Thursday, 13 December 2012

Waste of Space at the 491

What happens to buildings when their owners stop using them? Two photographers explore the use and misuse of space in an exhibition at the 491 — a gallery facing eviction. Words: Vyvian Raoul
Waste of Space is an exhibition by Adrian Nettleship and Lisa Furness. We asked them about the project, the themes it explores and the significance of Leytonstone.
Is the exhibition a reaction to the recent criminalisation of squatting?
 I put the Occupy and Explore project together when the change in the law was still in the balance. It seemed that there was a huge amount of misinformation about the subject. When you looked into it, it was clear that the situations that motivated people to support a change in the law were already clear cut. It was always illegal to invade someone else’s home, but this was being omitted from the discussion. So now, in a time of huge public sector cuts and a lack of affordable housing, our taxes are being spent on criminalising people to protect the owners of empty properties. I don’t believe the change in the law will benefit the majority, and the way in which it was changed was thoroughly disingenuous with regards to democracy. I feel that these are matters that must be discussed.
Lisa: I spent several years living in Bristol photographing abandoned and derelict buildings and looking at the effect of time and neglect upon man-made structures. The tragic story of waste told by these buildings led me towards the squatting scene, which provides an alternative future for them and a more hopeful narrative. This exhibition is the natural result of my first forays into squatting culture and the recent change in the law just made it more important to show this work publicly.
So what, are you raving Marxists or what? Where do you stand on the property is theft debate?We’re not really Marxists or Anarchists though it’s safe to say we are both quite left wing in our thinking. We are maybe both too cynical to sign up to a political ideology though we are angry at the injustices and inequalities within our society. We are interested in finding the problems within the system and looking for solutions, slowly improving things, rather than wanting to tear everything down and start again, so if we are to transition to property-less society, let’s try not to do it overnight.
Why ‘Waste’?
For both of us waste is one of the fundamental problems with the current system. As a society we waste resources, energy, food and space in a way that is completely unsustainable. By making use of neglected properties, skipping for their food, creating furniture from objects found in the street and other activities, squatters live off the fatty waste of society. It’s a mindset that we could all benefit from adopting. Much like how even SUV drivers talk about fuel efficiency these days, the hope is that in time, waste will start to become unacceptable.
Why have you chosen the 491 gallery?
 Leytonstone was one of the main focal points of the M11 link road protests back in the 1990s, where squatting was used as a very effective tool of resistance. Naomi Klein goes as far as attributing the protests on Claremont Road as being an influence for the Reclaim the Streets movement and Critical Mass. My school lollipop lady lost her job trying to save a 200-year-old chestnut tree from the road builders, and I have friends who live in a housing co-op nearby, which was founded by a group of former protesters.
Bordering on the link road, the 491 gallery fits nicely into this tradition. It is an active squat gallery that has been running for 11 years. Leytonstone has a vibrant arts scene, and while The 491 gallery is an important part of that, we believe it’s not appreciated. It deserves to be celebrated, used and seen. The people of the 491 gallery are facing eviction, set to be replaced by a block of flats. It’s become a bit tired to throw the government’s ‘big society’ rhetoric back in its face, but this is a community centre run by volunteers, with open access and regular classes for local people, which receives no government funding. This is one of the last opportunities for the public to experience arts at 491 and to get a sense of the value of this vibrant place.
Waste of Space is at the 491 Gallery, 491 Grove Green Road, Leytonstone, E11 4AA from 15-22 December. Open weekdays, 3-7pm; weekends, 12-7pm. Free entry.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Serious Journalism

Constantly resting your chin in your hand does not make you a Serious Journalist - though it does  make you look a bit like one.

Be warned: if you see this man in the street, run away - particularly if he has a film crew in tow. Ignore all emails from his production company. If he knocks on your door, under no circumstances should you let him in.

He is not a Serious Journalist.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Everything's fucked

"We now live in a world where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.” - Chris Hedges

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Keeper of the Scroll

I want to be the keeper of the scroll. What is already an impressive sounding job title becomes even more so once people realise the scroll in your charge is the original manuscript to Jack Kerouac's On the Road. See, Jack taped 120ft of architect's tracing paper together, so that he could dash off his novel in one coffee-fuelled, type-written, three-week sitting. And in 2001 - in a fittingly odd twist to the scroll's tale - the owner of the Indianapolis Colts football team bought the first fifty feet of the lite-relic and sent it on a tour around the world - under the watchful eye of the keeper of the scroll. The keeper has recently been to London and, as with all the other cities he's visited, has very carefully unfurled it, this time in the British Library. So, although it's unlikely I'll ever attain his enviable employment, I can at least go and sigh over the scroll until he returns to re-furl in December... 

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Grow Heathrow, grow...

If there's one thing politicians are really good at, it's doing the very opposite of what they said they'd do before you voted for them: no, no, we wont raise tuition fees - definitely not. The NHS? Safe as houses, mate. Now the same seems to be true of the third runway at Heathrow; what was once promised off the cards is squarely on again. But not if Grow Heathrow has anything to say about it. They're determined to keep the government to their word, and have been camped out in nearby Sipson since March 2010 - making sure they don't pull any fast ones. This weekend they're opening up what they've made into their beautiful home and community centre for tea & cake, clay oven pizzas, games, arts & crafts and a bicycle maintenance workshop giving free lessons. Check in for your most wholesome Heathrow experience ever... 

A bonkers waste of time...

So, they've finally done it. They finally criminalised squatting. On Saturday, it became a criminal offence - with a penalty of up to six months in prison or a £5000 fine - to trespass in a residential property, under section 144 of Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO).

Successive governments have made overtures, initiated clumsy attempts: all have stopped short of actually criminalising the homeless. But for the man who makes Margaret Thatcher look like Mother Theresa, there are no such boundaries. For the government that promised to protect the NHS and then started flogging it off at the first opportunity, there are to be no silly limitations placed on the pursuit of profit.

Compared with the privatisation of our health care provider, there's been relatively little opposition to the criminalisation of the homeless. To your average punter - who probably has property ladder aspirations of their own - it seems a reasonable proposition, sensible even. Criminalise squatting? Yeah, sure, I'll put my name to that - squatters are stealing aren't they? When Crispin Blunt MP - smart man in a smart suit, who has the word Justice in his job title - says they cause 'untold misery', that's not hard to understand. Didn't you read the Evening Standard report about that nice doctor and his pregnant wife who suffered at the hands of unwashed cuckoos in their nice Hampstead nest?

But read right to the bottom of that story and you'll find the little truth that belies the bigger one: in all of these cases - without exception - the home in question was a second home. Squatters go to great lengths to avoid occupying an already occupied property, or even one that looks like it might become so soon, because, apart from the fact that almost nobody wants to make someone else homeless, that's already a crime. This was laid out by the 160 property lawyers and academics who wrote a letter during the rush to criminalisation, claiming that both ministers and the media were deliberately misleading the public:

We want it to be clear that it is already a criminal offence for a squatter to occupy someone's home, or a home that a person intends to occupy, under the Criminal Law Act 1977.”

Another seemingly salient point trotted out by Crispin and his cronies is that squatting is not the answer to homelessness. True enough. But squatting is just a name – a name that sounds a bit unpleasant, that has unpleasant associations. The act it describes is is no more complex than seeking shelter in abandoned property. It's been done for years, and has even, in the past, been thought of as a sensible solution to a housing shortage.

Clearly there's no substitute for building enough affordable housing for everyone. But that isn't happening, and hasn't been happening for decades. Ask yourself whether you'd rather see people face the horrors of rough sleeping while the government gets its act together over housing – if you believe it ever will – or whether it's acceptable for them to take the initiative in the meantime, so long as they cause no harm. If it's the latter, then squatting can be a solution, albeit a temporary one.

And almost nobody with any insight believes that temporary solution - making good use of Britain's 720,000 empty homes - actually causes harm. 96% of respondents to the government's consultation – Options for Dealing with Squatting – were against criminalisation. That included people who you'd expect to know what they're talking about, people like the Law Society, homelessness charities Crisis and Shelter, and even the Metropolitan Police Service. Nearly all were ignored, in favour of the seven landlords (of over 2000 respondents) who took the time to reply.

Even the Telegraph, who initially ran a campaign supporting criminalisation, this weekend softened their opinion, proclaimed 'nobody really believes that squatters have rights', and called criminalisation a 'bonkers waste of time for no great result'.

My own experience was so far from the scumbag shenanigans of squatters presented in the press, it seemed surreal when I read reports of renegade gangs of East Europeans usurping rightful owners. Tim, who eventually bought the property in which we resided (a property that had been empty for four years previously) didn't seem unhappy either. After we left what was to become his home, he wrote us a reference in case we were taken to court by someone less understanding.

This odious piece of policy can't help cause more harm than it prevents, because there was almost no harm caused in the first place; significant harm - untold misery, even – will be left in its wake. Advice was issued this week to the law enforcement agencies expected to carry out the evictions they told the government they didn't want; the entire sum of the Ministry of Justice's counsel is: 'liaison with local authorities and homelessness providers would ensure the appropriate advice and assistance is offered to the accused after the point of arrest'. Presumably those authorities and agencies will simply ask - as they did during the consultation - that the eviction, and subsequent arrest, not take place; point out that their services are already stretched to breaking point without unleashing another 50,000 souls onto the streets.

Like most of what's said about squatting, we're firmly in fantasy land. Never mind that it might actually cost the tax payer millions by creating more homelessness: there's money to be made. It's been on the Tory policy wish-list for decades, and now their property protection wet-dream has been realised; it remains to be seen what state the sheets will be left in when everyone wakes up, or who will mop up the mess...

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia.

Be warned: this girl is a dangerous criminal. She will cause serious disruption to the life of your community and try to spoil your Olympics.

But not in the London Borough of Newham. Not for me, or for the 181 other cyclists who were detained on Friday night in the biggest mass-arrest since last year's country-wide riots. Amongst other things, our bail conditions forbid us to enter the borough on a bicycle, or to go within 100yds of any Olympic venue or event.

With retrospect, our crime seems to have been irreverence. The London Olympics were just getting under way; we should have been at home, watching it on the telly and clapping along like everyone else. Our cycle ride hadn't been sanctioned, it was not a part of the official programme, it had no sponsor. Ambivalence towards the grand narrative, much of which is fictional, was enough to see us arrested.

And so as Danny Boyle's magical flying bicycles floated around the inside of the stadium in Stratford, real cyclists were being kettled and coerced outside. As a smiling Shami Chakrabarti was waving the flag, with thoughts of liberty and justice in mind no doubt,  plasti-cuffs were being tightened around the wrists of the arrested. VIPs were bussed-in down special lanes designed exclusively for their use; with just as much care, the Metropolitan Police had London buses on standby for us (just in case). We too had our pictures taken – before being herded aboard and shipped out in the opposite direction, to police stations on the outskirts of the city to spend the night in a cell.

The police told us we were being arrested under Section 12 of the Public Order Act. This allows the commanding officer of a force to impose restrictions on a public procession if they consider the procession might, among other things, result in “serious disruption to the life of the community”. There's doubt over whether Critical Mass could be defined as a public procession; it would be fair to say that the Olympics themselves have caused more serious, much more prolonged disruption to the lives of the community we were cycling through.

In their post-arrest press release, the police say that “people have a right to protest and it is an incredibly important part of our democracy(their nerve knows no bounds, a pox on the Met press corps). They certainly do and it certainly is - but Critical Mass is not a protest. It has been held in London on the last Friday of every month for the passed 18 years, and in 2008 the High Court defined it as a 'customary bike ride'. This is just one reason our arrest was probably unlawful.

Because even if you could place restrictions on a cycle ride of this kind, how would you let it know you had? The Mass is leaderless, whoever happens to be at the front decides the route, so who's going to take the message - who's going to pass it on, and how? No attempt was made to convey the information by electronic boards, or to communicate with the crowd over an address system – all we could hear at the start of the ride was the jazz that accompanied the jugglers on the astroturf lawn outside the National Theatre.

As we were kettled, one officer spat at me in disbelief, 'why do you want to spoil the Olympics?' But who wants to spoil the Olympics? By it's very nature, Critical Mass cannot be against anything. There is no cause because there are as many causes as there are cyclists. The most you could ever say is that it is pro-cycling.

Much like the Olympics. And the London Mayor's Office, who equate the bicycle with freedom in their latest tfl advert. It feels ironic to me: the police still have my bike impounded...

Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race”

- HG Wells

Friday, 22 June 2012

Double R Club

Cabaret, burlesque, vaudeville – all sorts of cirque, in short – have never been as popular down old London Town as they are today. Which obviously means there's a lot of horribly amateur sh!t knocking about - masquerading as masquerade, getting its nipple tassels all in a tangle. The Double R Club is different though, very different indeed. Themed around David Lynch's Twin Peaks, it's as surreal as it is macabre. When I went, the headliner was Mat Fraser, who acted out a hilariously violent rape scene - complete with fake blood - on a buxom, young burlesque dancer whilst miming Born Free. It's the real deal. And it's really very good; ring-master Benjamin Louche's catchphrase - 'so f*cking suave' – is right on the money. Which is why it won best ongoing production at this year's cabaret awards - and why you should go and see it tonight...

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Alt J Live

If you've listened to an indie radio station for more than an hour in the past month, you will have heard Alt J's single, Breezeblocks. You'd be forgiven for having thought, initially, that its refrains of 'my love, my love, my lovely' made it a bit sickly sweet. But this song has layers: peel them back and you find it's simply sick – beautifully so. The love that lead singer Joe Newman sings of is a Patrick Bateman kind of a love – director Elis Bahl'saccompanying video could easily be a three-minute forty-seven second snippet of American Psycho. The vocals are just as deranged, just as twisted – the instruments just as sinister. Alt J have even been compared to Radiohead – which is both further testimony to their macabre pedigree and another excellent reason to watch them killing it on stage at Corsica Studios tonight…

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Young Colossus - Orlando Weeks interview

Young Colossus
 is the new project from Maccabees frontman, Orlando Weeks. It's a concept album made up of six tracks, with each one relating to a different section of the accompanying graphic novel, illustrated by artist Rob Hunter. It also features the vocals of Alessi Laurent-Marke (Alessi's Ark).
A limited-edition, mini concept album featuring guest vocals, complete with an illustrated novel? Sounds highly desirous, to say nothing of ambitious – a very definite different direction. So what’s the story behind the story-book, the story behind the new sound?
You couldn't really call it a solo album, although it is definitely Orlando’s project, he says that it was more a chance for him to explore a different vocal style to the one with which he employs in The Maccabees. Third album, Given to the Wild, is the most ethereal Maccabees offering to date; Young Colossus takes those otherworldly atmospherics a notch higher. Or is that lower...? It’s all very sensual, very spooky – opening track 'Franky' sounds out and out haunted.

Really, it's the story of Orlando finding a new voice - almost accidentally - and then finding a way to share that with the world. Everything starts as an experiment:
“I was making some tracks, and pitching my voice differently, and the more I did it the more I almost found myself writing for that voice. And then that voice become a character. And then I found myself writing for the character.”
That character is the Young Colossus, and the album and accompanying artwork tell his tale. It was inspired by rites-of-passage, youthful classics like Labyrinth, The Jungle Book, Never Ending Story and even Peter Pan. But it's all rather abstract, and feels far too playful to have something as serious as a moral, or too tight a structure - a beginning, middle or end. It is very much a creative splurge, a chance to vocally kick-out in different directions:
“The book’s about the experience of the Young Colossus. It's not even as specific as a coming-of-age story, it’s just that all the things I love watching seem to touch on those things.

“It was so lucky. The story really just evolved when we started recording and trying to do proper versions of the demos that I’d made, and trying to choose the strongest songs, and those that were relevant to each other. And I was very happy to just go with that.”
It's highly coincidental that it happened at all – at least in the graphic novel format. Had Orlando not stumbled upon Rob's bookThe New Ghost, it might have gone in a very different direction:
“They were songs that felt like they had a story..ish. I didn’t know whether I wanted them to be film or animation or shadow puppets. But it was always going to have some narrative form. As soon as the characters established themselves, it became pretty clear that would help explain the tracks.”
Orlando studied illustration at university and has worked on album artwork projects himself (notably Florence and the Machine’s Lungs) and says that one of the bonuses of working in a creative industry like music is the opportunity for cross-over – that the education he got “wasn’t completely wasted.” And Rob was able to take Orlando’s rough storyboard ideas – literally scribbled onto lined paper – and give them form – to turn his thoughts into something tangible.

“I knew that Rob would be able to take it to the nicest place. He’s got an incredible eye, a really nice illustrative touch, which is quite rare. It just felt exactly right, it was very lucky.”
Luck again: experimentation and playfulness were a big part of the process. Producer Nic Nell is with us and says that the project provided lots of excuses to explore, and to have fun doing it. In fact, the f-word seems to have been a major motivator behind the music:
“I think my favourite voice is the low-pitched voice, and it was pretty fun to be, like, ‘that’s the shadow monster - yes!’ I kind of thought of it as the Easter Island statue heads singing; that sounds fun, let’s get that on the record.
“There's this bit in 'Sleeper'... I can't help but smile every time I hear it. It’s just so fun. An excuse to get to do that is pretty good.”

Indeed, when Orlando and Nic talk, you can tell that they really enjoyed making this together. Having a long history, knowing each other since their art foundation course, they could push each other. And Young Colossus has clearly benefited from this almost brotherly relationship:
“I couldn’t have done any of this without Nic, because Nic was able to see through some very unrealised ideas and help me make them into the final thing. And that was playful at times, and also was a lot of hard work at other times.”
Nic elaborates:
”We'd spend however long recording the guitar parts, and getting the whole take in, and then getting to the end of that and Orlando breaking out, ' can we make this sound like an organ recorded under water?' And just being like...'yeah?' ”
Orlando gives a lot of credit to his collaborators, and has obviously enjoyed the process: “All the way through I was able to throw out these rough things, and someone with the energy and patience was able to fully realise them. I mean, what an amazing opportunity.”
It was another bit of serendipity that bought Alessi's Ark into the little clan of collaborators: “I remember ages and ages ago, before this was even a twinkle in anyone's eye, our old tour manager had toured with Allessi, and played me some stuff. I'd heard this one song, and I kept coming back to it and thinking how brilliant it was and how extraordinary her voice was. And so we managed to phone Alessi, and she came down - she was incredible.”
Already an established angel of the ethereal, Alessi's vocals sit seamlessly with Orlando's new sound. Nic's going to be doing more stuff with her, and Orlando says he wants to keep Rob around. So, it seems the whole project has been fruitful for everyone involved.
And those that consume the fruits of their labour – the listener, the reader – will find it's a delightful little finished product. Right down to choosing the 'black wires' with the printer (the boys are pleased be able to tell me the industry term for staples), a lot of love has gone into it. You reap what you sow and Orlando and Nic have likewise been delighted to receive emails from all corners of the globe with pictures of people with their copy of 'Young Colossus'. Perhaps because its even happening was so unlikely.
Nic smiles and notes how nice it is to see one in real life when he spots the book in my bag as I pack up - “it was fun even getting to pop down and see the printing. It's like watching a record get pressed”.
They’re proud of it, they’re excited by it - which means you can be excited by it too. What started as a microphone in a Macbook has turned into something that is both a beautiful object and a very touching album. Chance provided the opportunity, and the effort of everyone involved has created something special:
“It's a very lucky thing to have been able to work with the people I've worked with, and to have made something that's just a really nice thing to have. I think, if I wasn't involved in it, I'd be interested in it – that's all you can do.”
Young Colossus is out now. Digital copies are available to purchase here.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

This is the Chartered Institute of Public Relations

Like many such seedy, sinister institutions, it is housed behind a smart door, on a smart square, in a smart part of town. It is discreet.

Advertising is one way of relating to the public at large - H.G. Wells called it legitimised lying. Bill Hicks described everyone who works in advertising or marketing as 'the ruiners of all things good', and advised that they kill themselves - no joke.

As with tanks and television, the medium itself is not inherently evil: those that drive it, that set its agenda, mediate its morality. Indeed, communication(s) could be the crux of our existence as sentient beings. It can bring understanding and acceptance; it can transmit joy, hope and love. 

But adverts never ask me to think about anything beyond my own selfish needs; the television only ever tries to persuade me to purchase, never to pursue peace.

The biggest PR coup of the 20th Century was to convince the individual that solidarity is pointless. Public relations told the individual that the individual alone was important. You can't change anything until you've changed yourself, it said. And, happily, it had a plethora of products on hand to help with self-improvement. No need to think too much (certainly not about other people, who are, after all, hell), just reach into your pocket, sign on the dotted line.

Nobody deals with this line of inquiry better than Adam Curtis in his documentary Century of the Self. Watch it, and remember: don't reach into your pocket, reach into you soul...