Open City is three years old. In many ways it feels older. Steadily gaining ground as a modern classic, Teju Cole’s debut novel has proven itself to be far more than your stock tale of immigration – the poignant, if slightly exhausted, account of idiosyncrasies emerging from a clash in cultures. It is a novel applicable to anyone living in a modern metropolis, navigating the streets at the same time as their own psychology. A story about social anxiety, mothers, birds (of the avian, as opposed to colloquial, variety), parties, friends, buildings, feelings and yes, to some extent, the loss of confidence when living apart from your family and the place where you grew up. It’s an exercise in dislocation. A slow and steady walk through the world’s most famous metropolis - once the bastion of civilisation, now a worn and weather-beaten relic, still full of life but deeply flawed.
Cole himself is a photographer, sometime novelist and the author of a much loved Twitter account. He took a break from the latter after crowd sourcing first-person pictures of people watching the World Cup Final and mounting them here. He’s a regular contributor to The New Yorker, writer in residence at the Bard College and when he’s not doing all that he’s usually travelling the world giving talks. It was during one such visit, ostensibly to promote his second novel Every Day is for the Thief, (which reads as a reflection to Open City in its account of a young man living in New York and returning for a short trip to his native Nigeria), that we met last week.
In between juggling all of these different projects, what are you writing at the moment?
Teju Cole: I’m writing a non-fiction book about Lagos that includes interviews with people. I wanted to write a book that set out to give you an idea of what everyday life in the city is like. Because Everyday is for the Thief is fictional and also written from the perspective of somebody who doesn’t live there. And also include memoir of me living there. I left when I was seventeen.
Nigerian culture is suddenly very hip. Do you think that’s a good thing?
TC: I always come to this with the view that Nigeria is the size of France with 122 million people and I believe that by rights, a country that large should have a voice on the world stage. The population of America is perhaps twice that of Nigeria, and we certainly hear a lot from them. Why? They’re no more important as people. There are fewer French people than Nigerians. Fewer British people and we hear a lot from them too. In that sense I have a very straight forward approach to rights and equality, which is: every Nigerian person should be as important as any other person.
But can that be equality really be achieved through cultural appropriation?
TC: Well I don’t exactly love that stuff, but it’s almost like we have to pass through that phase. Like India has always been appropriated but over the past few decades a lot of Indian voices have also asserted themselves on the international scene. The doors might have been opened through appropriation, but now a lot of Indian people do what they want without reference to American or British interests.
Do you think you were able to assert your voice because you had experience of living both in Nigeria and America?
TC: I certainly think it helps that neither of those cultures are strange to me now.
Do you see Every Day is for the Thief as a sister text to Open City?
TC: I think they’re very related in quite peculiar ways. The narratives are similar with enough in common for you to know that they came from the same writer. And they’re both maddeningly connected to me in some way, which makes it very easy for people to assume that my narrator is all me. Or at least very close to the person I am. People are often surprised to find that I am quite extroverted.
Is that because your narrators are usually quite elusive?
TC: That’s right. They’re quite introverted. They give a general vibe of, ‘Oh I’m interested in many things but I can’t be bothered.’ Now I’m interested in many things but I do get engaged and it surprises me that people think I’m this serious, introverted person. I wrote a piece only yesterday which, might I say, is pretty fucking hilarious.
You’re more active on social media than a lot of novelists. Do you get people following you on Twitter who have never read the books and vice versa?
TC: Yes, there can be a lot of separation between audiences. Sometimes people tweet at me saying, “You have a way with words, you should write a book.” I also encounter people who see this serious, intellectual side in my books and then they come to Twitter and are thinking, ‘who’s this frivolous jerk?’
I think a lot of people like their literary figures to be unreachable, especially in the US, which by being on Twitter I’m not. Commenting on current affairs is not something novelists really do in the US. A novelist isn’t going to write an op-ed about Isis or drone warfare for the New York Times. Which is strange, because anywhere else in the world, a novelist is someone who also has a column in a national newspaper.
Bret Easton Ellis and Irvine Welsh both push the envelope more than me on social media. Except that Irvine Welsh has a lot of British followers that are more accommodating to ‘bad behaviour’, whereas Americans are more puritanical. They’re very keen for people to be inoffensive.
I think British culture is going that way too…
TC: There’s very good reason for political correctness and not using language to denigrate people but then there’s a line that gets crossed where we govern people’s free speech. Let adults be assholes if they want to be, it’s not illegal.
Did you anticipate the huge response that Open City attracted?
TC: No, [laughs] absolutely not. It was experimental from the beginning. I sent it over to a dear friend who doesn’t bullshit me – ‘Oh it’s very good, all the words are spelled correctly’ you know – and she wrote back saying, “you really wrote the book you wanted to write, you didn’t hold back and you didn’t make any concessions.” Which was encouraging but scary. I was like, ‘shit’ she’s told me I’ve written this thing that is way out there. I knew the chances of even getting an agent, getting published and being reviewed were near to impossible, but being as widely reviewed as it was? Not a chance. It was a series of unlikely hoops. I know my work has quality but a sequence of good fortune led to a weird book like this getting reviewed everywhere. Somehow out of the pile of books to be reviewed at the New Yorker, James Wood pulled mine out of the pile and gave it four pages. A few weeks after it had been reviewed, that covered four pages no less, it got reviewed everywhere.
It felt like it came at exactly the right time. The narrative of development – here’s New York, the most civilised place on Earth that the rest of you, especially African countries should aspire to, culturally and economically – was shown in many ways throughout the 00s to be something of an illusion. Certainly following the economic crash. In that way the book seems to fit with the mood of the late 00’s and early 10’s.
TC: There was a sense of mourning. A lot of people had very complicated feelings about the wars America got involved in too. There was a sense of grief and one of the most gratifying things aboutOpen City was how much New Yorkers embraced it. I think it helped them slow down in their own city.
Birds play a big part in the book and elsewhere in your journalism. Why is that?
TC: I like them because they represent other life. About a year ago I did an event with Vijay Iyer, one of America’s leading jazz musicians and Himanshu Suri, the rapper from Das Racist. Iyer and I did a suite called Open City, ten parts that he and I built around all the bird passages in the book and I did readings in between. It opens with geese then sparrows looking for a place to eat, starlings forming a vast cloud. There’s one moment with a hawk and then the final passage with the wrens, smashing into the Statue of Liberty.
I’m interested in birds as a different form of life which has as little understanding of what it’s about as we do, and the fact that they’re aerial, so have a different point of view.
The urban village. A Jane Austen vision of pastoral Britain complete with farmers’ markets and bunting projected on to high streets up and down the country. Oblivious to the green beacon of the job centre; impervious to the homeless man asleep in the shop doorway; pro-bike, anti-lorry; in short, a regression. A total refusal on behalf of those involved to accept the functional requirements of cities under the duress of population growth. I could go on, citing the relationship between this and our present housing crisis, yet that very fact – that all I can think to do in reaction to a system that is severely stifling all of our future prospects – is more relevant to my purposes in writing this.
We are without question the most reasonable young people to have existed since the 1950s. The irresponsibility of previous generations has landed us in a reality whose confines are oppressively small. We understand the economic circumstances that led to our being collectively adrift, tossed eternally between bent landlords and zero-hours contractors. We read the papers, looked to Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy and counted our losses. It is not political apathy that we are suffering from (as so many self-proclaimed social commentators like to accuse), but the opposite. If anything, we are suffering from an all too academic reading of the world. After all, we’re the generation whose parents bought in to Tony Blair’s ‘Education, Education, Education’ reforms; who paid £20,000 to bat hypothetical ideas around for three years and wound up in a knot of rhetoric: debating, tweeting, op-eding ourselves into oblivion, without any thought for how it could affect real world change.
Plenty has been written about the protracted adolescence of today’s twenty and – as time goes by – thirty-year-olds – the effect of financial incapacity preventing us from acting out and the detrimental impact, perhaps, of too mucheducation. What’s less well documented, however, is the way in which our collective psychological framework has been irrevocably altered at the hands of contemporary advertising techniques.
I’m talking about Spotify’s Jack Whitehall soundalikes, interrupting the Young Thug mixtape every five minutes with a, “Hello mate, have you heard about the new Kopparberg-sponsored burrito van opening up on South Bank?” I’m talking about the meme-inspired phone company billboard campaigns; the Clean Bandit-sounding jingles on ads for internet dating apps and the handwritten scrawl on the rustic packaging of your tampons. I’m talking about every single blackboard resting outside of one-time gnarly boozers, emblazoned with cheese puns and references to the Great British Bake Off. These brands, services and everything in between are swaddling us in the patchwork comfort of a new consumerism, one that’s warm, reassuring and unintimidating. Gone is the religion of the Nike logo, the heady addiction to Macdonald’s burger relish and Eva Herzigová’s cleavage. Label shaming and cutthroat capitalism has been suffocated in the fleshly, nurturing bosom of Kirsty Allsopp advertising. And yet, our spending habits continue apace.
Having completed that liberal arts degree you never found any use for, you’ll know that in 1999 Naomi Klein wrote a seminal text on the contemporary advertising climate, No Logo. I’ll spare you the first-year lecture, but suffice to say its global phenomenon was down to the fact that it pointed to something that had otherwise been ignored: namely, that advertisers were using all kinds of manipulative ploys to appeal to a youth market, breeding anxiety to be ‘cool’ and whipping everyone into a consumer craze.
These tactics involved doggedly trying to court black people, jumping aboard protests like the AIDS movement and, finally, trying to seem playful in the shape of, say, Diesel’s ‘Be Stupid’ ads. For a time, it worked: kids begging their parents to buy them FCUK T-shirts; teenagers sticking it to the stuffy ways of old by throwing on a pair of Levi’s Twisted jeans. Yet over time, consumers grew cynical to these acts of apparent self-rebellion, wised up to the double play of irony, the advertising ploys behind the so-called ‘non-advertising’, and eventually brands were forced to change tack.
Cue the arrival of ‘candid’ advertising. Tesco ads comparing products with nothing but a ‘ping’ and Graham Norton’s quaint Irish accent telling us that the supermarket offers cheaper products than it competitors. Simple. No grandiose ideas needed. Except, of course it was always advertising and we’d simply arrived at a point of apparent simplicity concealing a tangled mess of psychological manoeuvring.
The fact was: an inherently manipulative industry had tried to present itself as honest and trustworthy. And it succeeded. This is where the psychological disarmament begins to take root. With advertisers concealing their motives so well, we were left more exposed to them than ever before. At the same time, the industries that had always existed to counter the corporate machine – namely, independent music and publishing – were beginning to falter due to the recession. Beacons of anti-corporate messaging flickered to little more than a burning ember in the economic typhoon of 2008 and they have yet to be reignited. Struggling to survive, magazines and record labels were at the mercy of big brands and gave their best journalists and musicians over to promoting the latest products. Aspiring journalists went from reporting on regional subcultures to writing thinly veiled PR material for trainers.
“An ad that pretends to be art is – at absolute best – like somebody who smiles warmly at you only because he wants something from you.” Wrote David Foster Wallace in his 1997 essay, ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again’, unwittingly describing every one of the bunting-choked high street window displays up and down the country in 2014.
“This is dishonest,” he goes on, “but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defences even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.”
When I hear people criticising VICE and its pretenders for promoting irony or cynicism, I think back to this statement. As Foster Wallace states, cynicism is the natural reaction of sensitive people to the deeply deceitful language of contemporary advertising. Rather than being the invention of any one person or institution, cynicism really is the most obvious way of railing against the chintzy zeitgeist, and it is right that outlets exist for young people to express that.
Going back to Foster Wallace’s theory, by definition an advertorial is an ad masquerading as art. The infernal coffee shop chalkboard makes an earthy, grassroots community feeling out of spending £3.50 on coffee imported at the cost of the environment. There are only two alternatives. You either buy into it or you remain sceptical and neither leaves much room for improvement. Plump for the latter and you find yourself adrift in a world built entirely on lies.
How can I trust someone else if I can’t trust my own instincts when deciphering the line between legitimate sentiment and advertising? Who’s telling the truth and who’s courting me for their own gains? These are the questions that run deep in the psyche of young people living in close and competitive confines in cities across the western world. Rivalry between peers has always existed, yet what has always united young people is a collective resistance to clearly identifiable corporate machines. Those machines still exist of course, and still perpetuate inadequacy and insecurity, only now their parameters and mechanisms are much less easily identified.
In this paranoid frame of mind, it is impossible to act. Rebellion, protest and cultural change are borne out of belief and blind faith in a better way. The astute might drop the odd tweet acknowledging the situation. Might get their tits out for a #freethenipple Insty opportunity. If you’re really dedicated you might write a blog post, before stepping out on to your terrace and into the dim glow of your Habitat fairy light garland and rewarding yourself with a raspberry cider. And even then, how can you be sure you’re not just doing it all for self promotion? Much easier not to ask yourself those questions, much easier to wile away you time listening to the dulcet tones of Mr Spotify while the smell of burned pig fat rolls in from your friendly, neighbourhood farmers’ market.
If you speak out, who will join you? Who will trust your intentions? How to cut through the irony that we have come to rely on to conceal the fact that actually, in a world facing many imminent crises, we are paralysed? So much so that we can’t do anything besides eat pulled pork sandwiches.
While magazines depend on advertorials to survive, so their kudos diminishes and the very incentive for securing an advertorial disappears. Perhaps the phenomenon will meet its end in this way, with both sides of the advertising equation throwing in the towel and deciding to go back to the old ways. Perhaps unyielding, inhuman capitalist slogans will reign once more, and once more young people will have something to throw paint over and tear down. Perhaps we’ll never find a sustainable solution to capitalism. Perhaps capitalism that makes no attempt to conceal its intentions is the best we can hope for because at least in that climate the distinction between life and advertising can be felt. It’s not ideal, but when the alternative is a form of marketing masquerading as a piece of hand-painted earthenware on the bric-a-brac stall of a local fête, it’s got to be an improvement.
From pasties at Tom Ford, to stripped bare and beautiful at Burberry, nipples were everywhere this fashion week and, perhaps most surprisingly, audiences seemed largely nonplussed.
A model showcases a new design by Erdem’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection
Photograph: Ik Aldama / Demotix/Ik Aldama / Demotix
Christopher Kane was perhaps the boldest with his boleros sans undergarments. And there was Anna Sui with her quintessential high chintz spliced by seriously sheer fabrics. Yet it was the every day casual feel of collections showcased by Burberry – and Meadham Kirchoff’s petulant young woman – that seemed most groundbreaking. Much less a statement than a wearable look, these campaigns – several sheer chiffon dresses from Burberry, deconstructed pieces that captured a nomadic, urban adolescence at Meadham – which seemed to suggest that day-to-day nipple freedom might just be a hair’s breadth away.
Kate Moss, of course, has been spearheading her own liberated nipple campaign since the mid-1990s, wearing countless sheer dresses to showcase her iconic pair. But whether this is a look accessible to the rest of us remains questionable.
A model presents a creation from the Christopher Kane 2015 spring/summer.
Photograph: CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images
After a slew of celebrities joined the Free the Nipple campaign on social media sites, the shock value of seeing a woman’s nipples – a word derived from the Germanic term meaning “beak”, “nose” or “face” – has begun to slowly diminish. Emphasis on “slowly”. We might be close to cracking the mysteries of the universe with the Hadron collider, but don’t think we’ve reached a point of full nipple emancipation just yet. When it comes to opening up the dialogue around those sinful protrusions, unfortunately it’s still a case of slowly does it.
While showcasing nipples in a public forum goes some way to breaking down the stigma surrounding exposed nipples, it remains largely hypothetical while the market for exposed nipples is saturated by perky 32Bs.
Still, it’s a start. But as is the case with many extreme trends, we’ll have to wait a while before this catwalk trend becomes high street reality.
Since the dawn of social media we’ve been told that online presence is tantamount to success. But is this still the case? With a growing number of industries favouring experience over profile, Nathalie Olah considers whether the currency of social media still holds any value.
Navigating the transition from the platform game of institutionalised academia to real life can be one of the main challenges of your early twenties. Suddenly a whole range of skills is required beyond the tick-box of GCSEs, A-Level and urndergrad degree; not least being proficient in all forms of social media.
Often in the creative industries the number of Twitter, Tumblr or Instagram followers you have can be the deciding factor in whether or not you get the job. Don’t believe me? In my former life as an intern and following the orders of forty-something editors wearing brothel creepers, I was regularly asked to scope out talent for upcoming features and advertorials, each time with a specific request to quote social media figures. It was then that I realised just how deep the anxiety of being left behind in the social media game runs, especially to those who came of age in a time before Facebook. For the opportunists who cashed in and set up social media management companies, it was a blessing. For the rest of us it prompted a wave of anxiety around something whose benefits are very difficult to measure.
To be clear, I’m talking about the role played by social media in what broadsheets like to call ‘building a personal brand’. Assessing the real world benefits of social media to massive corporations is beyond me and potentially, even more questionable. I’m talking about those who are big online. Who’ve got a catchy twitter bio, a lulz Photobooth avatar, a couple of their own self-created memes and the occasional @ from Caroline Flack. The kind of people who get offers to work at this PR firm, write for that blog, become a spokesperson for this paper, collaborate with that brand or DJ parties for sanitary towels. From the outside, it might look like a tempting prospect, but let’s be clear: this isn’t work. This isn’t a career or something to focus your efforts on. Work is something quite different and without it, the currency of social media becomes null and void.
The Telegraph recently published an article on the phenomenon of social media careerists in which journalist Kate Palmer spoke to Lon Safko, author of TheSocial Media Bible. I haven’t read it, but I’m sure it’s thrilling. In it he explains: “Someone might be hot now, but a year from now, people will be bored and move on to the next shiny object… It’s a fad that changes often.”
You don’t need him to tell you this. Yet it’s difficult to remember this fact when presented with the easy temptation of raising your profile and cashing in on the fountain of rewards offered by vlogging. On top of which, the media is perpetuating the idea that such acts of self-promotion are ‘the future’. The precocious up-starts in the opening sequence of The Apprentice, who set up their first business aged five in their dad’s garages, are now alive and kicking on our Twitter and Vine accounts; their ambition shrouded in false modesty and the claim that they ‘simply want to entertain people’.
And for a while it will work. A bratty persona will get you so far. An ability to make people go ‘ha’ before scrolling up to the next thing, will stand you in good stead for a maximum of three years. Then people require some skills and experience. The voice of youth culture finds itself redundant at thirty when being a member of the commentariat actually requires some expertise. The irreverent and well-connected fashion designer finds himself or herself at a loss when their fan-base has grown up and is looking for things to wear to their six-figure salary job. Suddenly those wallflowers with a sub-100 following who’ve been honing their skills quietly, developing a career in the real world (remember that place?), are careering up the ladder and dominating the creative industries.
Added to which, they haven’t had to compromise their identity in the race to become, like, the most talked about person ever. Haven’t had their misguided acts of self-promotion and their various fashion mis-haps documented and saved in the annals of The Internet and not because they weren’t having as much fun as those who did. Not because they didn’t make the awkward transition from goth to streetwear warrior and aren’t rocking the * problematic * Chola look right now. The only difference is, it stayed between friends. Real friends. People they knew and could trust. In short, these people retained their credibility.
You can’t put a price on this and it’s difficult to get back. For some, being outspoken online has been essential in creating work that is groundbreaking. Alexander Fury, by taking a candid approach to fashion on Twitter, opened up a dialogue that has been genuinely liberating and informative for a lot of people. This could not have happened any other way. For others however, promotion has been an end in itself; a snarkly tone employed to write about commonly-held, PC opinions. It isn’t brave innovative, yet neither is it bad, evil or necessarily even that narcissistic. These people simply bought into a fleeting phase of acute ego monetisation in the belief that it would benefit their careers.
Not only that, but ego just doesn’t have the same kind of appeal that it once did. The faux-contrariness of these PC commentators seems vaguely ridiculous and entirely obsolete as readers and consumers get wise to it.
Instead, work is being placed above personality. Take for instance Simone Rocha, awarded Designer of the Year at the Scottish Fashion Awards last week, whose slightly elusive public persona only enhances her brand of timeless, wearable style. Or this year’s Turner Prize nominees, selected, as Tate Britain’s Director Penelope Curtis puts it, for their ability to reinterpret their work in “collaborative and social contexts” - a far cry from the autobiographical artists and the YBA’s whose work dominated British art for several few decades. Then Sia, who took a rest from writing music for Britney, Katy Perry, Beyonce and just about everyone else to drop one of the biggest songs of 2014. Despite being diagnosed with various social anxieties, it was a dedication to hard work that led her to be one of the most widely celebrated artists of the year. And Edie Campbell, the fashion world’s favourite model, a representative of The Reading Agency, a celebrated sportwoman, yet relatively unknown to the regular Daily Mail readership.
That’s not to say big personalities won’t always exist and draw attention, and that we won’t be feeling the loss of Riri’s Instagram for many more months to come. But the possibility of riding the waves on your social media surf-board forever and ever are well and truly over. We are too many and resources are tight. It’s time to learn, time to think about how we can work towards something better instead of constantly pushing our ‘personal brands’. Collective spirit will soon replace the sole voice. Leaders will be those whose work benefits the community. As resources are put under increasing strain, skills will be the deciding factor in who will thrive. Social media is a tool, a fun one that can benefit us from time to time. Treat is as such, while making a change in the real world.
The world is going to hell in a hand basket, but you were too busy reblogging old pics of Kate Moss to notice. Nathalie Olah argues it’s time to put a stop to nostalgia and turn your eyes firmly on the future instead…
When most of our lives revolve around a routine of hangovers, insufficient bus fare and two-for-one supermarket tortellini, it’s easy to see why we’d be prone to nostalgia. Thanks to the growing number of blogging, micro-blogging, video and image-sharing platforms (Instagram have just launched a new one, Hyperlapse) the culture of looking back has never been more rampant. Scroll through the feeds of fashion bloggers, stylists, designers, and everyone who follows them and all you’ll find is an endless stream of Kate Moss #TBTs.
Don’t get me wrong, I love to gawp at pictures of Kate Moss, but perhaps we are the least optimistic and most sentimental generation to have ever existed. Constantly reminiscing, not just about the 90s and the heyday of ‘Cool Britannia’ (when a band as musically challenged as Dodgy could sign a million dollar record deal) but for our own childhoods. The halcyon days when a hairstyle required a thousand bull-dog hairclips and multiple shades of mascara; when the measure of maturity wasn’t positive credit rating, but simply owning a lava lamp and you could walk out the house in a flower garland, hair in bunches and staring at everyone with bunny eyes like it wasn’t even a thing.
Like all of you (yes, all of you), I have often stared at my tax return or electricity bill hoping it would reveal to me the secrets of time travel. It never does and I end up making coffee and realising that time is hurtling ahead of us and responsibilities are piling up. But going on the number of floral slips and chokers gliding past me on a daily basis, it seems many still need to face up to this realisation. To mis-quote a writer (marginally) better known than myself: I watched the best minds of my generation destroyed by Tumblr, reblogging vintage pics of Kate Moss ad infinintum and dragging themselves through the godless streets of Instagram in blind pursuit of likes. While the world is facing some of the biggest crises in its history, the young, creative minds of the Western world are busy regramming scans ofThe Face and writing think pieces on the cultural significance of Winona Ryder in Mermaids. It has to stop. For your sake, if not just mine.
Whole websites are now dedicated to sharing pics of good looking people in the past: 90s supermodels wearing Adidas Originals; the unlikely couplings of Sarah Jessica Parker and Robert Downey Jr, Bjork and Goldie, Madonna and Tupac; pre-surgery Donatella; pre-rehab Drew Barrymore and post-Kurt Courtney Love. Images that are found and reposted to a reception of OMG’s, screen-grabbed and re-shared to a reception of more even OMG’s… and so on and so on. Why are these images shocking, funny or interesting exactly? Because SJP, Bjork, Madonna, Tupac etc. are now immovable stone relics in the pantheon of old-world celebrity and they couldn’t possibly be prone to inconsistencies of character?
Like virtual archaeologists, we are ploughing the sediment beneath us for remnants of a previous civilisation and then proudly wielding them for the entire world to see. When we post a picture of Victoria Beckham’s wedding, what we’re actually doing is saying, “Hey world, look at me. I remembered something…” and as everyone else remembers that VB wasn’t always about the clean-lines and minimal make-up, those all important likes start to roll in.
I’m not saying that posting the odd loved up pic of JT and Brit is a crime (far from it), but the trickle-down effect of fashion innovators being complicit in this kind of nostalgia is undoubtedly negative. When you follow someone, you are investing a certain amount of trust in his or her judgement. The constant barrage of nostalgia from those in authority has led to the regression of young people in their fetishisation of the VHS cam aesthetic over new technologies, for instance. Or the slew of questionable RnB and Hip Hop pretenders, from Rita Ora to Iggy Izealia. It has undoubtedly prevented the emergence of new, groundbreaking talent and potentially stunted the growth of would-be innovators.
When the clothing industry is at crisis point, when the environment is being put under unbearable strain to accommodate our need for a different style of trainer every season; when there still hasn’t been a proper reform since the 2013 Rana Plaza factory disaster and workers lives are being compromised to accommodate our fleeting trends, the fashion world hasn’t the time to be wistfully staring into the distance and praying for the heyday of Kate and Naomi to return. It should be taking more responsibility. Stylists and fashion bloggers should be using their influence to raise awareness of these issues and gathering support for initiatives seeking to improve them.
It’s time to put a stop to nostalgia, or at least minimise its influence on present trends. You don’t have to trade in your indigos and varsity T-shirts for full-length pleather and a Google Glass, this isn’t the Matrix, but by educating ourselves and reading up on the obstacles that we are all faced with, we will begin to create work that is vital and necessary. From the environment to the growing instability of relationships between nation states, it has never been more important for us to engage with our surroundings. The world might have more problems than ever before, but it is all the more interesting for that reason.
The 90s and 00s changed our culture irrevocably. There’s nothing wrong with being aware of that or even celebrating it. Knock yourself out on Shola Ama and re-runs of The Simple Life, but when it comes to work, keep your eyes fixed firmly on the future.
It’s only since dropping Grizzly Man and Into the Abyss that Werner Herzog became a staple of conversation between you and your friends. Before that, he was just the award-winning, critically acclaimed father of modern European cinema—the man who lugged a 320-ton boat over a hill in the Peruvian rainforest and cooked and ate his own shoe for a short documentary.
This month, Faber published A Guide for the Perplexed, a compendium of conversations between Herzog and the writer Paul Cronin. As a testament from one of the world’s most prolific filmmakers, it reads almost as self-help. “Get used to the bear behind you,” he tells us, ostensibly referring to the ambition and drive to create, but equally evoking images of Timothy Treadwell, a.k.a. Grizzly Man. I’m putting my neck out and saying it’s the best book I’ve read all year.
I caught up with Herzog on the phone last week, and we spoke about films, football, WrestleMania, and the loathsome trend of children’s yoga classes.
Werner Herzog at his home in Los Angeles
VICE: I’ve just finished reading A Guide for the Perplexed. Have you had a chance to read it? Werner Herzog: Yes, I did when we were looking through the entire text for corrections. We left no stone unturned.
Is it strange reading yourself back? I took a professional distance to it because I think it is unwise to stare at your own navel. Now it’s out for the readers. I’m plowing on with a lot of projects, so don’t worry about me.
What are you working on at the moment? I’m finishing Queen of the Desert, I’m preparing three feature films, and I am doing my rogue film school at the end of this week.
Can you explain a bit more about the rogue film school? I can explain it easily. For 20 to 25 years there has been a steady avalanche of young filmmakers coming at me who wanted to be my assistant, or who wanted to learn from me or be in my team. And this has grown rapidly in numbers. For example, a few years ago, when I did a conversation on stage at the Royal Albert Hall—which has something close to 3,000 seats—it was sold out in minutes. And of these 3,000 people, there were at least 2,000 who would have liked to work with me. So I tried to give a systematic answer to this onslaught. The rogue film school can happen 50 times a year or once a year. I just need a projector. I could feasibly do it in the middle of the desert.
What do you make of this younger generation of filmmakers? Kids who get in touch with me are very often around 15, 16, 17. Whatever you call this generation, I don’t know. I don’t care how you call them. One thing I find missing is the culture of reading. I mean, reading books. And this is one of the things I demand from the students at the rogue film school. There’s a mandatory reading list.
Film theory? No, no, no. That would be the last thing. Film theory will be thrown out instantly. No, it’s Roman poetry from Roman antiquity. Or Old Icelandic poetry. Or it will be a short story of Hemingway. Or the Warren Commission report on Kennedy’s assassination. All sorts of pretty wild stuff.
Can you explain what it was like entering the Chauvet Cave—home to the oldest discovered paintings in the world—while making The Cave of Forgotten Dreams? You know that you have a privilege that hardly anyone else has—that’s the first thing. Each day there are more people on the summit of Mount Everest. And the caves will probably be shut down permanently very soon. If you have a scientific project or a convincing reason, you might get a permit. But heads of states from other countries were not permitted to enter. Of course, we have to see the images as they were seen by Palaeolithic painters. There were only flickering lights, and this creates some kind of dynamic, some kind of movement. In front of one of the main panels there are sources of light—a row of fires—but they are behind the people. So they would cast their own shadows on to the walls as well. We do not know the meaning of all this; all we can say is there was a cinematic element, a movement of light and shadow.
The trailer for Cave of Forgotten Dreams
You seem to take a cynical stance on academia. Well, academia has been the death—or the near death—of poetry, and academia is beginning to invade cinema, and it tries to extinguish the flame. But it will not succeed. Whenever somebody comes with a film-theory approach to cinema I lower my head.
I take it you don’t consume much pop culture? Not very much, no. Well, I look with great interest at phenomena like WrestleMania. Or I used to watch the Anna Nicole Smith Show because there was a very strange cultural shift there. I go to the football stadium; that’s a form of popular culture.
Do you ever go back to Bavaria? Whenever I can, yes. I miss the Bavarian dialect. Being all over the world, the thing I miss most of my home country is the dialect.
Your imagination must have been able to run wild there. Did you look to figures like King Ludwig II? Sure, of course. He’s a total cultural hero for Bavarians. He’s very, very important for understanding Bavarian culture. The sorts of dreams he realized and the dream castles he built—well, you see it all the way to Disneyland. The prototype of the Disneyland castle is actually King Ludwig’s invention.
Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria. Photo via Wikimedia
A lot of your work depicts people in extreme situations; are you never fascinated by elements of the day-to-day? Well, yes, I have a very wonderful family life and I’m one of the very few men—very, very few men—who is really happily married. I find it most wonderful and most exciting. And I moved to Los Angeles because I fell in love 20 years ago.
Do you find it difficult to switch off and to stop observing people? Does your family ever just say, “Cut it out, Werner, we’re trying to eat our cereal”? [Laughs] No. I am used to movie making. Of course I know how to behave around my family—I don’t need to switch on or off.
OK, just checking. Do you find yourself funny? Well, I think there is a lot of humor in all of my films. Like I say in A Guide for the Perplexed, Paul Cronin asks me if I have anything I would like to pass on to the world, to the future generations, and I was reminded of what hotel magnate Conrad Hilton said: “When you take a shower, don’t forget to put the shower curtain inside the shower.”
Cool, I’ll remember that. In Encounters at the End of the World you seemed very concerned about the crazy penguins. Were you actually? Look, it’s a dark humor. If you look at films like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, people laugh more than in an Eddie Murphy comedy. Some of my films have a warmer humor. There’s a lot of humor in my films that people seem only to be discovering now.
How do you get the people in your documentaries to open up? I allow a lot of space to the persons with whom I talk. And I go very deep inside, very quickly. But this is very difficult to teach. For example, Into the Abyss starts with the chaplain who has to assist with the execution 30 minutes later. When I first spoke to him he spoke back like a TV preacher, phony and superficially. He had mentioned going to the golf course earlier and how the horses and squirrels and deer would look at him. So I stopped him, and I said, “Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel,” and that’s where he came apart. That’s where he unraveled and we got to see very, very deep inside his soul.
Into the Abyss has been compared a lot to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Were you conscious of the similarities when you were making it? We have to be careful because Truman Capote, in a way, exploited his subjects. I have always been very suspicious about Truman Capote, because for years and years he did not publish the book, claiming that it wasn’t finished. He just waited until both of them were actually executed, witnessed their execution, and wrote a final chapter about it. That is kind of suspicious to me. The book is very well written, although, may I say something? My film is deeper, and my film is better.
The trailer for Into the Abyss
You chose not to play the sound recording of Timothy Treadwell being killed by a bear inGrizzly Man out of respect to him… Yes.
Are there any moments in your career where you’ve regretted over-stepping the mark? Not really, no. I’m on good terms with all of my films. Even the ones in which I’m acting, like when I played a villain in Jack Reacher. I enjoy what I do. And by the way, I am the only one who is really frightening in that film.
You are pretty scary in that film. I am. I was paid handsomely and I was worth my money.
How was it working with Tom Cruise? Interesting. What I like about him is his relentless professionalism. He’s a very generous, very kind man. You do not stay at the top for so many decades if you don’t have something special about you.
Are there any actors you’d like to work with still? Yes, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G Robinson, Lillian Gish…
That might be a little tricky. [Laughs] Marilyn Monroe! No, I’ve had the privilege to work with the best of the best. Most recently Nicole Kidman, who is sensational.
Can you quickly explain to me your contempt for gyms, yoga classes, and people who exercise in public? And yoga classes for children. You name it. Let’s leave it at that. Just register that I have strong contempt for yoga classes for five-year-olds, yoga studios, and things like that.
But you’re friends with David Lynch, and he’s into transcendental meditation. Would you ever do anything like that? No. Period.
Writing about Ray Johnson on this titanium, LED-lit Macbook feels wrong. Anything inherently digital is awkwardly out of place next to the masses of ephemera the artist produced in the course of his lifetime – the paper, cardboard, tins, rocks and found objects that were so integral to his work. And sending the finished piece to my editor over email just seems lazy, contrasted with the thousands of mail artworks Johnson distributed across New York via post, either to friends or unsuspecting strangers.
Unsurprisingly, it’s this absolute separation from the mass-distributed, digitally-manipulated everything we’re sick of today that’s given his work a fresh lease of life. People tend to be more impressed with the tangible and handmade when they can’t even go for a run without an app reminding them how well they’ve done. So much so, in fact, that some recent claims by critics put Johnson in the running for most influential artist of the late-20th century.
This summer, MoMA dedicated a space to Johnson’s designs in their newly-opened research building. It’s one of the many retrospectives held since his death in 1995, but its arrival couldn’t be timelier. As one reviewer in the Summer 2014 issue of Book Forumwrote, “From our current vantage it’s not hard to acknowledge that one of the presiding spirits of early 21st century art is Ray Johnson.”
Flippant and funny, his collages, warped bunny drawings and defaced portraits of Rimbaud, James Dean and Elvis Presley have always attracted the more left-field independent publishers and street artists. Mark Gonzales, for instance – a pioneer of modern street skating, and an artist himself – discovered Johnson’s work in 2006.
Frances Beatty, Johnson’s close friend and the manager of his estate, recalled the moment The Gonz and some of his friends arrived at the studio eight years ago, requesting to see Johnson’s collages for themselves. “They really got it,” she explained to me over the phone. “They instinctively got this serendipitous collision of different elements and this incredible, interesting, fun-filled – but also dark and constantly moving – mind.” The result was a full spread of Johnson’s work in Journal, edited by Gonzales.
Ray Johnson with Michael Crane and Mary Stofflet’s Correspondence Art book, San Francisco, 1984.
Fans of Johnson’s work don’t just admire its aesthetic, but also the spirit in which he created it – avoiding the infrastructure of the traditional art world to instead distribute his works through the mail, which led him being hailed by some as the founder of the “mail art” movement. So it’s no coincidence that he’s always been championed much more fervently outside the four walls of the gallery – not that the establishment haven’t played their part in keeping Johnson’s legacy alive, of course. After all, a friend of Andy Warhol’s is a friend of the contemporary art world, and the two were friends, as least as far as their mutually idiosyncratic personalities would allow.
Warhol placed an ad in The Village Voice for an art show in Johnson’s room at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital during a period of sickness in 1964. The pair exchanged ideas, helping to evolve one another’s style, and maintained contact throughout the majority of their careers. There are clear parallels between Johnson’s collages of stars like Elvis Presley and James Dean, and Warhol’s iconic portraits of the same cultural icons. Johnson’s repeated use of brand insignia, such as the Lucky Strike logo, is also echoed in Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup, Coca-Cola and Marmite paintings. Ray even produced a series of silhouettes of Warhol, and fled New York for good following a mugging at knife point on the same day Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanes. For him, the two events transformed the city he’d lived in for decades into a place of instability and danger.
Both artists were concerned with the growing cult of consumerism – of images and logos being disseminated to the masses via fast-evolving interconnectivity. But while one sought to become an icon himself, the other obsessively explored and toyed with the emerging networks that were beginning to transform American society.
As Beatty explains, “Ray was the Yin to Warhol’s Yang. They were both interested in branding and celebrity, but Ray wasn’t trying to grab it for himself.” Instead, he functioned as a weaver of connections; not a networker, but a social network unto himself, albeit for the pre-digital age. As a constant stream of posts flood our Instagram and Tumblr feeds today, so Johnson would share images of a rapidly expanding pop culture with his own followers through his mail art. The only difference being that he had absolutely no interest in building a personal brand.
Before being labelled “New York’s most famous unknown artist”, Johnson grew up in a working class neighbourhood of Detroit, later enrolling at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. The visiting faculty during his final term at Black Mountain – an icon of 20th century American culture in itself – included John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller and Richard Lippold, many of whom starred alongside Johnson in a college production of The Ruse of Medusa.
It was here that Johnson entered into his 20-year affair with sculptor Richard Lippold, which continued after Johnson moved to New York. After reconnecting with Cunningham and Cage he also befriended many of the 60s’ leading artists, including Robert Rauschenberg and, of course, Andy Warhol. An initial flirtation with painting ended with him burning his early work in Cy Twombly’s fireplace and declaring himself a collage artist forever thereafter.
Untitled (Please Send to May), May 14, 1975, May 13, 1972
Johnson’s mail art can be traced back as early as 1958. Often inscribed with instructions such as, “please send to…”, “please add and return to…” and even, “please don’t send to…”, they formed the basis of a postal network that Johnson later formalised with the help of friends and renamed the “New York Correspondence School”. During the 1960s, Beatty told me, Johnson would also sneak into the IBM offices with the help of one their employees, a friend, to use the enormous, giant frame computers. The internet had yet to arrive – in fact, desktop computers weren’t even a thing at this point – but Johnson was already interested in the mechanisms of technology and the possibilities that would be opened up via digital networks.
In this way he represents the very best of what the internet opened up to us as a society, but which we then quickly abused in our pursuit of Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes of Fame. Had Johnson come up with an equivalent statement, it would have been far closer to the idea that, in the future, we might know each other for 15 minutes. Of course, that was never going to happen, given that Johnson continually obstructed his own root to pop-stardom, preferring to create works whose meaning was intentionally difficult to decipher.
In short, he had absolutely no ambition of being packaged neatly, distributed to the masses and launched into celebrity. So much so that, on the 13th of January, 1995, Ray Johnson dived from the pedestrian walkway of Sag Harbor bridge, leading to North Haven. A much wider bridge replaced it four years later. The tide was swelling and two teenage girls reported seeing him bob to the surface before swimming on his back into the mouth of a cove. It is here, fists clenched and crossed in front of his chest, that Johnson was found dead, 50 metres out, the next day. He had no history of depression or mental illness, no traces of drugs or alcohol in his system, tested negative for HIV and had $400,000 (£240,000) in his bank account.
Untitled (Mae West, Rum and Potato), 4.21.91, 4.16.94
“He lived very frugally,” Beatty told me. “His mattress, which looked like it was made of horse hair, was on the floor and covered with what looked like an army issue blanket. The whole house was bare bones, but still full of art.”
Beatty recalls arriving at Johnson’s house with friends following his suicide. “He had left little rocks with skull heads on them and rocks with bunny heads on them. I don’t want to say it was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [a film renowned for its bizarre set design], but his whole entire house had been transformed into a 3D work of art. He’d packed things into boxes, arranged everything on his desk and washed all the dishes. Everything was completely arranged, and I remember when I went into the basement I was looking at a snow shovel and thinking, ‘Okay, Ray, is this Duchamp or is this just a snow shove?’ Because he would have thought of that.”
Every picture had been turned to face the wall, besides a portrait of Johnson hung above his bed. In the weeks leading to his death Johnson had called every one of his friends and, as they pieced together the clues left in his wake, a preoccupation with the number 13 began to emerge – not least in the date of his death.
While many have dubbed this a final act of performance art, it’s still typically low-key. The bridge from which Johnson dived was small, unassuming. The cove in which he was later found, while pleasant, was certainly not a place you’d find in any guide books pointing you towards natural beauty spots. Had the two teenage girls not been on their way to a movie, his suicide would have passed without a witness, and all that would have remained were the clues left behind. Clues that got people talking and working together to decipher their meaning. Clues, in short, that formed a network or puzzle that brought everybody else together.
“I was speaking to Ed Ruscha about Ray,” Beatty laughs, “and he said, ‘You know, you’d be sitting there talking to him, having a conversation, and you’d turn to your left to share whatever you were talking about with somebody else, and when you turned back Ray would have vanished. You wouldn’t see him again. Once he had planted an idea, he was happy to evaporate at any given moment.”
What do you do when the news agency facilitating your fledgling journalism career is a Kremlin propaganda machine? Well, like a lot of people whose work has led them into compromising situations from time to time, Sara Firth got on with it. Averting her eyes when the channel decided to run stories about dolphins and toxic herbicide instead of reporting the deaths of 110 Ukrainians at the hands of Russian militants; trying to overlook the editorial line of Putin cover-ups and get on with reporting domestic news here in the UK without disturbing the peace.
But then a Boeing airliner was blown out of the sky last Thursday. The following day Sara resigned from her position as a correspondent for Russia Today, declaring via Twitter that she is “for the truth” – a statement that was retweeted ad infinitum as requests flooded in for her to elaborate on the exact circumstances that had led to her very public act of revolt.
Just what was the atmosphere like in the world’s most rampantly pro-Russian news agency on the day separatist militants backed by the Kremlin committed one of the most heinous crimes against humanity in recent history? I caught up with her to find out.
VICE: What happened in the Russia Today office on Thursday that prompted you to leave?
Sara Firth: Our coverage of the MH17 plane disaster was the final nudge for me; the clarifying moment. I’ve been really unhappy for a long time at RT. I just couldn’t do it any more.
It was walking in and seeing the news run-down in the hours immediately following MH17 coming down that made the decision for me. We were running an eye-witness account that made an accusation against Ukraine and we had a correspondent in the studio who was asked to produce something about a plane that had been shot down at some point in the past and had been the fault of Ukraine. I’ve been in that position myself before, where you’re asked to bring up some piece of obscure information that implies something that fits with the RT agenda. And you think well, it’s not outright lying but it has no relation to what’s happening and shouldn’t be run at a time when a story of that size is breaking. A news story that is so sensitive. It’s abhorrent and indefensible.
But surely you were aware that you were working for a pro-Kremlin news network when you took the job? Russia Today pitches itself as a channel that is going to challenge Western mainstream bias. It’s state funded. But this idea that it’s some evil genius – that we all have Putin on speed dial and we’re having meetings to discuss how to bring other governments down – isn’t true. It’s far from evil genius – it’s just massively incompetent.
Crucial information is regularly omitted from stories, and often because those in charge are not capable of identifying what makes a strong news story. They’re not interested in fact checking and creating valuable, balanced journalism. Their main agenda is that it fits the narrative. You are actively discouraged from questioning – that isn’t appreciated at all. And of course that goes on and is a million times worse in the domestic Russian media.
Is it fair to say that your feelings are shared by a large number of people working for RT? We weren’t all working towards some great conspiracy; I want to be clear about that. Many of the reporters approach the stories they are assigned with honesty in mind. The problem is, eventually you realise that no matter how hard you work, and no matter how valid these stories that you’re working on are, you’re still contributing to an overall system that is designed to push a very clear and biased narrative. There are many people within the organisation trying to change that, but I just could no longer work for a company that repeatedly disregarded the facts.
That selective reporting and distortion of facts reached dizzyingly stupid heights with the dawn of the Euromaidan protests. Their defence is always that they’re not “jumping to conclusions”, suggesting that other networks are jumping to conclusions by holding Russia responsible. That everyone is pointing fingers at Russia before the facts have been established.
Now don’t get me wrong. Being dedicated to balanced and substantiated journalism is a fantastic thing but that is not what they are doing. It’s especially bad with the breaking news stories. I mean, anyone can see that. But I have to say that when a story like MH17 broke – and to a lesser extent many other stories during my time there – my heart would sink and I’d know that my job depended on participating in what I knew to be wrong.
How does that manifest itself though? Do editors state explicitly that RT will not be mentioning certain facts? For instance, in the past year they would not assign any story relating to Ukraine to a journalist that they knew would ask tough questions. That’s the first technique. There is a clear planning strategy that outlines which stories they will not be covering and there’s a culture of not asking why.
People like me get assigned UK-based stories that have no real Russian, political agenda. So it was great that I got to cover the Yarls Wood detention centre, which gets approved by the way because it fits in with RT’s anti-British government line. When you’re covering stories like that it’s easier to push other issues to the back of your mind.
Did you see MH17 as the point of no return for Russia Today? Are you not just jumping ship to protect your own future employability? There are a few people who left quietly. I did it publicly but that’s the tip of the iceberg. RT have been haemorrhaging talented staff for a while and the turnaround is a couple of years long.
I chose to work there, I knew what I was doing and I take full responsibility for that. But look, it’s a huge organisation and it offered me some fantastic opportunities at a very young age. The one thing I will say is they take on young, determined people and give them a lot of free reign to cover under-reported stories, in a way that they wouldn’t be able to at other networks.
There are a lot of great journalists there who are fighting for the truth. The truth isn’t exclusive to certain channels – sometimes the truth can happen at RT – but the wider agenda will always find a way of fitting back into a biased narrative – an embarrassing and at times, disrespectful and dangerous narrative.
A digital rendering of the Kingdom Tower jutting out of Jeddah (Screen grab via)
At the end of last month, construction began on the world’s newest tallest building. This one-kilometre-high spike rising out of the relatively modest plains of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia will be over three times taller than the Shard and reach 180 metres higher than the world’s current tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
The Kingdom Tower – an absurdly vague title, but one that at least seems justified for a building this enormous – is a statement of national pride, an opportunity for Saudi Arabia and its Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal (one of the richest men in the Middle East, and the project’s creator) to assert its presence on the world stage. It’s also the zenith in the long line of sci-fi-inspired buildings and rapid transit systems that have come to define Gulf architecture over the past 20 years.
It’s not exactly surprising that cities throughout the Middle East look like they’ve been inspired by a less-dystopian version of the Blade Runner universe; in 2005, the film’s “futurist designer” Syd Mead visited the region and met with Bahraini royal Sheik Abdullah Hamad Khalifa to discuss building projects. And despite all its patriotic function, the Kingdom Tower is itself a work of American creation. Designed by Chicago firm Smith Gill, it’s loosely based on plans for an architectural pipe-dream of the seminal Frank Lloyd Wright: a one-mile-high tower called the Illinois. Unfortunately, planners at the site in Saudi Arabia deemed the original height too tall for the relatively unstable terrain of the Red Sea Coast.
For some, that’s not the only sense in which the Kingdom Tower is being built on shaky ground. Sophia Al-Maria – a social commentator, artist and writer, whose family originate from Saudi Arabia – sees the project as yet further proof of the way in which basic human necessities are being overlooked in the race between Gulf states to out-modernise one another.
Al-Maria coined the term “gulf futurism”, which has since been used as a by-word for the way that a generation, forced indoors thanks to the intense heat, developed a view of the future informed almost exclusively by video games and Hollywood films. However, for Al-Maria, the phrase was originally meant to refer to the way in which human life is being forced to accommodate the rampant growth of consumer and luxury culture in the region.
“My family are Bedouins,” she told me when we met last month. “I see the trickle down of wealth […] there’s a lot of discrepancy between what people think when seeing these images of the hyper-modern cities in Gulf states and the reality, which is living in an unhygienic lean-to. Yes, Qatar and Saudi are two of the wealthiest countries in the world, but it’s not evenly distributed even among the local population, let alone [those building the architectural displays of wealth].”
A digital rendering of the Kingdom Tower (Image via)
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is notoriously lousy. Since November of last year, it’s been reported that 250,000 migrant workers in the country have been arrested and deported under the violation of labour and residency laws, despite the fact that “these restrictive laws are part of a labour system that leads to rampant human rights abuses”. In February, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to address the issue with King Abdullah during his March visit. Nobody seems to have heard anything since, so I’m assuming he ignored that envelope.
In a series of interviews that the NGO carried out with those who’d been detained and forced to leave the country, they discovered that migrant workers – consisting, in the most part, of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepalese people – had also been deprived of food and water. However, due to limits imposed by the government, it is almost impossible to access those living and working inside the country.
Of course, despite all that commotion, it’s inevitable that migrant workers will be employed in the construction of the Kingdom Tower.
“Every major construction project in Saudi Arabia uses migrant workers,” explained Adam Coogle, Saudi Arabian expert at Human Rights Watch. “I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the case of the Kingdom Tower, it is exclusively foreign labour.”
After ringing Kingdom Holdings – Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s umbrella company – leaving three voicemail messages and sending two emails, I’m still unclear as to how the people working on the Kingdom Tower are being protected. My messages were returned once, with the caller telling me that my question would be put to the prince himself for him to contemplate. That was two weeks ago; I’m yet to hear the result of his contemplation.
If Dubai’s standards – specifically the treatment of workers during the construction of the Burj Khalifa – are anything to go on, the future seems bleak. In 2004, thousands of workers protested before the Ministry of Labour against the unhygienic conditions in which they were forced to live and work, only to be dispersed by police and threatened with mass deportations.
This was followed by a succession of sporadic protests, culminating in the biggest labour protest in the history of the UAE in 2005, and another in 2006 when 2,500 workers rioted at the Burj Khalifa site. At least four people died during its construction, and another committed suicide ten months later, jumping from the 147th floor of the building after his boss refused him holiday. It’s been reported that workers were being paid as little as £2.40 a day, for 12-hour days, six days a week.
Then there’s the already staggering amount of lives reportedly lost since work began on the Qatar 2022 World Cup; according to the Guardian, more than 400 Nepalese migrant workers have died (though the organisation they credit the research to say they never collected this data), and some are warning that the number could rise to 4,000 by the time the first match kicks off eight years from now (the media and marketing director of the Qatar organising committee denied the deaths, and a senior Fifa official promised that his organisation would be carrying out “on-the-spot visits” to ensure that workers’ rights were being protected).
The Grand Mosque in Mecca, surrounded by building works (Photo via)
Perhaps the most shocking story, however, is that – among all this development – Mecca is being systematically destroyed; the homes of the prophet Muhammad’s wife and grandson have already gone.
In the words of Irfan al-Alawi, director of the UK-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, the heritage sites are being obliterated to make way for “yet more seven star hotels”. Fitting, then, that the Kingdom Tower – a bastion of the Saudi luxury goods and services industry – is being viewed by board members as “a new iconic marker of Jeddah’s historic importance as the traditional gateway” to Mecca.
While architecture focuses on adapting to the inevitable consequences of global warming, the race to build taller and taller seems outdated – a pointless dick-swinging contest, with Saudi Arabia and Dubai battling it out while everybody else channels their energy into legitimate innovation.
“Probably 90 percent of corporate videos encouraging investors to the Gulf take you on a journey from the past to the future,” Al-Maria told me. “There’s also one children’s television show where these kids get on a monorail in the modern day, they travel through a lab and are teleported to 2030. They come out the other side and there are even bigger buildings and the train is flying through the air. One little girl goes to the hospital and works in the hospital for a day.
“There’s no room for reality and the basic needs of people. For example, young love in the Gulf is so mediated by technology; everything is covert and conducted via phone. And then there’s the artificiality of the landscape – every tree is planted, nothing happens by chance. But when you go out to the desert, it rains – and overnight it’s completely green with little yellow and purple flowers. This sense of dystopia rising comes from being disconnected to the land.”
The promotional video for the Kingdom Tower, highlighting the very, very high viewing platform
Nothing could be further from the land than the Kingdom Tower’s viewing platform, its luxury condos and its Four Seasons Hotel, which will take up a large proportion of the building. From its marketing video we admire the view from a clapped-out fishing boat, flimsy and worn under the Tower’s gleaming magnificence – the producers’ best way to scream, “Look how far we’ve come!” without plastering it across the screen in size 42 glitter text.
But what cost does all this growth have?
While these sci-fi constructions are being built at the expense of construction workers; while migrants with no rights are being exploited to service the wealthy; and while its own people are being forced into poverty, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf’s dream of progress remains an illusion. A dream well and truly built on sand.
The Tory-led coalition government’s dismantling of Britain’s public services isn’t anything new. During the last stint of socially destructive Conservative rule, architecture lecturer, artist and cinematographer Patrick Keiller made two seminal films – London (1994) and Robinson in Space(1997) – that pointed out the negative impact that government can have on the British landscape.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the films, they’re beautiful documents of an important time in UK history, characterised by lingering shots of seemingly mundane scenes that we might otherwise take for granted. Like Concorde flying low over rows of semi-detached suburban houses and McDonald’s forecourts with cars swinging around the drive-thru. Keiller takes these and makes them beautiful.
Keiller had made several short films prior to this and went on to make two other films – The Dilapidated Dwelling (2000) and Robinson in Ruins (2010) – about the country’s housing problem and the future of its countryside, respectively.
With Britain’s current housing crisis in mind, all four films have taken on an even greater poignancy, which is convenient, because Keiller has just released a new book – A View from the Train – that perfectly summarises his thoughts on the topic. And considering he seems to understand better than anyone how our country’s architectural landscape is falling slowly and irreversibly to shit, I thought I should get in touch for a chat.
The Robinson in Ruins trailer
VICE: What did you want to achieve by making your last four films? Patrick Keiller: The three Robinson films [London, Robinson in Space and Robinson in Ruins] are all attempts to address a “problem” by exploring a landscape with a cine-camera. In Robinson in Space, for example, an initial assumption that the UK’s social and economic ills are the result of it being a backward, flawed capitalism gradually gave way to the realisation that, on the contrary, these problems are the result of the economy’s successful operation in the interests of the people who own it.
In Robinson in Ruins, on the other hand, the “problem” is capitalism itself, prompted by Fredric Jameson writing, famously, “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.” The film arrived at its final destination in autumn, 2008 during the immediate fall-out from the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
Montevetro, Battersea, London, 1999 – from The Dilapidated Dwelling (2000)
London includes several shots of Elephant and Castle, which is in the news again because the Heygate Estate is in the process of being torn down. How do you feel about that? The Elephant is unusual in that it’s the end of an underground line, but very near the centre of the city, so there are always a lot of people at the bus stops, as you see in the film. It was the hub of the South London tram network. I was intrigued that the shopping centre had never been very successful, commercially.
The pictures of the Elephant in London are mostly of the shopping centre and some nearby 1960s single-storey GLC prefabs that were about to be cleared away when we were photographing the film. An elderly couple had lived in one of them since 1965. As the film relates: “After 27 years in the house, where they had brought up all their children, they were reluctant to leave and had been offered nothing with comparable amenities; but as their neighbours disappeared one-by-one, the house was increasingly vulnerable and they no longer felt able to leave it for more than a couple of days.”
A part of the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle (Photo via)
I was an architecture student when Heygate was being built. My contemporaries and I thought it fairly bleak, dominated by the priorities of a big building firm rather than those of its architects. But, by most accounts, it turned out much better than we’d anticipated. More recently, however, I can imagine that the various pressures it faced – increased inequality, and hence poverty in London; a rapid turnover of residents; over-stretched housing management and so on – had taken their toll. In a context in which public-sector housing and its architecture are continually demonised, Heygate offered an ideal opportunity to displace poor people from a potentially very valuable redevelopment site.
The clearance is carried out in the name of “regeneration”, but the motive seems fairly transparent. The buildings are far from irredeemable, and they’re not even paid for – public-sector housing was built with 60-year loans. But instead the site has been handed over to [property developers] Lend Lease, who are no doubt very capable of undertaking a transformation in keeping with neoliberal assumptions. It’s a tragedy in three acts.
McDonald’s drive-thru, Old Kent Road – from London (1992) (Courtesy of the BFI)
Are there any estates or housing initiatives outside of the UK whose basic model you think we should follow? I’m interested in models of housing that aren’t exclusively residential and aren’t based on the individual nuclear family. In the UK now and recently, that seems to mean living on your own – a lot of present-day housing demand is the result of couples splitting up. Communications technology probably makes living on your own less isolating than it might otherwise be, but it doesn’t strike me as very attractive. Living as an independent member of a larger unit might be more engaging.
There are various models one might imagine adapting, including the university college or campus; the monastery; the squatted street – Frestonia, for example; the block of serviced flats, as at Lawn Road in Hampstead; and some kinds of sheltered accommodation for elderly people. There are already quite a few examples of co-housing, some purpose-built and some in large houses, the latter often in the country. There was once something called Le Familistère de Guise in France – a large building that, in 1880, housed 1,170 people and was equipped with co-educational schools, a theatre and a park. According to Ruth Eaton’s book Ideal Cities, it was established in 1858, was “economically viable and socially progressive” and survived for over a century.
Blackpool promenade, 1995 – from Robinson in Space (1997) (Courtesy of the BFI)
Among housing architecture, I very much admire the buildings of Hans Scharoun, of which there are many examples in Berlin. In the UK, you might have a look at Walter Segal’s self-build developments in Lewisham and Ralph Erskine’s Byker estate in Newcastle.
What do you make of the fact that a lot of central London has been sold off to investors, leaving many buildings empty at a time when lots of people don’t have anywhere to live? We’re living with an economic reality in which profits aren’t so much derived from creating wealth as by transferring it, often from the poor to the rich. In former times, wealth creation meant investing in production and infrastructure, but now we encounter these extraordinary examples of asset-price inflation. In London, that means placing capital in property, much of it residential. As you say, many of these owners find it easier to leave their buildings empty, especially if they’re based elsewhere, which they often are. I wouldn’t have thought it was very difficult to legislate against this kind of thing, but any such discussion seems to be off the political agenda, just as hardly anyone ever mentions rent control.
Daewoo cars at Portbury Dock, near Bristol, 1995 – from Robinson in Space (1997) (Courtesy of the BFI)
Your book is called The View from the Train, presumably because we spend so much of our lives in transit. How do you think this has affected our understanding of the home – or “the dwelling”? There’s a lot of cultural and critical attention devoted to the experience of mobility and displacement. But often the emphasis is on their negative aspects, and we still tend to fall back on assumptions about dwelling derived from a more settled, agricultural past. This kind of place-centred dwelling is very problematic, as we see all the time in the Middle East, the UK and elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean that we can dispense with claims on territory, or with territory’s claims on us. That’s what tax-avoiders do – the super-rich think they’re above the level of the nation state. But equally, the idea of ancestral rights to settlement is just not practical. In the UK, hardly anyone isn’t “displaced” to some extent.
In England, this accompanied private ownership of land and property. Before land-enclosure, a process that dates from the 16th century or earlier, ordinary people had rights to land. Land was enclosed by a rising class of gentry, often unlawfully, in a process that very much resembles what is happening today with, for example, the privatisation of Royal Mail. I think it’s time to begin a discussion of how to socialise the value of land, and to return formerly public assets to public ownership.
How do you see the Crossrail service affecting London? It’s interesting to see how successfully these big infrastructure projects – Crossrail, the Jubilee Line extension and the Olympics – can be accomplished when there’s a political will behind them. Just think what could be achieved with energy efficiency, or “rebalancing” the economy away from financial services towards manufacturing, if there was a similar commitment. Crossrail is driven partly by the requirement to improve access to Canary Wharf from the west, especially from Heathrow, for those in the financial sector, hence the political will. I’m looking forward to its completion rather as I used to look forward to a new toy. I don’t really know what its wider impact will be, apart from increasing house prices even more and making it possible for more people to commute from far away, which seems a terrible waste of time.
House with scaffolding and plywood, Oxford, 2008 – from Robinson in Ruins (2010) (Courtesy of Patrick Keiller)
What do you think of Boris Johnson – as a politician or otherwise? Judging by his recent pronouncements, Johnson seems to understand success only in terms of money. He seemed to be suggesting that there’s a finite amount of wealth and a struggle in which the poor are those who lose out because they’re less “intelligent”. He represents the interests of those who profit from dealing in assets, rather than investing in production. Larry Elliott pointed out recently that the UK hasn’t produced a single world-class manufacturing firm from scratch since World War Two. Johnson is a typical member of the elite responsible for this failure.
I could only think of one exception to Elliott’s statement: James Dyson is, I think, much wealthier than Johnson, and certainly much more creative. His manufacturing has enriched a great many people other than himself, both in the UK and abroad. It’s interesting that Dyson is an art-school graduate, whereas Johnson went to Oxford and was a member of a famously destructive club. I think he’s quite a sinister figure.
Government Pipeline and Storage System [GPSS] depot, Islip, Oxfordshire, 2008 – from Robinson in Ruins (2010) (Courtesy of Patrick Keiller)
Do you think that the landscape of the UK is worse now, under the present government, than it was under the last Tory government? The economy is in even worse shape now than it was under the last Tory government, and that’s reflected in aspects of the landscape, especially the urban landscape. After 1997, Labour continued Thatcher’s strategy of “undisclosed” redistribution, in which the private sector was allowed to prosper in the south-east while the government supported public-sector jobs in other parts of the country, notably the north-east and Wales. The current government are abandoning that without replacing it with anything else, with disastrous consequences.
A lot of your work deals in ruins, but is there anywhere in the UK that you feel still has a great future? I find Sheffield a very encouraging city, although I wish they weren’t going to knock down Castle Market – it’s one of my favourite buildings. Halifax, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh, too. I’m attracted to cities in which there are a lot of hills.
I’m 26. Why does this matter? It doesn’t, in itself. But we need to talk about age, because as a generation we seem to be suffering a collective delusion, convinced that we’re old and past it long before we actually are.
If you’ve ever heard a 30-year-old man in a baseball hat declare that he’s “over” while creating Vines of a Seth Troxler Boiler Room show, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, then it’s pretty well summed up in the most over-used and meaningless of all internet stock phrases: “officially old.”
Turning 22 and sleeping: sure-fire signs that you’re old
Every hour, countless people on Twitter declare themselves “officially old.” They use it to prefix anything they’re doing that is remotely mundane, from buying running gear to boiling an egg, when really, all this is stuff people generally do way before they start worrying about cataracts and their own funeral arrangements. In some cases, the admission even seems to carry with it a sense of pride—history’s most infantile generation of twentysomethings taking pleasure in the occasional sign that their lives aren’t such irresponsible marathons of recklessness after all.
Being a Justin Bieber fan: a sure-fire sign that you’re old
That people with Justin Bieber profile pics are blind to the irony of declaring themselves “officially old” really isn’t their fault. Admen wield the threat of lost youth as a weapon; summer’s arrival, for example, is always accompanied these days by ads pushing inner-city “festivals,” sponsored by phone networks and beer companies while hot-pink signals flare over the heads of 10,000 exuberant 16-year-olds, all living their youth to the fullest. Of course, this is also the way youshould be living your youth, but in reality jobs, hangovers, familial commitments, and the need to not completely piss your rent away often make this non-stop-party lifestyle a little tricky to achieve.
If you’re measuring your life in rituals sold to you by vodka companies, it’s easy to see why so many people live in fear of reaching “milestone” birthdays. We’re constantly on the lookout for warning signs that our blessed fun—the thing that we live for above anything else—is being stolen away from us. Of course, advertisers have always employed this and similar tactics to it. What surprises me, though, is just how readily we now accept it. Rather than scoffing at the glitter face paint, the full-body animal suits, and the corporate-sponsored DayGlo that we’re told will prolong our youth, so many of us submit to a perpetual fear of slipping into the next age bracket.
Getting up early and reading books: This his makes you officially old
If we continue down this route our lives will come to resemble weird double bills, where the first part of the show is a roaring, drug-fueled adolescence that lasts 30 years, and the second is a prolonged and timid surrender to Brita-filtered domesticity. The message is always the same: There is only a finite amount of time to have fun before the bar runs dry and you’re too saggy to wear that cactus-print high-waist bikini and oh, wait—no, you’ve totally fucked it now; your youth is gone, and all you’ve got to show for it are 25 ear piercings, some Instagram photos, and a colostomy bag.
Which brings me on to another thing, namely our hyper-awareness of our own stories, the kind fed back to us in Facebook movies—those weird “My top moments of 2013” things—and the inane #TBT. We feel the need to write our own autobiographies as we move through life, unaware that they’re doubling as premature obituaries, into Saturday-night talking-head TV shows dedicated to us that, thanks to sun-bleached filters, are stillborn with the hues of nostalgia. We’re preoccupied with our own mythology: social veterans of 25 reminiscing about that time at Coachella two years ago when that thing happened, remember?
Overloading your tweets with emojis makes you old.
“A man is always a teller of tales,” wrote Sartre in 1938, a few years after you were born, probably. “He sees everything that happens to him through them, and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story. But you have to choose: live or tell.”
This is the crux: As long as we are consumed with telling our story, the less we are living. The more concerned we are with the narrative than the experience, the more aware we become of who we are at a given age and how we should be acting.
Yet there are no “shoulds.” Jarvis Cocker was 32 when His ‘n’ Hers, the first Pulp record to receive any kind of notable attention, was released. Kurt Vonnegut was 41 when his first novel, Cat’s Cradle, was published. Alan Rickman was 46 before he got his first film role. Gandhi led the Quit India Movement at 73. Obviously we don’t all possess the charisma or talent of these people, and the arcs of our lives won’t exactly mirror theirs. But if all of that doesn’t make you feel stupid for declaring yourself old, past it, and on the shelf for submitting your first tax return, I don’t know what will.
While I was half watching his debate with Nick Clegg, half scrolling through his Wikipedia last month, I learned that Nigel Farage—2014’s very own Toad of Toad Hall—had only just turned 50. Which makes him ten months younger than Johnny Depp, five months younger than Brad Pitt, the same age as Dr. Dre, and one year older than Björk. If it wasn’t already clear to me, I realized in that moment that age is completely meaningless.
Being really alt = officially old.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re young. Even if you’re not, who cares? Growing older and becoming more confident in who you are is something to be enjoyed and to feel proud of. Despite what people want to tell you, there is a novelty to growing up.
That said, you’re probably still the same person at 30 as you were at 29. Yes, life changes and new responsibilities arise that we have to adapt to, but the idea of seeing one experience, one birthday, as a precipice between young and old age is ridiculous and puts a huge amount of pressure on us, which is only going to lead to disappointment. Spending as many of your post-breast-milk years in a haze of hedonism and irresponsibility as you can is impossible, unrealistic, and likely to lead to an overdose.
Also, if you’re more Keith Floyd than Chief Keef, it doesn’t invalidate your 20s; and the reverse goes for your 30s, 40s, 50s, whatever. There is no “right” way. Life is a series of mistakes, some of which give way to beauty. It’s probably best to just ride it out and keep doing it however you want until it’s over.
The fact that anyone is still discussing the issue of Scarlett Johansson getting her kit off in Under the Skin is surely proof of what I think the film is trying to critique. Men are punished for their human weakness in wanting to reach out, grab and penetrate Scarlett’s admittedly, fairly penetrable body; and are totally horrified when confronted by what lurks beneath. The Loachian choice of setting - View from the Transit Van Scotland - is sufficiently grey and mundane as to qualify for wider symbolic representation of Western society as a whole.
As my very smart friend Laura pointed out when we went to see the film last week, there seems to be a clear feminist subtext. That in the sleep, work, shop, shit and eat sequence of every day life there lurks a pervasive cynicism towards sex and intimacy, and an alarming reverence for the female body that nullifies any real reverence for the female herself. So the fact that people are still discussing the whys and hows of Scarlett acting naked in a really great film, scoring five stars in The Guardian and achieving widespread critical acclaim, sort of proves it right.
I could be wrong, but it’s difficult to imagine that a film as pared-down and repetitive as this isn’t functioning on some symbolic level. Plus there seems to be a clue in the title, and the confrontational promotion campaign in the shape of a Craigslist ad. You were tempted to click without even knowing her name. Are you sick or are you just human?
If the film’s directive is anything to go by, the answer for most of us is both.