Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Make Room! Make Room!

My piece on the hellish "rodent universes" of John Calhoun is now online at Cabinet magazine. Researching overcrowding, Calhoun built elaborate "utopias" for rats and mice, in which they enjoyed unlimited resources and freedom from disease or predation - but limited space. Once population density passed a certain point, the mouse heaven always became mouse hell, rife with violence, rape and asocial freakery. This research formed a cornerstone of the overpopulation and anti-urban doom-mongering of the 1970s - and informed fictions from Stand on Zanzibar to Soylent Green.

Here's Calhoun in one of his universes, via Wikimedia:

Monday, 15 August 2011

Shutter Island

Image from photoshoplooter.

The post-8/11 city hoves into view; it galvanises, if you will, its metal carapace dull in the late summer sunshine. In response to the riots of last week (only last week?), the government's "chief planner" has asked councils to consider easing planning regulations for metal shop shutters. Pause for a moment to reflect on what British "planning", a term that used to entail a degree of thinking ahead, has been reduced to: a measure so reactive it serves as an update to the old saying "shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted".

Reactive and, it seems to me, futile. One of the most arresting images of the looting that accompanied the riots was of metal shutters being yanked off shopfronts by dedicated teams of youths*, a sort of "unboxing ceremony" for those perhaps unable to derive regular doses of fulfilment from consumer technology. Of course shopkeepers have a right to not have their goods stolen, but this alteration does nothing to reduce the risk of future riots. It is little more than security theatre - allowing shopkeepers to make a feel-good purchase that will help them sleep a little easier without doing much to aid them in the event of resumed rioting.

For the neoliberals in government, it must be ideologically appealing to respond to the riots with an act of deregulation, however minor. For the rest of us, it is significant that this intervention takes place in the space between the things that are for sale and the people who want to buy or steal those things. This space is called the street - it should have other functions as well, but one of the most depressing aspects of the recent unrest was how it rammed (ramraided?) home the fact that consuming is increasingly the only thing that can be done in a street, even during a riot. This domination by commerce, and the dwindling of public space that goes with it, must be seen as one of the key causes of the riots.

Anyway, here come the shutters. My hunch is that this alteration to the rules will have most impact outside the great cities, in small towns and villages where the mob looms large only via the Mail and the Express. In most of central London, the night-time streetscape is already heavily metallised, so it's hard to see what difference will be made in those areas that actually experienced riots. The shutters are such an established aspect of East London's streets that they have prompted their own subgenre of street art. The king of the shutter artists is Ben Eine, whose giant colourful capital letters adorn scores of after-hours shopfronts in Shoreditch and Bethnal Green. They're very likeable, bright and pleasant, undeniably an improvement on unadorned (or rather tag-spattered) steel, but also deeply safe. Their jolly colours and the Smarties-cap collectability of the letters give them an infantile edge; there's something sedative about them, the aestheticisation of a hardened landscape, a harbinger of hipsterisation.

Eine's shopfront graffiti is so safe, in fact, it comes with a government endorsement - a Conservative government endorsement, no less. A year ago David Cameron presented President Obama with one of Eine's paintings as a gift. The name of the painting, spelled out in those cheery vintage shuttercaps, was "Twentyfirst Century City". The steel shutter thus emerges as the perfect symbol of the Cameronian cityscape, open for business and closed for everything else. Even then, the symbol must be carefully tuned; we wouldn't want to be too edgy. "Twentyfirst Century City" was the most appropriate text Eine could find in his studio at short notice - rejected paintings included "Monsters" and "Delinquents", which would have sent quite the wrong message.

Update: I completely missed this post with some views on shutters, which has some interesting points of view on the subject, particularly in the comments. Via Sam Jacob's Twitter feed.

* Precisely the sort of coordinated effort that has in recent days been condemned as "mindless".

Friday, 12 August 2011

Space out

My New Statesman review of "Out of This World" at the British Library, which I mentioned earlier, is now online.

Here's an idea for a science-fiction story. Humanity suffers a recurring bout of cultural amnesia. Bearers of the flame must restate the same ideas, and refute the same myths, every ten or 20 years. But, twist! This isn't some distant future but our own time. Such is the cultural Groundhog Day that afflicts science fiction. The genre contains much serious literature, and much serious literature should be considered part of the genre. The ghetto walls may be weaker than ever but the case still has to be made over and over again.

Read the rest.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Riot Thoughts

Rough, off-the-cuff, not an expert, not an eyewitness, just a Londoner, just thinking what I've been thinking.

1. "This is criminality, pure and simple" - D Cameron. Theresa May said something very similar. Criminality, maybe, but not very simple. Criminals are not the sole source of criminality. It can be manufactured in wholesale quantities by the state and applied to sections of the population who might not actually be directly involved in criminal activities. I think most of us who live in the centre of London are aware of large groups of young people who exist in a semi-criminalised state - they are essentially close to being illegal for who they are, simply because of their age, their background, how they dress, where they live and how they carry themselves, before any crime or "antisocial behaviour" is actually perpetrated. These young people face almost unimaginable restrictions on their freedom of movement. They are policed by displacement, being moved on. The fabric of the city is increasingly built to deter and exclude them - "mosquito" sonic alarms drive them out of shops and they are unwelcome in shopping centres and privatised public space like Spitalfields. ASBOs operated spatially, banning people from certain areas. Perhaps as a consequence of this displacement and exclusion, they have become ferociously territorial, and their movement is further confined by gang allegiances and nasty little "postcode wars". (Something I've touched on before: 1, 2, 3)

2. Yesterday the containment efforts failed. At around 5pm, watching the live coverage of the start of the night's violence on Mare Street, it struck me that things were kicking off in broad daylight. The disturbances on Sunday seemed opportunistic, "copycat" - people taking advantage of the overstretched police to launch a relatively minor spree of theft and destruction. On Monday, this "opportunism" had become a strategy. A daylight confrontation meant open defiance of the police, not simply taking advantage of darkness and overstretch. It was as if, all of a sudden, groups across London realised that the police could not be everywhere.

3. It looked as if the rioters were revelling in their mobility, flowing from place to place without pattern but simply because they could. It looked like a kind of sudden freedom. Call it mob rule, call it Hobbesian anarchy; condemn these robberies, the arson, the assaults on passers-by, the destruction of small businesses. All those things were disgusting. But the kids doing them were clearly dizzy with a kind of liberation. The visible breakdown of the rule of law frightened me because I benefit from the rule of law. So do most people. But this group who wanted to rip it down, who were boasting of their desire to fight with the police, who were setting fires and snatching phones - this group clearly has a different conception of what that rule means, and (whatever "community leaders " and our political class might claim) it isn't a tiny nucleus of habitual criminals.

4. People marvelled at the stupidity of people setting fire to their own neighbourhoods. And because this behaviour cannot be simply comprehended it is called "mindless", and the rioters are called "animals". Attacking your own neighbourhood by fire and attacking your own neighbours as animals are cousin impulses, in my opinion.

5. We have done our best to make these people, our neighbours, the angry ones, go away. Now more efforts will be made to get them back in their zones, and move those zones further out into the periphery, but we're only storing up more trouble for the future. After three nights of fire, and one frightening night of chaos, people are screaming for punitive policing, which can be understood. But once the situation is back under control, punitive policing is only going to store up more trouble for the future, too. How to break the cycle? I don't know. But I know that the solution will be expensive, it will take time, and it will be hard to reduce to a slogan as simple as "bring back the birch". Difficult and complicated it may be, but we are going to have to do it eventually.

6. Those who are calling for the army to be sent in have taken leave of their senses. Unless we really are going to solidify this failure, to carve it into stone, and exclude the angry ones from the citizenship altogether, to declare them to be something more than criminals: our enemies, the enemies of the state. I don't want to live in a city in a state where that happens.

7. Fortitude now; later, along with everything else that will follow these events, let's have some curiosity, a spirit of inquiry, of exploration. Something terrible has happened in our city (and may yet continue to happen). It's damnable, deplorable, heartbreaking. But it is also extraordinary, unusual, bizarre. Slamming the door on it without studying and understanding it is a dangerous and short-term tactic. Allowing yourself to feel nothing but anger, and doing nothing but lashing out ... isn't that a little mindless? It would be nice, and useful, if we could ask London "why" without already having an answer in mind.

8. Stay safe out there.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Aliens! Fetishists! Situationists! Psychopathic mice!

There's a bumper crop of stuff by me floating around in August, on a pleasingly wide array of subjects.

In this week's New Statesman (edition of 8 August) I review "Out of This World", the British Library's survey of science fiction ephemera - an exhibition well worth catching before it finishes on 25 September.

On the chunkier side, there are a hat trick of longer, thinkier essays approaching the newsstands. I'm in the first issue of new journal Transgressive Culture, published by Glyphi, reviewing Jonny Trunk's Dressing for Pleasure (FUEL), a compilation of classic fetish magazine AtomAge. I first reviewed Dressing for Pleasure last year for Icon - this is a much more in-depth look at the book, attempting to place it in a cultural context.

In issue 42 of American art quarterly Cabinet, there's an essay by me on the American ecologist John Calhoun. Calhoun was interested in the effects of overcrowding, a phenomenon he explored by building elaborate "utopias" for mice and rats. These "universes" were free of disease and predators and supplied with abundant food and water - all they lacked was space. Rodent populations inside the tanks boomed uncontrollably - and then collapsed into a vortex of rape, violence and social dysfunction. Enthusiastically taken up by the overpopulation doom-mongers of the 1960s and 1970s, Calhoun's research became the "proof" that crowded cities would mean disaster for mankind - but Calhoun's message is a little more complex than that.

More, better, utopias. Under/Current issue 06 has the theme "retro-future", a chance for me to talk about my favo world-that-never-was, Constant's New Babylon. The trouble with utopias is that they tend to be striving, efficiency-minded places. New Babylon was a reaction against that - a paradise for slackers, a world-spanning megastructure geared to wandering, idling and socialising.

And finally - Icon 099 is now on sale, featuring eight pages by me on one of the most exciting design studios in London, BERG. A conversation with BERG is like hearing a friend tell you about a brilliant concept from a science-fiction novel they just read. Only they didn't just read it, they're trying to build it. And look, here's a prototype. They're an interesting bunch, to say the least.