29 June 2014

Are you sitting comfortably?

Rest Your Stalks, by Oliver Dean. Classic sci-fi meets terrible punning in a chocolate/peanut-butter mix I find irresistible.
Senate House, London, 29th June, 2014
Walking through Senate House I saw this today and thought it interesting enough to post up a few photos of it.

Senate House looms large in the landscape of my London, a constant reminder of the historical/literary environment I live in, though normally for the Orwellian connotations it reflects onto 21st Century England. While the Ministry of Truth is the allusion most closely tied to the building, it also appeared prominently in John Wyndham's classic "cosy catastrophe" tale The Day of the Triffids serving as a refuge for some of London's horticulturally-menaced denizens.

Situated outside it today we came across a rather nice looking bench, illustrated with stylised scenes of comet and fauna-based doom by Oliver Dean. The bench is part of a program called Books about Town that is placing furniture inspired by literature around the streets of London for the summer. Ralph Steadman and Discworld regular Paul Kidby are amongst the other artists who have been commissioned to provide pieces, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of these in the coming weeks.

In the meantime I found myself with a big cheesy grin on my face when I saw Dean's bench. The cosy apocalypse has never looked more cosy.



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16 May 2014

Come in to the parlour (but not too far...)

Do we have this in common?
UpStart Poster, Dublin, 23rd February, 2011
I spent a rare weekend in Dublin last week, though the cause was work rather than fun. 

I had a client visiting from America, more specifically from California (for the two are not necessarily the same thing). This was their first time in Ireland and although they themselves had no connections to the Aul' Sod, their partner was Irish-American. They could not say exactly what the ratio of Irish-to-American was, but it was somewhat less than their grandparents fled the Famine-ravaged lands and somewhat more than their grandparents owned an Irish Setter. The connection was far enough back that they didn't know where or when it originated, but not far enough to prevent it from shaping every aspect of their sense of self-identity.

They were Irish, and that was the end of it.

I had a number of restaurants booked for the visit, not too showy but nice enough (a difficult enough task to do when you want to go a) somewhere nice that b) won't contain bankers, developers, rugby "personalities", politicians or Sindo "journalists" and c) uses cutlery), but alas my business partner thought differently. "They want corned beef and cabbage", he said, "They want to try Irish food".

"Irish food?" I asked, "You mean like the chipper?"

"No, proper Irish food, like boxty. Colcannon. Corned beef. They want the full Irish experience".

"Are you sure you're not thinking of a Spice Burger," I said, "cause I'm pretty sure they don't make them anymore?"

But no, corned beef and cabbage it was, which presented a problem because I was pretty sure nobody had actually eaten that in Ireland in a hundred and fifty years. I think it would have been easier if they had asked for some braised swan and a trencher or two.

You see, Americans have a very specific idea of Ireland, one that flows around St Patty's Day and Corned beef, neither of which bare any resemblance to contemporary reality. The image they hold dear is of a devote and superstitious Catholicism, an ignorant, drunken and criminal rabble, a violent masculinity tempered by a devote and chaste femininity, all wrapped up in tales of the Wee Folk and British brutality.

In essence the picture they have of Ireland is one ripped from the lives of the poor and dispossessed, the rural refugees and the urban malcontents, the human detritus of the Irish 19th Century forced to flee their homes and determined to hold on to their sense of self in an alien world. Time has stood still for Ireland in America, 150 years later we are still viewed by them through Famine lenses.

Baudrillard likened America to a hologram, to a perfect simulation of everything that might be:
 "America is neither dream nor reality. It is a hyperreality. It is a hyperreality because it is a utopia which has behaved from the beginning as though it were already achieved. Everything here is real and pragmatic, and yet it is all the stuff of dreams too. It may be that the truth of America can only be seen by a European, since he alone will discover here the perfect simulation - that of the immanence and material transcription of all values. The Americans, for their part, have no sense of simulation. They are themselves simulation in its most developed state, but they have no language in which to describe it, since they themselves are the model, As a result, they are the ideal material for an analysis of all the possible variants of the modern world."

- Jean Baudrillard, America, pp 28-29
It would seem that contained within that hologram is a multidimensional snapshot of every culture ever absorbed in to its foundational fabric, like an insect trapped in amber, preserved for all eternity, unchanging and unmoving.

And yet when we encounter this amber snapshot of Ireland, we recoil, we pull away in disgust and reject it like the most unflattering selfie (#nofilter). We are confronted with all the worst aspects of our own cultural psyche, the drunkenness, the violence, the criminality, the superstitious ignorance and sheer buffoonery that for generations the English press and high society applied to us as damning labels. We see what for generations were public shames heaped upon us by our colonial masters now embraced by our lost children as badges of pride. We are forcibly confronted by an external sense of self that we rejected many years ago, and are frightened by the implication of its resolute preservation across subsequent generations of exiles.

What we have here are two sample groups drawn from the same original culture. One group has grown and matured, the other remains almost identical to the original. Yet it is us left behind in Ireland that have changed the most, that have evolved and matured - but we have done so only in the space of the last sixty years, for would the Ireland of the 1950s really have been as alien a landscape to the amber-preserved Famine emigrant as that of today?

This leaves us with a difficult question, for if our culture has evolved so quickly in the last sixty years, reshaping itself beyond recognition to those who came before, does that not make us the mutation and not the control?

Is this not the true reason we reject the Irish-American and the greater Diaspora beyond, the fear that in them we are faced with a true reflection of who we are at our core and that everything we believe ourselves to be today is just a short term aberration, a mutation, a deviation from our essential essence?

At the Boxty House in Temple Bar, over coddle and corned beef, our guest asked us why there was so little fish on the menu. They wondered why as an island nation was fish not our main food. The answer, we replied, was Catholicism, that fish was associated with fasting on a Friday, that it was a food you only ate when you were forbidden from eating anything else. If you could eat meat, "real' meat, instead why would you want fish?

"But," they asked, "I thought you guys weren't really religious anymore?"

So while we no longer fast on a Friday, culturally we still reject the notions of poverty from the past. Fish was a sacrifice, and since we are no longer poor we no longer have to sacrifice and eat fish, so quick, let's start buying property like the smart ballsy people.

The Celtic Tiger and its inevitable collapse, and our recoil and revulsion when seeing our reflections in the culture of those who come back to find their roots, are two sides of the same bitter coin. We reject the past by ignoring it, by dismissing it, and by distancing ourselves as far as possible from all traces of what came before, mainly because we are afraid that what we see is actually our true essence.

Our fear is that Baudrillard's American hologram is not a simulation, but a Platonic world of forms, that Patty's Day and the fighting Irish are the Ideal, the true Ireland, and we are but the pale shadow cast upon the wall. We have spent the last sixty years trying to shake free from that image, but what if that is actually our true essence and what we cloak ourselves in now is the simulation?

See, if we'd stuck with my original choices, or even gone to the chipper in a futile quest for a Spice Burger, I wouldn't have faced this existential crisis of cultural identity.

Yet another reason why I'm a vegetarian.

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15 May 2014

It would be so nice

Transitioning from one place to another, deep underground. Possibly a metaphor.
Tufnell Park Tube Station, London, 26th April, 2014
This week or, more technically, these last two days, I have mostly been... on holiday.

This is not something that occurs that frequently. In fact, it has certainly not occurred this calendar year and while in theory I was not working for a few days over Christmas, the hilarious cavalcade of family dramas that took place during what other folks laughingly call "The Festive Period" mean that I cannot in all conscience say I was taking a break.

I find myself in the eye of a storm, a brief moment where everything related to work that I had to do by a specific time has in fact been done, and the next batch of "Must-do-by-yesterdays" won't actually start until Monday. So finding myself in a somewhat unexpected lull I have decided to take a few days off and try and remember what it is that one does when one isn't working.

For me, that seems to mostly involve staring blankly at a wall as I really am badly out of practice, but with a few days left to go before it all starts again I may just try and write a catch-up post or two.

There may even be moralising.

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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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