20 April 2014

Go on, go on, go on, go on.

The good china, and a daecent cup of Barry's Green Label.
Embassy of Ireland, London, 9th April, 2014
I was at an event in the Embassy of Ireland in London a few weeks ago at which we were all given lapel pins to wear with the Tricolour and the Union flag standing side-by-side. "Marvellous," said one attendee, "to see how far we all have come that our flegs can be proudly displayed abreast in a manner impossible just a few short years ago".

Or last year, apparently, depending on where exactly those flegs were to be displayed.

While no doubt the historic rifts between our two great countries had indeed been closed once and for all through the simple manufacture of die-struck metal enamelled trinkets by the good burghers of Kunshan in Jiangsu Province, the act of wearing one made me rather uncomfortable, for the displaying of any nationalistic symbol as an element of male couture has deeply unhealthy connotations for me.

Living in the US in the aftermath of 9/11, the lapel pin was one of the most obvious forms of the "my-country-right-or-wrong" mentality that infected the nation, stifled dissent and ultimately midwifed the birth of our current era of unlimited surveillance, detention, torture and assassination (the other being the star-spangled onesie and cowboy hat wearing gentleman who used to stand on the back of his pick-up truck in downtown New Haven, Connecticut on a Saturday morning frenetically waving Old Glory as the melodic bars of God Bless The USA blared from his overclocked speakers, a one-man Pro-War rally whose approach to debate was to crank his flag-waving up to eleven with a missionary zeal not seen since Unkie Dave discovered Ben and Jerry's Oatmeal Cookie Chunk and wrote his Second Letter to the Coeliacs, but I digress...), the visible symbol that proclaimed to all and sundry that you were a proud member of the "Homeland" club and would happily waterboard anyone who dared to dispute your god-given right to their oil. I mean Freedom.

When Barack Obama first ran for President, he initially rejected the Hawkish overtones of the pin and chose to wear his patriotism on the inside (presumably through novelty underwear). This stance, however, lasted almost as long as his pledge to close Guantanamo, and now no image of the President in a dark sombre suit is complete without a sparkly pin to remind everyone which country he is Commander-in-Chief of (because presumably folks forget, possibly because of video games and the internets).

Seeing this overbearing token of militant nationalism imported in to our own domestic landscape which, let's face it, isn't short of its own overbearing tokens of militant nationalism, was not something that I was especially happy to see. I am uncomfortable with any of the trappings of nationalism, from the singing of anthems at sporting events to the hollow urgings of politicians to forgive their incompetence, hold silent on any criticisms and to "put on the Green jerseys" in the spirit of a false national solidarity.

As Samuel Johnson said (though sadly probably not entirely what he meant) appeals to patriotism are the last refuge of a scoundrel and, like our good friend and his interpretative colour guard in New Haven, it would seem that those who wave the fleg the hardest are usually those with the narrowest definition of who gets to stand under it.

Luckily for them then that they don't have to save any room for me.

Still, my discomfort didn't stop me from accepting An Cúpan or two in the harp-emblazoned State china, the good stuff the mammy only brings out for special visitors or at funerals and normally keeps locked away behind glass in the display cabinet we were all told not to play near as children.

One should never let one's proletarian internationalism get in the way of a good cup of tae.

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31 March 2014

Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long

On a clear day you can see forever. On a cloudy day you can still see pretty far, which is nice.
Primrose Hill, London, 30th March, 2014
Sunday afternoon. London. 19C. Went for a walk up through Regent's Park and on up Primrose Hill. From the top of the hill you have possibly the best view in London, the whole of the City spread out before you. The BT Tower. The London Eye. The Gherkin. The Shard. The hill, like the park below it, was packed with people. Families, friends, children and couples, all out enjoying the best day of the year so far.

Sunday night. Dublin. Considerably colder. At around 11pm a car bomb exploded in my neighbourhood. Outside the Meath Hospital, a man attached a pipebomb to a SUV, and it detonated prematurely. He fled the scene, bleeding and badly injured, and managed to flag down a taxi outside a nearby pub. A number of houses were badly damaged, houses in which people were bedding down, their week over and another one about to begin.

In the year so far, the Army bomb disposal team have been called out 34 times, dealing with 15 "viable devices", almost all related to gang-wars between the rump IRA and other drug gangs.

For almost two months now, the country has been rocked by a series of revelations concerning An Garda Siochana. What began with allegations of police collusion with criminal gangs and the bugging of the Garda Ombudsman by "rogue elements" within the Gardai culminated in the resignation of the Garda Commissioner over his labelling of whistleblowers as "disgusting". Less than twenty-four hours later came the revelation that many police stations had been routinely recording all phone calls in to and out of the station, including confidential calls between prisoners and their solicitors, an illegal practice carried out for many years and only ended in the last few months, a practice that it would appear senior members of the Gardai and Justice department were well aware of, a practice that threatens to overturn an untold number of criminal cases.

This is Ireland in the 21st Century. A country where car bombs are used with impunity by criminal gangs. A country where those gangs are actively supported by the very police whose duty it is to protect the citizenry from them. A country where those who shine a light in these dark places are condemned by the Government for daring to stand up and do so. A country where the rights of the innocent are trampled by the organs of the State and in the ensuing chaos the guilty will walk free. A country so mired in the sickening molasses of corruption that even those untouched by it will fight tooth and nail to prevent any investigation of it lest one single moment of truth brings the whole fetid pile of rotting filth collapsing down and suffocating us all with the weight of our national misdeeds.

Sunday afternoon. London. 19C on Primrose Hill. I sit on the grass as the children run with arms flailing wildly down the hill. Folks throw a frisbee back and forth as a dog leaps up to try and snatch it from the air. A dozen languages chatter unknown around me, but the sound of laughter is universal.

I'm three hundred miles from Dublin and right now that feels just about right.

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17 March 2014

She says, "what?"

Appearing through seven layers of irony, Ed Snowden knows everything at SXSW
Austin Convention Center, Austin, Texas, 10th March, 2014
This week I have mostly been… in Texas.

I have passed through Texas before, sojourning for a few hours at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, wondering if I would be arrested, deported and water-boarded for enquiring as to whether or not there was a vegetarian option at the local Steak N’Death food franchise, but this time I actually ventured further beyond the relative safety of the transit lounge and in to the carry-and-conceal utopia that is the Lone Star State.

The purpose of my visit, the South by Southwest Music, Interactive and Film Conferences and Festivals in Austin, Texas, or SXSW for short (confusingly pronounced as “South by”, by folks too busy to be using words and things). In the Really Real World, I run a tech start-up, and in the Really Real World SXSW is where tech start-ups go when they want to be as far away from the Really Real World and as close to their own duodenum as it is possible to go without undertaking complex surgery.

If you imagine the tech world as a giant inflating Celtic Tiger property bubble, then SXSW is Brendan O’Connor telling you that all the smart, ballsy guys are are out buying like there’s no tomorrow, but with more beer. In fact alcohol is almost as all-encompassing as the cheerful techno-libertarian “let’s all move to an unregulated artificial off-shore floating paradise” optimism, with the former possibly being more-than-somewhat responsible for the latter. 

The conference itself is housed in a large downtown convention centre and a few satellite locations, but the bulk of the activities are distributed throughout the city in venues commandeered by tech companies, music labels and assorted “value-adders” all running their own promotional events, and by promotional events I mean “free-beer-and-Jay-Z” that would leave shareholders in any other industry scratching themselves and asking, “remind me again what this has to do with that thing that we do, make and/or sell?”. Throughout the week I managed to miss DJ Shadow, Chromeo, Childish Gambino and a host of WARP acts that appeared mere hours after I boarded a plane to come home, all of whom were there to promote something or other, possibly cats.

Well you'd be pretty grumpy too if someone dangled you out a window to a braying horde below
6th Street, Austin, Texas, 10th March, 2014
Speaking of cats, I did actually manage to see one, dangled out of a third floor window Michael Jackson-style, and boy was he grumpy (it’s an internet meme, look it up). Success Kid (or rather, Success Toddler as he is now) was also somewhere in the vicinity, though thankfully his parents thought better of dangling him out a window, though apparently they were just dandy with renting him out by the hour to a local hotel.

One fellow whom I did manage to see, albeit via video conference and seven proxies, was Ed Snowden, looming magisterially above me on a giant screen urging us all on in our two minute hate from an undisclosed location in Eurasia (whom apparently we have always been at war with, as evidenced by all the once and future shenanigans in Crimea). This was, in fact, the totality of talks that I made it along to, as I was working pretty much solidly for the entire time I was there.

With that in mind, my impression of it all may be a little skewed. My awareness of SXSW has always been that it was little more than Spring Break for the tech industry, an alcohol-fuelled frat party for the very worst excesses of the brogrammer culture, and I have to say that what I saw did little to dissuade me of that notion. Our industry is insular and self-policing, where sociopathic behaviours that would never be tolerated anywhere outside of Stanley Milgram’s basement are celebrated as the loveable quirks of unicorn-riding black swans, and SXSW is the ‘Play Hard’ reward for all the ‘Work Hard’ expectations that in normal countries would see management up in front of employment tribunals, but in the US propels them on to the cover of Time.

Misogyny in the tech industry? What misogyny?
Austin Convention Center, Austin, Texas, 9th March, 2014
Before I went, I always pictured it as being a tad “Masque of the Red Death”, but after being there for the week it all came across more like a giant game of shuffleboard on the B ship of the Golgafrincham Ark Fleet. Never have so many been so irrelevant to so many more, and not had the faintest understanding of it all.

As for me, well I was just there for the MeowMeowBeenz.

(And remember folks, a happy Three is a future Four)

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04 March 2014

Signs, sign, everywhere a sign

Clet Abraham lining out on the River Seine
Pont d'Arcole, Paris, 8th February, 2014
I had a meeting in a London office building yesterday and was greeted in the lobby by a David Mach sculpture of an astronaut. Mach makes rather impressive giant sculptures from coat hangers, and was the subject of an amazing show in Galway back in 2012. The astronaut, I was informed, normally rises up and down the inside of the building, but yesterday must have been a bit worse for wear celebrating the triumph of Gravity at the Oscars the night before, for sadly he was completely stationary, even when I threatened to throw George Clooney's frozen corpse at him.

The piece was commissioned by the firm that built the building, and while I was pleasantly surprised to see it, I was also saddened by the fact that it existed purely as decoration, part of the building fit out like the choice of carpet or the style of taps in the bathrooms.

Getting locked on Great Ormond Street.
Great Ormond Street, London, 4th March, 2014
As recent readers may have noticed, I've been struggling lately to reconcile my understanding of art as a means of communication between the artist and viewer, and the reality of its place as a commodity or lifestyle accessory for the capitalist elite. Walking through the galleries of London and Paris and being forced to accept the role that that wealth has played in being the ultimate arbiter of what society considers to be 'good art', I've been left asking myself to what degree does the commodification of communication render its message void?

Can a piece still speak to me when it has been relegated to, or created solely to be, the wallpaper of the 1%?

Queen Square gets the snip.
Queen Square, London, 4th March, 2014
I was thinking about this last night as The Very Understanding Girlfriend and I took a walk through the evening streets of London. We came across a few more pieces of street art by Clet Abraham, a French artist based in Florence. Abraham alters street signs, toying with the basic geometric shapes by pasting over his own modified designs that are simple, yet playful.

Since we first saw one back in January, we've noticed them all over the city, and even came across one in Paris last month (though no doubt there were many more we walked by obliviously). They never prevent the sign from carrying out its function and are often passed by the hurrying hordes who rarely stop to look up at the world that surrounds them, but standing back and watching the reaction of those who do notice I have never failed to see a smile on their lit up faces.

Fighting the power in Covent Garden.
Endell Street, London, 2nd March, 2014
If the purpose of art is to act as a medium for the artist to communicate, then surely the wider the communication the more effective that communication has been? How can a piece locked away in a vault or hanging lifelessly in a plutocrat's penthouse be considered art if its message never reaches beyond the eyes of the oligarch who possesses it? Does the act of possession itself reduce art to mere possession, with no more merit than a display of books on a coffee table intended to give visitors a false sense of one's cultural vigour?

If Abraham's intent is to bring joy to the hearts of all who see his work and then everyday thousands see his pieces on city streets across Europe with a smile on their faces without ever even knowing his name, is that not a greater validation of their classification as art than a trophy installation in an office lobby ignored by the grey suits that pass by in smartphone-chattering isolation?

Clet Abraham really loves his lines.
Glasshouse Street, London, 25th January, 2014
I'm not suggesting that these questions are original or new, just new to Unkie Dave. There are many things that are difficult to reconcile with one's strongly held beliefs, but the implications of art as capital are becoming harder for me to ignore.

Which is sad, because sometimes I just want to sit and look at the pretty pictures without the moralising voices in my head putting on their best Captain Buzzkill hats.

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23 February 2014

Thrice toss these oaken ashes in the air

Triptychs on the Green Building by Danleo, Friz and Danleo (again)
Crow Street, Dublin, 6th June, 2013,  3rd January, 2013 and 23rd February 2014
Walking through the streets of Dublin, you can hardly miss the still-numerous boarded up and vacant buildings. While most belong to new developments, built as tax write-offs during the Tiger years to house office workers that didn't exist and never having their lintel crossed by someone unadorned with a yellow hard-hat, some are sad remnants of our historical past (like the original frontage of Thomas Reads on Parliament Street, once proudly proclaimed as "Dublin's oldest shop" and now left to rot as pub empire that took its name collapsed in upon itself), and others equally sad from more recent times.

The Green Building in Temple Bar was unveiled in 1994, the first major attempt to make a sustainable city building in Ireland. With solar panels, wind generation and a bore-hole heat pump, the building was a remarkable achievement, with as much attention paid to the artistic flourishes that adorned both the outside and in as to the environmental concerns that drove its construction. There's a great interview from 2011 with Bernard Gilna who was the project architect during the the building's construction here (.mp3 download link), but for many years large parts of the building have been largely vacant, particularly the ground floor and basement retail areas. These parts of the building have been up for sale for many years now, a boarded up and blighted hole where once stood a beacon of green possibilities.

However for the last few years the folks at Evolve Urban Art have used these hoardings as one of the largest urban canvases for street art in the city, with the Temple Lane side of the building frequently playing host to pieces for First Fortnight, the mental health awareness festival that happens each year in early January, and the Crow Street side, opposite the street art supply shop All City, has played host to a number of wilder triptychs from artists such as Danleo, Friz and Marcamix, three artists known for the bold vivid colours and designs they use.

It may not be to everyone's taste, but there is no denying the positive visual impact this burst of light and colour has on what would otherwise be yet another yellowing broken tooth in the maw of the now enfeeble Tiger.

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19 February 2014

There are thieves in the temple tonight

I sat at these machines for twenty minutes and not once was I comped a drink.
Sacré-Cœur, Montmarte, Paris, 9th February, 2014
I am not a religious man, as more observant readers may have noticed. I am, however, a fully qualified if not actually licensed Theologian, and so I have an excuse for finding myself, on occasion, in assorted religious and/or decidedly non-secular environments. I view these experiences like a field trip, as a zoologist might upon visiting a zoo, or an anthropologist stumbling upon Copper Face Jacks of a Friday night, an opportunity to observe the objects of one's study in a captive environment, albeit one with the artificiality brought on by the presence of bars, bars, or um, bars in the cage, alcohol, and prevention of women from performing a meaningful or significant role in the ecclesiastical hierarchy sense of the words, respectively.

On our recent sojourn in Paris, we stopped briefly in Sacré-Cœur, more formally The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, the large Catholic Church perched high atop Montmarte with possible the best view of the city below to be found. Officially consecrated shortly after the end of the First World War, the Cathedral is undeniably an impressive building, the interior of its dome particularly so. It is noteworthy for having the consecrated host (for Catholics the literal body of Jesus through the miracle of transubstantiation) on display continuously since 1885 (though presumably not the same host, I imagine they get a new fresh Jesus every day).

While wandering around the cathedral, my eye was drawn (as if by guided by the secular equivalent of a divine hand) to the large array of vending machines scattered at key points throughout the building. At first I thought they were automated purveyors of miraculous medals, the not-quite-sanctioned magical tokens of faith that some folks wear to grant them special intercession by the Virgin Mary, and like holy wells and moving statues are for me a sign that the practice of Catholicism is not now, and never has been, that far away from witchdoctors and shamen if the actions of its most adherent faithful are anything to go by.

I was, however, mistaken, for these machines had no mystical offering, rather they supplied a non-miraculous souvenir medallion of your trip to the Cathedral, available in one of four unique coin-shaped forms, emblazoned with images of the Basilica or of the Son of God himself, a simple keepsake to remind one of this special occasion, yours for the bargain price of a single €2 coin (or equivalent in a combination of lesser denominations). The machines were quite simple, one simply put in the money at the top, which was then exchanged for a souvenir coin that you retrieved from a slot at the bottom.

Your coins of one type were conveniently changed for a church-sanctioned coin of another type, within the permanent sight of the literal body of Jesus Christ in the form of the consecrated host (on display since 1885).

Now I'm not a religious man (I may have mentioned this before), but there's a part of me that wonders if Jesus would have been so hot on the idea of Church-sanctioned money-changing going on in front of him. If only there was a way we could ascertain his feelings on the matter.

Oh wait, there is. It's called the Bible.
12. Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written,‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” - Mathew 21:12-13 (NRSV)
See, this is basically my problem with folks who wear their Christianity on their sleeve, and then rub that sleeve in your face while trying to deny anyone who basically isn't the same as them what the rest of us would consider to be pretty basic human rights, like control over their own body or the ability to love whomever they want.

None of them seem to have actually ever read the Bible, or if they have, they didn't really understand some of the basics.

If they can't get simple things like "no money-changing in the Temple" right, why on Earth should I listen to them about marriage or reproductive rights?

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10 February 2014

Another day in the life of Unkie Dave (or London to Paris in 231 minutes)

This weekend I have mostly been... in Paris.

The Very Understanding Girlfriend and I popped over on Friday, and given that the Eurostar train leaves from St Pancras International, a twelve minute walk from our house, we had the joy of walking to Paris, aided by a bit of locomotion for the difficult under-the-Englsh-Channel bit.

So, in a challange shamelessly stolen from Top Gear I decided to race myself, to see which was faster, travel by train to Paris or by plane to Dublin. Now, the distance from our flat in London to our house in Dublin is 287 miles as the crow flies. The distance from our flat to our initial destination pour le déjeuner, the rather tasty if shockingly expensive (even by Dublin standards) Le Potager du Marais near the Centre Georges Pompidou, is 214 miles à vol d'oiseau.

St Pancras International Train Station, 07:54 GMT. Travel time elapsed: 12mins
Kings Cross, London, 7th February, 2014
St Pancras International Train Station, 08:11 GMT. Travel time elapsed: 29mins
Kings Cross, London, 7th February, 2014
All aboard the Eurostar, 08:31 GMT. Travel time elapsed: 49mins
Kings Cross, London, 7th February, 2014
La campagne! 11:21 CET. Travel time elapsed: 2hr 39mins
Somewhere in the French countryside, France, 7th February, 2014
Paris Gare du Nord station, 11:54 CET. Travel time elapsed: 3hr 12mins
Rue de Maubeuge, Paris, 7th February, 2014
Paris Gare du Nord station, 11:57 CET. Travel time elapsed: 3hr 15mins
Rue de Maubeuge, Paris, 7th February, 2014
Étienne Marcel Metro station, 4th Line, 12:16 CET. Travel time elapsed: 3hr 34mins
underneath rue Turbigo, Paris, 7th February, 2014
Notre destination, Le Potager du Marais, 12:33 CET. Travel time elapsed: 3hr 51mins
rue Rambuteau, Paris, 7th February, 2014
L'OmNomNom, 12:57 CET. Travel time elapsed: 4hr 15mins
Le Potager du Marais, rue Rambuteau, Paris, 7th February, 2014

In a somewhat surprising turn of events we have a dead heat. While our arrival at the restaurant took only 231 minutes from London, the menu took a bit of navigating thanks to overwhelming delicious choice and my stubborn insistence on ordering in French even though the waiter and fellow diners were wincing in agony and reaching for the phone to call the gendarmes and report the brutal murder taking place. So 24 minutes later I was tucking in to L'Aubergine Surprise, and Robert Stephenson was crying in his tasse de thé at what might have been.

So, London to OmNomNom in Paris took exactly the same length of time as London to Dublin, but the reward at the end was so much tastier.

Sorry for the foodie pic, I offer it purely for the purposes of scientific verification.


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