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Opinon

She stood, wondering.

How did I get here?

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick

It goes on

Despite us.

Irrelevant inside our own self-obsession.

And knowing it.

Getting closer, closer, closer to God.

To understanding. To beginning,

to see our insignificance

And it hurts.

And it’s vengeful.

The opposite of appreciation, or

perhaps the essence of it.

Fulfilling our pointless lives

Living out their lack of purpose

Every sound a beautiful reminder

of why nothing matters.

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So let’s start with what this is for. In the beginning, my blogging was intended to identify for myself my purpose – to hone my skills and interests to help inform myself, really. Done.

So now what is it for? I did certainly find myself restrained by my own perception of what I thought people would like or be impressed by, and I censored the parts I thought they wouldn’t respond so well to; even if I liked or preferred these. That seems a bit mad really, the opposite of what I want to achieve. I want to head myself towards a state whereby I can fully express myself without fear of judgement.

Not that I wont BE judged, but that I wont validate or define myself by that judgement. Meditation helps a lot with this. Anything which drags you away from the minutiae is purposeful. Minutiae is my favourite word of the moment. It has become my byword for anything which allows us to lose sight of the big picture – which is basically everything / every minute. At this stage of our evolution, our whole consciousnesses have become overwhelmed by the minutiae. This can be beautiful and amazing, and it can be heartbreaking and awful. To me, spending an hour writing about my fears and worries is to be absorbed in the minutiae. To then make oneself aware of the fact that life will pass by very fast, we will die (relatively) soon and in 100 years we will be a distant ancestral memory, is re-affirming the big picture. Little things both matter and do not matter. They matter to each of us on a human level.

I am a strong believer in the importance of empathy and the belief that we need more of it. But allowing ourselves to see our own insignificance can remove pain – an an explicitly basic reminder that ‘all things must pass’. We live in an insanely complex world, where we become so bound up in the minutiae that our whole emotional and often physical state can be affected by things which are transient. Our tendency to become focused on these things is often greatly influenced by consumer culture. But if each time something makes you feel bad you can stop, take a breath and think – how much does this matter? Will this be a problem in 1 day / 1 week / 1 year? – you may find, as I have, that the problem immediately shrinks. Usually when I really pare it back I find that the only thing which stops me from letting it ALL go is my son. He is the only thing that when I ask the question – does it really matter – the answer is usually yes. He is what at my core of being is truly important, the rest is just management of circumstance and how you respond to it is within your control.

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The animals. That’s how they spot me, the locals I mean. Stroking a feral cat which I am fully aware could riddle me with rabies in a blurred second of diseased saliva on teeth tips; they know I’m English and spot me a mile off, how could they not? But their sad, neglected little faces (the animals, I mean). Their mangy forms hobbling along towards an inadequate patch of ground shaded from the burning sun. It is a familiar and enduring sight of the which I will I never get used to seeing in other countries. But despite my very British show of pet empathy, on my first  trip to the Greek ‘Athens Riviera’ in June of this year the fate of these multitudinous weary strays managed to distract me only momentarily from those extraordinary Athenian ruins of classical antiquity which tower over the city, abiding endlessly as lives begin, are lived and end all around them.

The Acropolis remains are overwhelmingly huge, dominating the city skyline in a way that I felt was more powerful than seeing them at close range. In some cases the sculpture is powerfully enigmatic, the guarding Caryatids evoking in me a childhood memory from the Neverending Story of those two stone oracles, their power and character fascinating me then at six as these beautiful, frightening forms do now at thirty. I inherited an interest in history from my mother, although my thirst for knowledge does not extend to the same reaches nor inhabit the same form as her – ie. sitting up late at night head buried in 3000 page epic overviews of Russian revolutions. My own curiosity takes far more of an immediate form; suffice it to say lengthy summaries of fact spattered with anomalous pellets of prose do not engage me for long, but I would still consider myself a history fan, shall we say. I chose my holidays mostly according to whether there are sites to visit nearby. I sketch the ruins and read the leaflets. So why do I always find myself questioning our obsession with preservation?

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I suppose I’m playing devil’s advocate to an extent, but do find it disturbing how we actively remove significant objects and artefacts from the public reach, particularly those which were created with the proletariat in mind. It embodies the modern edict of look, but don’t touch. It’s a relatively new phenomenon (in the scale of the lives of these buildings) and one whose aspects I do understand in principle; vast increases in visitor numbers and so the inevitability of damage, the fact that to save these artifacts we have to stop direct visitor engagement at some point so why not now, the advances in technology meaning we can now see in more clarity the damage being inflicted etc. Ergo, we have to preserve these artefacts for the future. But do we? Is modern society a bit over obsessed with preservation and conservation, to the point at which we have almost become hoarders on a mass ideological scale?

Ironically of course our consumer culture evidences quite the opposite, most of us are hesitantly complicit in the growth of plastic mountains and new landfill land masses. On the whole we generally attribute little value to objects. Not in the case of historical value though, this attribution transforming something from disposable to preservable. Uniqueness is often the main factor, or its rarity, but our desperation to ensure that the originals of these objects are not lost have led us to sometimes devalue them through corrupting their original public purpose and right to be used. Walking around the Acropolis was a perfect example of this; barred at every corner from experiencing the structures as they were meant to be experienced, I admit I felt cheated. Public structures built as open areas for the people, for the masses to participate in community gathering, now reduced to purely an externally aesthetic pursuit for all except a privileged few specialists. This restriction tarnishes it, sullies the beauty and purity of the architecture and essentially just isn’t fair. But far from this behaviour being unique to what is now ancient construction, we regularly apply it to new, modern creations. ‘Do not touch’ goes without saying in virtually every instance. In artistic terms it does in fact now seem to psychologically add value to something. To be told we can touch instinctively means so can everyone else and the thing is reduced to consumable as opposed to preservable.

I freely admit I do not have an opposing solution to the issues of why we do preserve and am here merely provoking consideration of a concept we all take very much for granted. You could indeed say that if we gave free reign access to works of art or historical artefacts they would be smashed and graffiti covered, but consider that many have been standing there for over 2000 years, significantly damaged primarily due to brutal wars and not local hoodlums, with do not touch rules only being implemented in the last 50 or so. Speculate on why we feel we need to preserve them in their perfected original form at all. Does not time decay and weather all things? With modern technology we persist in working against natural evolution, to stultify it and challenge its process of degeneration. In this case, to what end? Our ability to further our knowledge through them is limited and can be recorded with a variety of techniques, so why not allow the structures to become communal, as a vast amount of them were intended to be? Laying them open to potential damage is a worrying prospect, but to leave them as they are, alien and untouchable, may be even worse. Perhaps it’s time to allow the public to experience the key to why these structures are so amazing and despite what the brochures may want you to think, the answer isn’t in the gift shop.

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One of my favourite things about this idiosyncratic little Isle we call the UK is the quintessential seaside town. There are few other things which encapsulate so specifically the unique facets of the British psyche into one small microcosmic burst of sublime kitsch consumerism, freezing waters lapping on dirty beaches and cheap, melting ice cream cones (with a flake, of course). It’s fabulous. Tasteful is sometimes lovely; a middle-class cup of Earl Grey on a Victorian garden terrace in Cambridge can be all well and good, but really it has comparatively little soul. Stick me on Margate beach surrounded by gobby kids with parents no less refined, half-blinded by the reflections from the arcade frontages which prove that all which glitters is definitely not gold, and I’m in my element. I can’t help but assume you are all suspecting that I am a typical product of my upbringing in this respect. That I relish these, to some, distasteful scenes with glee because of their centrality to the 1980’s childhood of a working class Southerner. Correct. But it is not only this geographical circumstance of birth which causes me to grin as soon as my internal satnav senses I am within 10 miles of a sugared doughnut shack; British seasides truly are on their own merit singularly enjoyable.

Growing up in Dartford in the 80’s and 90’s, Margate was our closest beach and still a fairly thriving hive of domestic tourism at that point. We would plead with our parents to take us there, as yet uninterested in foreign climes or the lure of saccharine Disney marketing. The swingboats at Margate beach were the highlight of our summer. How tantalisingly simple life was then! As we got older, Dreamland, that disintegrating grandfather of theme parks, became the focus of our pubescent attentions. The lure of its death-defyingly ancient roller-coaster structures stoking the fire of our naive, thrill-seeking bellies. The what we considered subtle experimentation with the mating ritual, (which in hindsight consisted entirely of stalking a group of usually slightly older boys, acting as if we hadn’t noticed them and reaching the end of a whole day having never actually spoken to them) was played out around the grounds of Dreamland like groundhog day. We could get angsty conversational mileage from that kind of near-encounter for days.

Then one fateful day Dreamland surrendered to the inevitable and impending padlock of the health and safety regulators. A thousand teenagers loitered, bereft, with only the arcades for entertainment. But soon these began to wither away too, the effect of the 1960s emergence of cheap package holidays abroad becoming visible on the face of the town. Less families, less fun, less income; more unemployment, more pound shops, more crime. Seaside towns have always been particularly vulnerable to the effects of economic shift; their seasonal nature meaning winter is often as bleak as summer is bright. But there came upon British seafronts in that era a tidal wave of degradation, half-empty swingboats standing then as monuments to a lost age of contentedness.

Margate soon became known to those who hadn’t spent childhood days there as a bit of a dive, its slightly more well-to-do neighbour Ramsgate wringing the mileage out of its nouveau-riche marina facade and characterless wine bars, attempting to emulate the seafront harbours of its continental competitors. Margate stuck to its guns; sun, sea, sand and some truly great fish ‘n’ chips. As with so many other nearby towns it is now only just starting to see some semblance of a recovery. Interestingly, this regeneration is seemingly part of a pattern; a swathe of curious ‘cultural quarters’ beginning to emerge from the wind-battered frontages of these former summer holiday havens. Folkestone, Margate, Dungeness; all have been sprinkled with a relatively recent dusting of artistic and culturally important spectacle. Without further research I can only speculate as to why this might be, but educated guesswork would lead me to suggest the gradual migration of the middle classes from London might have had at least a partial impact. Commuter towns now reach even as far as the southern coast, much as a result of the bordering areas outside London observing a continuing rise in living costs. It’s obvious then (to some councils at least!) that you would try to appeal to the interests and expectations of London commuters; to put in the worthwhile effort and investment which might encourage them to stay in your culture-rich but comparatively affordable and close to home surroundings.

Down at Margate, the most visible and high-profile evidence of this artistic injection is the new Turner Contemporary, all classic Chipperfield wide and light exhibition spaces and orgasmic interspatial elements. But it may not hold this title for long; I hear on the grapevine a most exciting rumour. It seems grandfather time may rewind his clock for Margate and resurrect my childhood pleasure park, Dreamland, like an old but cocksure phoenix ready to swagger back into the consciousness of the town.

Of course the obvious artistic link to Margate is through someone who may well not agree with my sickly-sweet love for it; Mad Tracey from Margate, aka 90’s artworld darling and one of my personal favourites, Tracey Emin, her often biographical works shocking staunch upholders of the British taboo with graphic representations of the gritty side of life in the town during its decline. Or maybe she would? Without her difficult upbringing amidst the area’s grim social scene and degenerate male contingent would she ever have achieved such fame and fortune? Tracey Emin’s wistful recollections of the area in her artworks have greatly influenced how much I enjoy her work. Aside from respecting the brutal honesty of her cathartic subject-matters and refusal to bow to the mummified art establishment, I feel an affinity with her attachment to the town in which I spent countless fun-filled days circa 1989.

It seems almost bizarre to me that I will soon be showing 3 of my own photographs in one of the new art galleries in this town for which I hold such affection. Aside from the encouraging fact that these modern and exciting spaces now exist there at all, it’s interesting that artists from the South-East are coming to Margate to exhibit instead of heading into London and seems to me indicative of a gradual shift in collective focus onto non London-based art. It’s high time we began to look locally at the wealth of unrecognised and underdeveloped artistic talent on our doorstep, not solely in my hometown of Dartford and around Kent but further out and beyond. London art has been done to death, let the artistic era of the provinces commence!

A selection of my photographs will be shown, along with the work of some of my fellow Dartford Arts Network members (Kasia Kat Parker & David Houston), as part of an exhibition primarily featuring the paintings of Tunde Odelade at the Pie Factory Gallery in Margate. The exhibition runs from 8th May – 21st May and is free to visit. For directions and further information see their website and if you’re in the area on 10th May do come in and say hi – I’ll be there milling around from 10am – 6pm.

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2010-07-23-Big-Society

When Cameron unveiled his Big Society idea in 2010 I thought it at best a vacuous PR stunt; an extension of the Putin-style photos of ‘friendly Dave in shorts cycling to work because he cares about the environment’. I’m only now beginning to grasp how much I underestimated the Machiavellian skills of the top tier and to see how this cleverly cynical ideology of free labour painted as community spirit is starting to permeate the consciousness of British society.

Spurred by a recent arts project part-funded by my local council, a movement has begun to grow in my declining home town. Dartford Arts Network, a dynamic creative forum for people wanting to get involved in local art projects, is now beginning to take off independently, a community reaction to the ‘cultural desert’ status of the town. Although the catalyst for the creation of this group, that piece of funding was the first nod to the arts I’ve seen bestowed by our council for a very long time, if ever. Let’s not forget that thanks to recent government policy hundreds of towns who were committed to the arts have found their essential funding budgets indiscriminately slashed; the arts predictably facing the chop first and considered dispensable, inconsequential, despite the fact that study upon study has shown engagement with the arts to be quantifiably beneficial to the wellbeing of both the individual and the community as a whole. An active attack from government in relation to arts and community has repeatedly stirred people across the country to take matters into their own hands; street parties, community events; art exhibitions. The ‘blitz spirit!’ the Daily Mail would cry, ‘we’re all in it together!’ But this sweetly served dose of fantasy leaves behind a decidedly unpalatable aftertaste.

There are tell-tale signs that the Big Society spoon-feeding is hitting the spot; in people’s comments stating that we don’t really need the council for this or that anymore as we can just do it ourselves, in the simpering and transparent mandate from above ‘Oh, but you do it so much better than we would’, in Poundland back to work schemes and Free Schools. Through a cleverly constructed confusion between community contribution and free labour, the proletariat are in danger of buying into the idea that it is up to us, not the state, to facilitate these aspects of our lives. As Unison said in 2010 “The government is simply washing its hands of providing decent public services and using volunteers as a cut-price alternative.”

It’s crucial that we as a community, as a country, insist on more. Not token gestures, but a sustained policy for the funding and promotion of the arts in the future remit of both the government and each local council. We cannot, and should not, do it all on our own. Communities must use these local arts initiatives to focus budget-makers on the impact it has on the high street and to evidence how they should be an influential part of town planning. Instead of endless private flats or more generic chain store retail, why not encourage independent designers and incorporate creative spaces? The arts are not a luxury for the rich or a pastime for the middle-class, but a rightful resource for all and integral to the very fabric of our daily life. Along with the rest of our valuable public services, fight for them before they disappear for good and whatever you do, don’t allow the bigwigs to pass the buck.

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Anyone who really knows me is likely to confirm that I am a bit of a hypochondriac, a personality trait I am aware grinds irritatingly on most of them, eyes rolling wearily skyward each time they hear my self-pitying tales of woeful sickness. But it turns out that this trait is not confined to the physical, or even the health-related aspects of my body. It also extends to the creative; that deep little cubby in my mind, dark and cosy, filled with cases of tattered old books and tin cups brimming with red wine. I like it there. So why am I finding it quite a difficult place to be at the moment? My attempts to write resulting in unpublishably bad two-paragraph drafts and my current cosy place being nose-deep in a cringeworthy pot-boiler of a book. The obvious irony here is that I actually am, at this point, writing; hence, you are reading. So, ‘creative hypochondriac’, I hear you snigger, your implication of writers block appears unfounded. But is this, ie. writing about not being able to write (is that a paradox?), what I want to be writing about? This being general musing opinion thingys and the necessary distinction being part of the problem.

As an aspiring writer you inevitably have the pressure of indulging in constant comparison with both your role models and peers. I try hard not to do it, we all have different styles, yada yada, but you do suffer that problem of labelling. Those beautiful societally ingrained cuboids of concept, we must of course all fit in a box; opinion writer, reviewer, critic, novelist, journalist. The modern age tolerates not the jack-of-all-trades. Take our education system. Good at everything but excel at nothing? Sorry love, back down the job centre for you. Brilliantly ruthless investment banker but lacking in every other aspect of personality? Jackpot. You my friend, can rule them all. So here I am, wondering where I fit, if anywhere? I like writing about all different things but keep coming up against the same questioning brick wall – what is your niche? Assessing the (admittedly far-advanced) competition doesn’t help. Admiringly gobbling up columns by Rosamund Urwin or Grace Dent feels much like a personal dressing down, each cleverly crafted witty sentence and sharp one liner being delivered to me via mental monologue, in that masochistically patronising voice of the M&S advert woman and her invisible cruel smirk; ‘I know you want this, but you just can’t have it, you poor deluded thing’ (oh, and there’s the self-pity).

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Sitting down to write a non-descript column at this point is a challenge. To try to come up with something worth writing, that’s worth people reading, in a style worth sharing, is a seemingly mountainous task. Easier to read a book, eh. So what’s the answer? How do I discover my ‘niche’ and do I have to? The stubborn part of my psyche stamps it’s foot with a resounding No. And to continue doing what I’m doing (a marketing manager writing an ‘art’ blog), I suppose it’s right, that’s up to me. But to try to take this forward and move it on, to shift it gently or otherwise in a more purposeful direction, I admit I may have to surrender. I might have to assess and analyse and streamline and use all those other horrible soulless business words on myself towards an end point. A point where I can take my wine soaked, candlelit, creative mind-cubby and place it gingerly in a carefully labelled box, like a weird conceptual parallel of Deal or No Deal with my career as the prize and hopefully without the appearance of Noel Edwards. But truthfully, even before I begin this process I know in my gut the end result; sorry Mr Banker, No Deal.

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If, as Keats so famously wrote, beauty is truth and truth beauty, surely a pertinent exemplification of this has to be the result of a simple but primordial chemical reaction, the product of which we named Fire. Fuel+O2+Heat incited by pressure, equals. Darkness into light; a way out of the malicious shadows, yet the creation of a state charged with it’s own instinctively vicious propensities. Bearing in mind the hypnotic and electrifying effects which fire continues to inspire in us today, in our info-heightened, over-subscribed, post-hacking world of anti-innocence, it is mind boggling to attempt to imagine the not just life-changing but existence-changing effect the unearthing of this awareness must have had on its discoverer. For unlike today, a Neanderthal person would not have been able to share an enlightening experience with their fellow earthlings across the way. Each community would have had to come to the knowledge in their own time, the technique passed down through generations for millions of years until the fateful day someone invented the match, reducing the skill of fire inception to merely owning opposable thumbs. Have you ever tried to light a fire using just a pile of brush and sheer will, imploring your hands to spin, spin those sticks faster!? It’s hard. I failed. An embarrassingly cliched product of my upbringing and environment, I soon scrambled off to find matches; the enveloping cold air surpassing my desire for that particular scouting badge.

The physical and psychological powers of fire are often tragically underestimated, lending an ominous counterbalance to its intense beauty. So why do we find it so mesmeric? Is it aesthetic? Or, as is more likely, it is rooted in our dependence as well as in our fear. We all know that fear and power hold a certain attraction, despite our protestations of distaste for that fact. Both embody an element of excitement, our adrenaline levels rising to combat a potentially dangerous situation. It’s sexy, it’s kind of taboo, it’s what drives almost every kind of pornography you can think of and despite your protestations dear reader, statistics suggest you are likely to be in some way a consumer of that particular industry. We fear it, thus we are entranced by it, it thrills us; car-crash rubbernecking. It’s also undeniable that we must have an instinctive basic attachment to something so key to our very survival. Although it is powerful, we often, as I said before, underestimate its speed, force and completely indiscriminate nature. We have ‘controlled’ fires, we use it for fun, it warms us and cooks our food; we believe we hold the power. But despite all of this, the visual spectacle of a flame, from the endearing initial flickering to awe-inspiring and terrifying explosion, continues to capture us in a unique way.

To photograph a flame, a fire, is fantastically easy or frustratingly difficult; satisfaction being entirely dependent upon the effect you’re after. A good while ago I gave up trying to portray exactly what I was seeing, when I realised that the outcome of my shots captured less the exact visual image I was perceiving and more the behaviour of the process and material. I now realise how much more interesting this is to me, the frantic jitters of the flames caught in a series of moments; the longer exposure tracing their journey back and forth, up and down, like trapped insects searching for freedom without knowing why. Colour of course plays a part, the brilliant purity of the red and yellow flame providing the ultimate contrast with the blackness of night. The scenes beg to be photographed, painted. As I’ve always said, Nature herself is most certainly an artist.

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