s possible to make it to the inside, while simultaneously re-defining what being on the inside actually means, so that if (inevitably when) we do become the establishment, I like to think we'll hold on to our inherent optimism and our outsider attitudes when it comes to our work, getting things done and supporting each other, as well as those coming in behind us.

These artists seem so desperate for recognition that many don’t realize that they’re being exploited in order to perpetuate a fundamentally flawed system. I mean when it gets to the stage where some chancer tries to sell a speedboat at Frieze on a two-tier price structure, as art and as a boat, you can tell that conceptual artists can’t see beyond the one-trick pony. But maybe my generation is still in thrall to Warhol. Maybe fame and fortune at any cost is still what a lot of artists truly crave. But for every artist with a speedboat and nothing to say, there are people like Ben and Karl (Cf Holly from Art Licks, Tom Chivers from Penned in the Margins, Victoria Browne from Kaleid Editions, Trenton and Deepa from This is Not a Gateway, Nicola Read from the 815 Agency, Guy and Tom from Son Gallery in Peckham, my own work with SALON (LONDON), the guys over at The Bunhouse, Blanch and Shock, among so many others) who are getting on with the business of making art while asking serious questions about how to remake the art business.

*The opening essay to the Sluice catalogue says that Sluice, “isn’t a critique or a survey, but a modest proposal”. A modest proposal indeed.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, part II

This was the piece I submitted for the Wellcome Trust/Guardian Science Writing Prize. It didn't win, but it did make the shortlist of 15 out of over 800 entries. Not bad for a classicist cum curator...


If you want to experience the power of neuroplastic change, I suggest you develop a porn habit.

Though still a relatively new theory on the neurocience block, neuroplasticity – the notion that our adult brains can be cortically rewired through experience and environment – has been gaining publicity over the last ten years thanks to people like psychiatrist Norman Doidge and neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran.

Perhaps surprisingly, pornography provides a useful demonstration of the principles of neuroplasticity in practice. Pornography appears, at first glance, to be a purely instinctual matter. Not so, suggests Doidge in The Brain That Changes Itself, for if the buxom babes and well-endowed studs triggered responses that were supposedly the product of millions of years of evolution, we might assume that pornography would have remained unchanged over the years. As Doidge puts it, “we might expect the same triggers, body parts and proportions that appealed to the first consumers of porn would still excite us today.”

Anyone with an internet connection can see that this simply isn’t true. Pornography is a dynamic phenomenon that perfectly illustrates the progress of acquired tastes. Forty years ago “hardcore” porn typically meant the explicit depiction of sex between two or more partners, while “softcore” porn tended to depict topless or nude women. Now, hardcore has evolved and its subsections have increased tenfold: BDSM, orgies, violence and humiliation, anal sex; you name it, pretty much anything goes. Softcore porn now resembles the hardcore images of from only a few decades ago, and half-naked images of women are unassailably commonplace, bombarding us from every mainstream media outlet.

This wider cultural trend hints at the more particular effects on the brain maps of individual consumers. As with other facets of human sexuality and romance, the key issue is tolerance. On the cultural and individual level we’re like drug addicts who can no longer get high on the images that once turned us on. And, as Marina Robinson observes in “The Great Porn Experiment”, the risk is that this tolerance can and will carry over into relationships leading to potency problems and new, at times unwelcome, tastes.

Pornography is more exciting than satisfying because we have two separate pleasure systems in our brains: one that excites pleasure and one that satisfies pleasure. The exciting system relates to the appetitive pleasure that we get imagining the things we desire - sex or good food - and this chemistry is largely dopamine-related and raises our tension level. The second pleasure system has to do with satisfying the appetitive pleasure - when you actually get the sex or the food. Its neurochemistry is based on the release of endorphins, which relax you and lead to that calming, fulfilling sense of pleasure.

It’s worth mentioning briefly that porn works not because the images excite us and cause us to think about sex, but because the images arouse us and cause our brains to think we’re actually having sex. By offering your brain an endless stream of sexual objects for excitement, porn hyperactivates the appetitive system. Regular viewers develop new brain maps based on the photos they see and the videos they watch. And because we have a “use it or lose it” brain, when we develop a new map area, we long to keep it activated. Just as our muscles become impatient for exercise if we've been sitting all day, so too do our senses hunger to be stimulated.

Activation of these brain reward systems is a normal, healthy component of human behaviour - they direct us toward the things that keep us alive and promote our survival (food and water) or the survival of the species (sex). But as Robinson points out the brains of porn users are “tricked into thinking that the consumption of so much porn is really valuable because it’s causing a mammoth release of exciting neurochemicals.” The brain has been rewired – however temporarily – to neglect formerly potent rewards (delicious food or sex) in favour of something else, in this case, porn.

But here’s the interesting twist. As an addictive substance, porn hijacks our dopamine system and gives us pleasure without our having to work for it. Some might not say that’s such a bad thing. But because porn meets all the conditions for neuroplastic change – repeated use, requires intense concentration and triggers a reward system – regular users build up a tolerance, a tolerance which translates into changes in the brain.

Yet, unbelievably, we take the effects of this repetition for granted. Our activities significantly alter our brains and thus our brains have the ability to significantly alter our actions. We are creatures who absorb the environment around us, who suck up stimuli like Brawny paper towels.

In a society that constantly likes to remind itself of its sexual liberation, where orgasms and masturbation are considered as important to physical health as exercise and eating well, porn is tolerated as an aide-de-amour-propre. The results of the great porn experiment remain to be seen of course, but the shift in acquired sexual tastes at the cultural level, as indicated by porn consumption, is a fascinating indicator of individual plastic change in brains ever on the hunt for a new dopamine hit.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Err, Jeremy Hutchison


This piece was first published in Icon Magazine, October 2011.

Jeremy Hutchison, a recent graduate of the Slade School of Art, has devised Err, a witty exploration of the gulf between the makers of mass-produced and unique objects. Hutchison embarked on the project curious to see what would happen when the concerns of high-status design were brought to bear on objects fabricated by anonymous factory workers: footballs, combs, garden tools, shoes, and so on. Hutchison began by contacting numerous factories around the world with a special order: he wanted only one product, the product must be made with an error, the error must make it impossible to use the product for its originally intended purpose and the factory worker must decide what the error should be. Factory managers sent puzzled replies. Some thought he was joking, others were insulted; they couldn’t understand why anyone would purposefully commission products with errors, or as one factory manager said: “Everyone in the world strives to improve not to create error.”

Yet faulty products soon began to arrive in Hutchison’s London studio, accompanied by stories and photos of the workers who designed and made them. A wooden comb with no teeth made by a factory worker in Kolkata is a surprisingly beautiful object, and a replica Ghost chair is accompanied by a glowing email from the Chinese factory manager explaining the initial puzzlement, then gleeful joy of his worker as he destroyed the chair with a variety of increasingly powerful tools.

Hutchison speaks of the Err project stemming from his desire to interrupt the process of globalisation. “I wanted to make the world reappear again so I removed globalisation’s central shaft – quality control – and stuff began to reappear: human beings, manual processes, customs issues.” Indeed, one of the products – a football ordered in a Pakistani factory that makes 100,000 footballs a month – got the factory in such trouble with Pakistan’s customs office that the factory almost had its operating licence revoked for deliberately manufacturing faulty products. The football was confiscated and destroyed.

Our adulation for the individual designers who produce craft or luxury objects contrasts sharply with our lack of interest in the designers and makers of mass-produced objects. The disconnect is brought into sharp focus, not only by the resulting faulty products, but by the Skype transcripts and emails between Hutchison and the factories. Err reveals that all across the world, the individuals fabricating mass-produced objects strive as hard to make each one virtually indistinguishable from the rest as Maarten Baas strives to make each of his pieces unique. Yet, if Hutchison’s project is anything to go by, this invisible, global workforce possesses just as much creativity, imagination and humour as our international superstar designers; they just aren’t rewarded for expressing it.

All photos credit Jeremy Hutchison.



Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Westfield Stratford City

I haven't been to Westfield, Shepherd's Bush or Stratford. I won't be going either. I have no need to. I grew up on the West Coast of America where high streets never had a chance to fall into decline because they were never built in the first place.

We perfected the shopping mall: you're only getting started. We've got shopping mall theme parks, shopping malls with built-in outdoor stages for hold-music smooth jazz. Shopping malls designed not to look like shopping malls. Shops that aren't in shopping malls are in strip malls. Ask an American what a high street is and they will fix you with an utterly blank stare. It just doesn't exist. Where I grew up, the nearest thing to a high street was Mill Avenue in Tempe. It's a chi-chi but Uni-student friendly shopping and eating street - described by the NY Times as "a bohemian commercial strip" - just around the corner from the state's largest University and is one of the few places in Phoenix, outside of shopping malls, which is even remotely pedestrian friendly.  

Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota

Horton Plaza in San Diego, California

Strip mall in Anywhere, USA

So, it's fascinating to see US brands like Crate and Barrel, a Habitat/John Lewis mash up very popular with US couples for their wedding registry, and Victoria's Secret, a lingerie company, now taking tentative toe dips into the murky waters of the UK, well, London market. They aren't setting up shop on Bond Street, like Abercrombie & Fitch, or Regent Street, like Anthropologie and Banana Republic, but are opening up branches in the safe and comfortable environs of a mega shopping mall. If there was any hesitation at signing up for the first London Westfield experiment, this seems to have dissipated as the brands get stuck in the second time around. 

But clearly the promise of the Olympics and its traffic (some 70 percent of Olympic visitors are expected to pass through Westfield Stratford City, according to some statistics flying off the tongue of everyone remotely involved with the development - where do these figures come from!) has really sweetened the deal for timid retailers, US or otherwise.

For some reason, I've been thinking that the Olympics goes on for months. If feels like it must to justify this level of investment. I just looked it up. The Olympics lasts about three weeks, including the week-long Paralympic Games that take place about one week after the Olympics close. So three weeks of visitors to the mall and then what? Once the Olympics have been and gone, who is going to shop and live in Stratford apart from the people who live there already? A "shopping mall" already exists in Stratford. It's kind of horrible, but it works for the local community (my old flatmates would go crazy in the pound shops getting stuff to make costumes for Hackney Wick house parties...). But more importantly, you could sit in the mall's arcade at night after the shops had shut, waiting for your bus if it was cold. It's not a privately policed, cordoned off area.

I don't know Stratford that well, but just on the other side of Westfield is Hackney Wick where I used to live. The Wick has become a bit gentrified (hello Omega Works) because, if you have a car, it's close to the City, and because loads of artists living in the area have made it a cool, less intimidatingly scary place to live. But there's also another community of people in Hackney Wick who grew up there and who don't make art or live boho lives in the vast industrial buildings. They live in small blocks of flats on the other side of the Wick. Same with a lot of people in Stratford. There's a reason it's cheap to live here: it's far-ish away (despite what Westfield's PRs say about it being just a skip away on the Central line) and amenities aren't great (by which I mean a new middle-class friendly butchers and bookshop haven't just opened on the high street, across the village green and next to the post office).

The thing that makes me angry and frustrated about Westfield and its eastern offshoot is that London needed money to help pay for the Olympics, so it teamed up with a large commercial organisation to parachute in an enormous, anaesthetising shopping centre in the midst of a community who won't be able to afford to shop there and who will gain no social or cultural or education benefit from its presence (let alone the Olympics. I'll reserve judgement regarding the legacy bollocks until I see it). The former has been built in to the narrative of the shopping centre and statistics that contradict the latter are being trotted out by Westfield and Newnham and regurgitated by most journalists. Why has no one said that this was exactly the same story told about Shepherd's Bush and Westfield I? Show me the social and economic benefit that has rained down on local residents.

So. A shopping centre and retail park built to "serve the needs" of a limited number of visitors to the Olympics and then what? Perhaps I'm over-reacting, but I never grew up with the local high street. Even in one of the biggest cities in the US, you can't buy a pint of milk without getting in your car and driving 10 miles to the nearest supermarket. And even the smallest Phoenecian supermarket is as big as a mega ASDA. Food comes from enormous supermarkets; coffee from drive-through Starbucks'; clothes, music, books furniture from mega malls or strip malls. There's no diversity. There aren't any support your local high-street campaigns in the face of a new mega Tesco's because there aren't any high streets.

I'm not suggesting a culture should hold on to outdated, outmoded notions that no longer serve their purpose. And not every high street is useful - greengrocers sometimes have worse produce for higher prices than Tesco's, and going to the butcher and greengrocer and then fishmongers is a hassle if you haven't got an entire day to do your shopping. If the kids need new clothes and there's no money left, a lot of people head to Primark, not to the little boutique on the high street.

In a recent piece in the FT, Director of Westfield II John Burton says that the shopping centre will provide 2,500 jobs for the local area 's "long-term unemployed" in retail, catering, and hospitality when it opens. How can he guarantee these figures? Shops + catering outlets will hire their own staff. Will there be a contractual agreement to only hire local workers. Is that even legal? And if workers for cleaning, catering, etc. - poor pay/hard work - are from the local community, but shoppers are from elsewhere, Westfield Stratford becomes just another site to polarise the haves and the have nots in London.

You might look at Westfield Stratford and see a shiny, new all-in-one Saturday shop fest, but I look at Westfield Stratford and see a culture that's losing its identity, a greed-driven, capitalist spaceship plonked down in an area where it won't do anyone any good.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

My 7 Links

For a blogger, I'm pretty abysmal when it comes to active participation in the blogging world: I rarely leave comments on other people's blogs and typically rely on a small group of a dozen or so blogs for six-month periods, before hunting down a new dozen blogs in an attempt to catch up with some new views and voices.

I came across Tripbase's 'my 7 links' project when I was looking for a good gnocchi recipe. I found the recipe and also a bit of info about the 7 links project. I haven't been invited to take part by another blogger, but it sounded like a cute idea, so I've hijacked the thread to post up my 7 links anyway. 

It's good fun digging through one's personal and peculiar digital archive. There's a lot of nonsense, hardly surprising given that I've been writing this blog for four years, but there's also some stuff I quite like. So for old and new readers alike, I give you - dan da dah dah da da dum dum!! - my 7 links.

Nominees are meant to nominate five other blogs to take part in the 'my 7 links' posting, so I've selected five blogs by people I don't know very well (in two instances, people I don't know at all!) in the hope that they'll gratify my curiosity and delve into their own archives for a bit of bloggy fun. My nominees are at the end of the post.

My 7 Links*

Your most beautiful post


1. In pictures - Probably my prettiest post: I love Paris. Nothing more than a bunch of photos of Paris and Versailles after a week-long research trip turned into a bit of holiday fun. I love Paris, and I love Versailles even more. One of my favourite places in the world.

2. In words - The first post I ever wrote and the one that started it all was Waking up with Prynne. The post is a poem by J.H. Prynne, still one of my favourite poets. In fact, the name of the blog is taken from the last stanza of 'A New Tax on the Counter-Earth', which I quote in the post. I wish I wrote more posts like this one.
Your most popular post


I wrote two posts in 2009, after reading Norman Doidge's brilliant book The Brain the Changes Itself and the second of these - The Brain that Changes Itself Part 2 - is still the most popular post on the blog by some distance. It's a fascinating subject so I can see why people find it interesting, but I have no idea why it's such a popular post. Having said that, this post also served as the basis for my entry to the Wellcome Trust Science Prize, so no complaints here.

Your most controversial post


This one's easy. Funnily enough, my most controversial posts have been things I've been commissioned to write for other people: FAD and Spoonfed, but I suppose the most *controversial* was my review of this year's Venice Biennale, Cliché-ridden Claptrap. I wrote the piece for FAD and it certainly got some interesting reactions. People either hated it - mostly galleries, artists, other critics - or loved it and told me how brave I was for speaking my mind. Not exactly the reaction I was expecting...

Your most helpful post


I'm not so sure this is my most helpful post, given that it could be read as rather offensive, but it was written with many a helpful intention in mind: my open letter to Tube-taking Londoners.
A post whose success surprised you


It's impossible to pick just one in this instance, so:
1. The only thing I can think of that might explain the popularity of this post - I Have a Dream - is that English people like to hear Americans bashing other Americans. I was forced to spend the summer of 2008 in exile in Phoenix and I wrote this post after a disasterous trip to the supermarket.

2. This is the third most popular post on my blog of all time. I have absolutely no idea why. Literally. No idea.

A post you feel didn’t get the attention it deserved


I spent most of June 2009 reading poems by Luke Kennard. Thereafter pretty much every poem I wrote was Kennardian wannabe wankery. Perhaps that's why they didn't get that much attention. I still like this poem/post though. A lot.

The post that you are most proud of


This was probably the most difficult of all the seven links to choose just one (or even two) post. I'm not sure what that says about me, but if I had to choose just one it would probably be these two:

1. Welfare State: this post that launched my career as an ambassador of the anti-art speak bollocks crusade against meaningless arty nonsense in press releases and artist statements. The crusade continues.

2. The sole occasion - in Whose Fault is it Really - when I managed to unite utility and my personal academic research, bringing together Lucan's Pharsalia and contemporary (as in 21st century, not 1st century AD) political events. I don't really believe that academic research should be held accountable to the high priests of the committee of utility, but it was nice to show - for once - that the study of classical antiquity can occasionally have practical applications.

My five nominee blogs are: 

Lobster and Swan
This is Yogic
Hitchcock Blonde
London Muse 

I'm a big fan of all of the above blogs and hope they humour me and post their 7 links soon!

*disclaimer: I cheat. A lot. There are more than 7 links.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize

Way back in May I entered The Wellcome Trust’s Science Writing Prize and then mostly forgot about it.

Turns out they liked my piece – a re-researched/rehashed/rewritten version of this blog post on neuroplasticity and pornography I wrote back in April 2009 – and, along with fourteen other lost souls, I’ve been shortlisted for the grand old prize to be announced on 12 October. Needless to say, I'm absolutely delighted.

I write a lot about science on my blog (e.g. on memory and mentors, on perception and the illusion of control, ramblings on neuroplasticity) and apart from endless years of chemistry in high school, followed by a couple of years of organic and biochemistry at university, I haven't a lick of professional science experience - just a deep-seated love for labware and particle physics (mostly thanks to some damn fine science teachers when I was at school. Hear, hear for great teachers!).

I'm an old fashioned humanist, the kind that thinks that Latin is as important as chemistry and philosophy. Being shortlisted for a science writing prize is incredibly gratifying to me because it isn't the field in which I tend to operate professionally. Entering the prize wasn't about taking steps in a "new direction" or "trying my hand" at something different (as so often seems to be the label snidely ascribed to such endeavours when they appear to deviate from a straightforward career path), but a totally natural (to me, at least) expression of one of my many interests. I'm often asked how, if at all, these interests fit together, but I don't see them as a number of diverging subjects, but as complementary topics that feed off each other and allow new ways of thinking to emerge - it's all so much more exciting when one is able to make links across a wide variety of subjects instead of being trapped by knowledge - however vast - of only one subject.

It doesn't really seem kosher to post my entry here until the winner has been announced, but never fear, I'll be sure to whack it up as soon as the hangover has cleared from the awards festivities.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Blanch & Shock => Roganic

The Blanch & Shock Lido Cafe Takeover The Second was almost a month ago (eeeeeek), but I wanted to write it up, particularly in light of the fact that a) they're awesome, b) they're bound to be doing something awesome soon that you might want to go to if you haven't been to a B&S event before, and c) my wonderful fiancé (wow, how weird is that!) treated me dinner at Roganic last week and I spent most of the time thinking that the food was a lot like what Blanch and Shock's food would be like if they had their own restaurant, an army of people working for them and a few more years to perfect their technique.

This was the menu for the B & S Lido Dinner:

Kick off with a little treat of plums with homemade marscapone

Photobucket High Easter Sourdough Bread and Homemade Goat's Cream Butter 

English Tomatoes - Green Almonds, Quail's Egg, and Homegrown Garlic Photobucket

Pig Cheeks - English Peas and their shoots, Summer Savory Vinegar

American Signal Crayfish - Brined, and as a broth, with Wild Fennel and Meadowsweet

Woodpigeon - New Season's Cherries, Toasted Wheat and Wood Sorrel

Roasted Hay Cream - White Currants, Blackcurrant Sauce and Charcoal Tuile

Coffee + Snacks

I didn't take any photos of the snacks (or pudding) because, luckily, I have a self-ordained special status which means as soon as the coffee + snacks are being prepared I run into the kitchen to chat and gobble up all the leftovers in sight. I do clearly remember that there was a brown butter milkshake, and a delicious sweetcorn soup (that wasn't a snack - Mike set himself the challenge of making something delicious out of one of his least favourite ingredients. How cool is that?).

The food was summery and delicious - the tomatoes were divine. One really should not underestimate the difficulty in sourcing good tomatoes in this country. Though, having said that, at the last Blanch & Shock dinner I met a lady who works at Wild Harvest, a food supplier to a lot of London's swanky restaurants and she told me that you don't have to be a swanky restaurant to order tomatoes - or anything else - from them, so order I shall!

So, Roganic. Simon Rogan's lovely London-based outpost of his Lake District L'Enclume has a two-year lease on a little place on Blandford Street over in Marylebone (just across the street from Purl). Roganic shares a similar foodie ethos with Blanch and Shock: sourcing local ingredients, which often means strange English herbs and plants long since forgotten by the likes of high-street supermarkets; foraging; seasonality; and really good homemade bread and butter.

Service was fantastic and everyone front of house very, very friendly - almost like having dinner in a friend's house. In fact, bar the absolute dickhead sat next to us (who ranted for a good 45 minutes about the sommelier trying to pull the wool over his eyes by serving him a too warmed red), it was one of the most mouth-wateringly delicious, perfectly cooked, well-thought menus I've had the pleasure to eat in a London restaurant in some time.&

There are only two options at Roganic: the 6 course menu or the 10 course menu. Of course, we cheated a bit because we really wanted to try the shredded ox tongue, which was on the 10 course menu, but we asked and they obliged.

Here's what we ate (as illustrated by some terrible photographs!).

Millet Pudding with grains, burnt pear, and Stichelton


Seawater cured Kentish mackerel, orache, broccoli and warm elderflower honey

Vintage potatoes in onion ashes, lovage and wood sorrel

Shredded ox tongue, pickles and sourdough paper

Skate belly, charred leek, carmelised cauliflower, Queenie scallop

Cumbrian hogget, artichokes and chenopodiums (hogget + artichockes = unprecedented levels of deliciousness)

Sweet ciceley with strawberry, buttermilk and verbena - didn't snap a pic of this! below is a douglas fir pine milkshake. Yummy!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Visual Inspiration: Matt Duffin


Matt Duffin is an American artist. I didn't even need to look it up to know it when I first saw his works. There's no way he could have been anything but, which has made me think twice about the qualms I had with nationalism as a way of classifying and identifying art as per the Venice Biennale. Duffin's primary medium is encaustic painting, and unless you're an experimental artist or an art history buff, you probably won't have come across the technique before.
Encaustic is painting with hot wax, typically beeswax, which is then mixed with pigments and spread on wood or canvas before being shaped with heated metal tools or heat guns. It's laborious and difficult, but produces sensational effects with the right lighting. The most famous practitioner of encaustic painting is Jasper Johns, who used the technique to great effect in his flag and target paintings.

Jasper Johns's 'Flag', Encaustic, oil and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, 42 x 61 in., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1954-55. Art (C) Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Duffin has moved on from Johns's impasto encaustic to a lighter, glazed effect which is what gives his images such a luminous quality even though he works primarily in shades of black, grey, and white. The other clear American influence is one of illustration (also, Duffin originally trained as an architect, which clearly shows in the spatial nature of his images). Many writers have commented that Duffin's works have an illustratory quality about them, but even more specifically, Duffin's works borrow from the visual language of illustrator Chris van Allsburg. Allsburg is a wonderful illustrator, one who can tell a story without any text; whose images have a grainy, textured quality -- as do Duffin's -- and who depicts objects from a childlike point of view, but with a rather unsettling, disturbing perspective.

PhotobucketChris van Allsburg, illustrations from Jumanji; (C) Houghton Mifflin Company







All other images (c) Matt Duffin

Thursday, 28 July 2011

ATP: I'll Be Your Mirror - the review that got axed

I went to the ATP event last weekend, sent my review to Spoonfed Monday night, they whacked it online yesterday morning, whereupon it was taken down shortly after lunch thanks to a cross email from the ATP organisers. I can't really get cross with the section editor who pulled it. After all he does have to work with these people a lot, and as many journalists will know, there's no messing allowed with the wheels of PR-funded journalism. 

I would have expected this kind of "take it down" response from a whole host of other people, but before last weekend, I certainly wouldn't have suspected the ATP dudes of harbouring this kind of control freakness over their own image. But, then again, prior to last weekend, my only experience of ATP had been vicariously - through the stories of my friends and the brilliant ATP film - and I'd looked forward to the time when I finally got to experience all that musical goodness for myself.

Now, I'm not so sure. In fact, I'm totally unsure. First, they tried to knock my credibility as a reviewer, saying that I didn't know what I was talking about, especially since I admitted as much (according to them) by stating outright that I wasn't familiar with the music of PJ Harvey or Portishead. Thankfully this doesn't disqualify me from being able to deduce that their event was shoddily managed and that the sound was appalling. I have been to a lot of festivals, gigs, and music events, though, so I can bloody well tell when one is brilliant or bullshit. 

And does it really matter whether I've never listed to PJ or Portishead? I don't think so, especially given that I didn't slag off their music - I even admitted that my friends liked it (my friends! my friends! how does that make me look?) - I just said that it wasn't for me.

I also think that it's incredibly cheeky that ATP have posted an open call for feedback on their site, admitting that there were some "teething problems" and that they will address and respond to all criticisms and feedback on their website. So feedback and criticism are okay only as long as it's under the cover of emails no one else can read, not a review on a site where everyone can see it? 

Despite not really enjoying their event, I wasn't remotely pissed off with ATP before this whole ridiculousness. I was looking forward to checking out one of their festivals proper in December - I'm all about compare / contrast - but now, not only am I livid, I'm also repulsed - I mean really, who makes such a fuss about a review of one of their events that it then gets taken down. Are they that insecure about their company that they can't handle one little bit of criticism. And instead of putting all the onus on me for not being a "qualified reviewer", they could at least take a bit of responsibility for their screw ups and deal with the whole thing graciously instead of like spoiled brats.

I really needed to get that out of my system.


Here's the review.

ATP: I'll Be Your Mirror 

A review in bullet points:

• I would have much rather have been at Secret Garden Party than ATP. Alas, I had little say in the matter.

• This may colour your view on my views of this festival, but before Saturday night, I'd never listened to a single song by PJ Harvey and only one song by Portishead. I suspected I'd only heard the Portishead song in a movie, which turned out to be true - "Glory Box" was on the soundtrack for Lord of War. Loads of people on Twitter were using the word "legend" to describe both bands as liberally as I suspect they pour vinegar on their late-night fish and chips. I mean legend is a strong word, one to be used with caution. Having said that, I've never been very good at keeping up with alternative rock figureheads. And anyway, I thought ATP was all about the underground! The bands doing crazy-ass musical manipulations you've never heard of. Playing in time signatures that don't exist. There wasn't a whole lot of that at this ATP, I gotta say.

• I was pissed off before I even saw a single band play. The event management was beyond incompetent. There were queues to join queues to join yet more queues to see a band playing that you couldn't hear anyway because the sound was so bad. Some douche had the bright idea for a one-way system that didn't work and only pissed everyone off when entrances and exits kept changing. Not the way to run a festival.

• If you're still reading, it must be because you actually want to know what the bands were like. Good for you.

• So. Saturday. I just missed the London Snorkelling Team, but caught a short set by DD/MM/YYYY which was fine, nothing special - like a dreamier Foals crossed with a much less angry At The Drive In, but that's hardly surprising given that they're from Canada. Foot Village next, one of the only bands I remotely dug all weekend. Four drum kits and one seriously shouty chick. Awesome. Geoff Barrow's side project BEAK> was mind-numbingly boring. I managed to squeeze in a bit of dancing (finally!) thanks to the roots reggae tunes of Black Roots. I'd been looking forward to seeing DOOM for ages, but he's got a paunchy beer-belly and a laptop, which did him no favours when faced with the terrible sound on the main stage. And so to PJ Harvey. Black dress, black feathers in her hair, nil charisma. Bad sound, again, but it's hard to tell whether that would have made any difference. My friend said her charm lies in song writing, but I don't get it. People all around me clearly did though as their eyes were glazed over in adoration and they were shouting every. single. word. Objectivity flies out the window with fans who come to see their "legends" live and will the gig to be good. The only main stage act who didn't sound terrible were Portishead, which struck me as a bit cheeky - invite loads of acts to your party but then cripple them with a shit sound set up. Their set sounded good, the visuals were impressive (live editing of gig footage), but it just don't do it for me.

• Sunday was equally lacklustre. All the bands I saw on the main stage - S.C.U.M, Liars, and Beach House - were obscured by terrible sound to the point that I couldn't tell whether I liked the songs or not. The only good gig on Sunday was Godspeed You! Black Emperor who at least had something different going on. Very cinematic, not in a bad way, even if all of their songs follow the same formula: start quiet, get a bit louder, then totally let rip for 10 minutes. I didn't bother to stick around for Portishead again on Sunday night. Frankly, I'd had enough.

• The biggest surprise was the atmosphere. I expected noisy, messy, experimental, boundary-breaking performances from the guys on stage and the guys on the floor, that's what I thought ATP was all about. Instead it was like Sunday service in the church of sissies: most of the bands were like (in softly spoken and reverential whispers), "Wow. It's like so totally amazing that Portishead invited us to be here. We're like, just, unbelievably honoured to be playing the same stage as them." The audience was equally timid and reverential. Frankly, it was boring. The whole thing was an absolute bloody bore from start to finish.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Caesars, Borgias, and the Altar of Peace


I've been meaning to write a little ode to the Ara Pacis for some time, but a recent reading of a fine book about the life of Lucrezia Borgia - given to me by a friend a few years ago for Christmas, and shamefully taken off the shelf only a few weeks ago - rekindled my love of all things Roman following a bit of a post-PhD come down.  Equally amusing was the realisation that Italy has changed very little in some respects. I mean the Borgias were quite something, but no less cunning or manipulative than Berlusconi, and no less fierce, brutal, or ambitious than Augustus.

I mean, if you read Livy's Ab Urbe Condita, or History of Rome (my comedy sketch summarising this book is legendary amongst those who frequented the Edinburgh University Classics library in 2004-5...), it's pretty much non-stop war from 753 BC until Augustus defeated Marc Antony at Actium in 31 BC.  Sure, the Borgias were Spanish, but there's no institution as Italian as the Pope, and the Borgias were as violent and unscrupulous as the many an Italian ruler before them.

Lucrezia Borgia was married of three times, each time at the whim of her father - Rodrigo Borgia or Pope Alexander VI - or brother - Cesare Borgia - to forge a political alliance or bring in much-needed cash. I was amazed that so little should have changed in fifteen centuries of Italian history. As a means of cementing the alliance between the Second Triumvirate of Mark Antony and Octavian, later Augustus (the third party in the triumvirate was Aemilius Lepidus), Octavian offered his sister Octavia to Mark Antony (as his fourth wife! but hey, they died young back then).  Of course, we all know the history: Antony and Octavian had a massive falling out, Antony divorced Octavia, and high tailed it back to Cleopatra in Egypt,  Octavian defeated Antony and from 27 BC onwards, Augustus ruled the newly reinstated "Republic" with an iron fist masquerading as a velvet glove.  Augustus became emperor in name, but his control over the Senate derived from the fact that he was head honcho of most of Rome's twenty five legions.  All things considered, it was a miracle, given the seven hundred years of blood-lusty history prior, that the Pax Romana lasted as long as it did - nearly two centuries - throughout the Med.


All of which finally brings me to the Ara Pacis Augustae, the Altar of Augustan Peace.  While Augustus probably concocted the plans for the altar's construction himself, in his Res Gestae (like any politician, concerned with his image, Augustus wrote what was essentially the first political memoir rehashing all of the totally amazing feats he carried out throughout his lifetime. He instructed the Senate to create inscriptions of the text and the originals were engraved on bronze pillars and placed in front of his mausoleum.  Being on bronze and smack in the middle of Rome, it's unsurprising that these have not survived, but other copies of the text have been found elsewhere throughout the empire, most famously the original Latin side by side with a Greek translation on a temple to Augustus in Ancyra in Turkey.) he writes that the Senate resolved to build an altar near the Campus Martius in honour of his safe return from Hispania and Gaul.  Augustus was obsessed with the customs of the old-school, farm-dwelling, porridge-eating Romans who were stoic and pious and didn't indulge Trimalchio style in 12-hour feasts or festoon themselves with loads of Egyptian gold or marry their daughters off for political advantage... and part of the plan with the Ara Pacis was to make a song and dance about the return of these simpler, more honourable customs.

Augustus' Res Gestae, now inscribed on the side of
Meier's museum
Marcello walks past the
Res Gestae in an early scene of Il Conformista, one of my fav flicks.

For much of his tenure as emperor, Augustus tried to reinstate the religious piety and strict work ethic and moral way of living from the good old days, whenever that was, they were always going on about the good old days of the Roman Republic during the early Empire, but if they read their Livy, they'd have known that there wasn't really anything too good about the good old days given that these Romans were always waging war.  How did Augustus think Rome acquired so much territory?  It's hardly surprising that after Augustus took power and stopped waging war on everyone - because they'd all been conquered and assimilated into Rome - the famous Pax Augustana resulted in the people of Rome becoming rich, spoiled, complacent, licentious, indulgent and lazy.

Anyway, the whole point of this altar was to act as a focal point for Augustus' ramming home of the importance of religious piety for the well-being of the Roman Empire: keep the gods happy, keep Augustus happy, and everything will be just fine. Also, obviously, the whole thing was one big celebratory howdy doo dah in honour of good old Augustus for bringing about peace and prosperity via one seriously kick-ass military.

They only used this thing once a year. ONCE A YEAR. It's like spending four years and 50 million pounds building an incredibly ornate and ridiculous metal scaffold masquerading as a sculpture thing on the Olympic site that people will only be able to use one day per year. At least people will be able to go on our silly red orbital accelerator more than just on one day a year.

What isn't immediately evident from the pictures - apart from pictures with people in the frame - is just how enormous the thing is.  When you stand at the top of the steps leading up to the internal altar, your head barely reaches the top of the bottom set of panels. The thing was built to inspire and to intimidate, and I have to say, it still fulfils both functions incredibly well even today.



The altar is absolutely stunning; the quality of the stone carving is wonderful, of course, but the power of its iconographic symbolism is second to none. The Romans, but Augustus in particular, were excellent at iconography. If you're interested in this sort of thing, (ancient or modern political iconography) there's a wonderful book by Paul Zanker (which every Classics postgrad has read and loathed/loved) called The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus.

No idea what in the hell this is, but it's cool

Scholars are - of course - not entirely in agreement as to the identities of every figure on every panel, but most are agreed that Augustus himself, along with his right hand man Agrippa, and other members of the fam, including the eventual heir to the Julio-Claudian throne, Tiberius make an appearance on the south frieze.

What's left of Augustus' Mausoleum, adjacent to the Ara Pacis

Amusingly, the Ara Pacis was saved and brought back to life by yet another of Italy's more fiery figures: Mussolini, who reinstated the excavation of the remaining pieces of the altar to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus.  Unsurprisingly, the Fascists loved the Roman Empire (and many a doctoral thesis has been written to prove it...) and capitalised on the luck of having so many potent monuments in their midst. In 1938, Mussolini moved the Ara Pacis to a new spot near Augustus' Mausoleum - where it still stands today - as part of a grand plan to create an ancient Roman theme park, presumably to inspire a new generation of Romans.

Richard Meier's Ara Pacis museum

In 2006, a new protective building for the Altar was unveiled. Built by Richard Meier, it was immediately declared to be a complete catastrophe, but I visited in 2007 and found it to be quite satisfactory. Sure, it's no looker from the outside, but it's lovely and light-filled on the inside and makes for a spectacular environment in which one can spend time with Augustus' marvellous structure.

But perhaps best of all, and something I never tire of investigating, is the total disconnect between what we see and think we know of classical art and the reality of what it actually once was. Even though I know what the statues and the monuments probably looked like back in the day, I've been conditioned to look at an ancient marble statue and see nothing but pure, pristine, cold, beautiful, white, white, white marble.  Oh no, the Ara Pacis was subject to the same garish paint job as all the rest of the white marble that sits in countless museums.  It makes sense, though, that the monuments and sculptures should be brightly coloured. I mean, purple was the imperial colour after all. Colour meant wealth. Decoration meant wealth. There's no way in hell that a rich Roman would have left a statue of solid marble plain old white. He'd want it as ostentatious as possible to show off how stonkingly rich he was.


The museum has recently staged a brilliant reconstruction of the crazy, colourful paint job that they reckon the Ara Pacis would have had - taken from paint samples lifted off in the 1930s - but instead of mocking up a sample model, they've recreated the paint with an utterly ingenious light projection.  It looks ridiculous, of course, but that's history for you.  The real thing is never quite what we imagine.