Wednesday, 20 February 2019

C to the power 4

I was out for a walk the other day and, quite by chance, came across this challenging and exhilarating piece by the Scottish street artist Fiona Menzies-Cunningham. Her graffiti work, currently on view at various locations around Glasgow, is charged with powerful ideas which force us to think about the nature of power, oppression and patriarchy. 
Menzies-Cunningham, by refusing to exhibit in bourgeois galleries, is one of the few modern artists willing to make resonant her participation in a genuine critical dialogue around toxic masculinity and white hegemony by taking art to the people. Her free-to-view graffiti skillfully interpolates notions of power, class and sexuality into a cultural paradigm which not only transcends materialism, but rages against the malignant logic of the hetero-patriarchal male gaze, all the while acknowledging that social constructs (like gender) are part of the fatal flaw of language and can only be mediated by heuristic approaches to ontological inquiry.

This piece, entitled C to the power 4, is located near Knightswood Park and has already attracted quite a bit of attention. The first thing one notices is that she has chosen to adorn a building in which the windows are protected by wire mesh. The curtains are permanently drawn, a perfect illustration of Brexit Britain's closed-mindedness and isolationism. Each window is, in fact, a unique 'territory' marked by an individual 'cunt'.

At first glance, these four cunts appear to be more or less identical, but closer inspection reveals a devious simplicity in the remarkable way that Menzies-Cunningham manages light. There is a certain morbid fluidity to the brushstrokes, a subtle grading of rage, the insidious chiaroscuro forcing us to acknowledge and confront the nature of oppression. There is an almost subaqueous quality to the spatial relationship between the individual letters in each word, but one might also say that the space between the cunts, the lucid purity of those gaps, delineates a rigorous substructure of deeply critical thinking. 
We expect each cunt to offer a glimpse into its own hellish world, but when we try to look through these windows there is no ‘view’ to be had. The mesh, the glass and the grey curtains merely confront us with a brutal reflection of our own opaque paranoia. It would be relatively straightforward to interpret these cunts as being the four horsemen of the apocalypse (Trump, Brexit, toxic masculinity and white privilege), but a closer examination forces us to consider the subtleties of the artist's worldview.  There is a sense in which these cunts visually and conceptually activate a distinctive formal juxtaposition, asking us to consider whether culture really is interchangeable with truth; only from such a position (which is, surely, a position of trust), can one truthfully forge a constructive feminine paradigm of legitimate expression.

This piece is both menacing and playful because of the way the artist uses the reductive quality of her motifs to spatially undermine the exploration of our response to discursive trans-misogynistic violence. For what it's worth, my reading is that the 'left to right' running order of C to the power 4 would be: white privilege (leading to) toxic masculinity (which in turn leads to) Trump (which is accompanied by) Brexit, but I know that other interpretations are available. One is teased, for instance, by the ambiguous calligraphy of that last cunt on the right; it might actually be 'Clint', which could be an allusion to misogyny and homophobia in Hollywood westerns. 

C to the power 4 bridges the gap between our notion of 'the powerful' and our everyday lived experience. Through the disjunctive perturbation of this negative space, Menzies-Cunningham has asked questions to which we previously had no answers and provided answers where previously there had been no questions. Her beautifully congruent synthesis of consciousness and narrative presents us with a stark choice: succumb to the oppressive constructs of patriarchy or embrace the liberating paradox of fragmentation within an inter-sectional landscape. It is now, surely, time for us to foreground the intrinsic apparatus of equity within a renewed, empowered, 'higher' consciousness in which cunts can only be understood within the critical framework of dialectical third-wave feminism.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

On not being 'there' there

If you have parented a teenager, you will know that there is a difference between going out and going out out. Going out means you are leaving the house to do something with friends, but that ‘something’ won’t involve much in the way of drinking and clubbing. Going out out, by contrast, will involve both of those activities, along with some others that parents would rather not know about. There are certain aspects of modern life which require a similar nomenclature.       

If you’ve been to a concert recently, you may have noticed the phenomenon of people recording the event on their tablet or phone. They will have paid money to be there, but chosen to limit their participation in the gig by mediating the experience through an electronic device, presumably so they can watch it later. But the ‘watching it later’ can only be a facsimile of the actual experience. Someone might claim about a concert that “I was there … look at what I filmed”, but I’d suggest that their decision to film it means that they weren’t there there. The memory of recording an event is not the same as a memory of watching it; by definition, the former will be of a lower resolution.       

I used to think that not being there there was something of a bug in a 21st century life shaped by technology, but I’m now more inclined to interpret it as a feature. For many folk, it seems that any event (a night-out, a birthday meal, a picnic in the park) hasn’t really happened until it has appeared on Facebook or Instagram. But if you’re using up time and energy trying to get the perfect image to post on social media, if you’re already curating an experience you’ve yet to have, you’re not really there there at all. Being there there would not involve putting the actual experience on hold while you recorded it, turning it, effectively, into something else.

This curating culture extends to recording stuff as mundane as people ‘reacting’ to something. You can find hundreds of videos on Youtube of so-and-so reacting to Arsenal’s third goal against Tottenham; or so-and-so reacting to the 'Red Wedding' in Game of Thrones; or so-and-so reacting to the trailer for the new Avengers film.

We are social animals and we crave communal experiences, but where exactly does the pleasure reside in watching someone else react to something? What’s the thrill in observing other folk doing mundane things? The judgemental part of me fears that it’s a bit like sub-contracting your own response to a third party, but the charitable part would concede that it probably just helps some people authenticate a shared experience. Or perhaps it represents something more significant. Maybe digital curation is part of some evolutionary process whereby our species will develop the appropriate neurological software to allow us to become truly technological beings.    

The ‘observing other folk at the mundane’ phenomenon is perhaps best illustrated by Gogglebox, a TV show about people watching TV in order to talk about it on TV. I’m not entirely sure where the appeal of this show lies (I don’t think it's with the sparkling wit of the participants). Is it, perhaps, that we are comforted by seeing other people doing the same lazy stuff as us? Does it somehow validate our decision to sit on the couch and watch rubbish on the telly because we can pretend that what we are doing, like those Gogglebox folk, is having a communal experience, observing and commentating on our cultural milieu? If it is true that watching TV is a passive experience, then how should we describe the act of watching other people watching TV? Not that long ago such an act would have been considered absurd.

Where can it go from here? Are there meta-contexts of curation, observation and reaction that we’ve yet to explore? With a little imagination, we could easily expand our curated universe.  

Perhaps someone should make a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the people who have to edit the footage for each edition of Gogglebox (that must be quite a job, wading through hours of material to find the entertaining bits). Then we, the viewers, could watch this programme and create some home-made content by recording ourselves reacting to a show about the trials and tribulations of the people who edit the footage of the people who watch TV in order to talk about it on TV.

This new programme (let’s call it 'G-Box Infinity') would feature us reacting to watching the people editing the Gogglebox footage. Once that was shown on TV, the Gogglebox people could watch 'G-Box Infinity' in order to talk about it on TV.  

Then, in the comfort of our living rooms, we could watch the Gogglebox people watching and talking about us reacting to watching the trials and tribulations of the people who edit the footage of the people who watch TV in order to talk about it on TV.  

I could go on, but there is a danger that I’ll accidentally set up a temporal feedback loop and blow a hole in the fabric of time.

Monday, 17 December 2018

The collective noun for TV talking heads

The BBC documentary ‘Roxy Music – A Musical History’ achieved something quite remarkable. The remarkable thing was this: it made a tragic, middle-aged Roxy fan boy like me turn off after about ten minutes. Had I kept watching, I’m afraid I might have ended up breaking something in our living room.

Some folk in TV land must think that a definitive template for quality has been established by programmes like ‘The nation’s 100 favourite telly adverts’ or ‘The greatest-ever soap villains’, wherein a bunch of well-worn video clips are assembled for the purpose of showcasing the ‘witty’ and ‘off-the-cuff’ observations of C-list celebrities. You can tell from their eyes that, generally speaking, these TV talking heads don’t know (or care) much about the subject matter; they’re just reacting to clips they’ve been shown five minutes before. 

One of the reasons that online content is often more interesting than TV content is that the folk who make the online stuff usually care (sometimes to the point of insanity) about their subject matter. A talking head on TV, by contrast, only really cares about being a talking head on TV. Such a person will dream of the money shot, the moment they’ll coin a phrase so cute, pithy and resonant that they’ll be hired to do a whole bunch more talking head stuff on shows like ‘Britain’s Weirdest Game Show Contestants.’

I generally avoid this kind of programme, but felt that I could not pass up the chance to watch an hour devoted to one of my favourite bands. Alas, merely 600 seconds into the show, having absorbed a series of blows, all of which sign-posted the grim direction of travel, I had to reach for the remote and terminate my participation with extreme prejudice. Maybe I should have watched the whole thing before writing this review, but those 600 seconds contained quite enough inanity for me to get the gist, featuring as it did some world-class superficiality from Sadie Frost, Shaun Ryder, Alan McGee, Sian Pattenden and Emma Dabiri (no … me neither).

The commentary seemed neither apposite nor insightful, but what made it worse was that some of it was used DURING THE SONGS, the director clearly having interpreted each of the instrumental passages as an opportunity to insert analysis like this:

"Bryan Ferry wore glitter on his eyes.”

And this:

"The instruments all had a part to play in the Roxy sound.”

To anyone interested in finding out about a fantastic band, my advice would be to avoid this programme. Instead, do yourself a favour and check out some old clips on youtube. At least that way, you won’t have to encounter a phenomenon which surely deserves a collective noun, preferably something pejorative and judgemental to reflect its pestilential vapidity.

How about a jabbering of TV talking heads? That sounds about right.

There ... I’ve done something useful with the time I could have spent shouting at the television. 

Sunday, 9 December 2018

You can check out any time you like (but you can never leave).

Watching the news and social media responses to the Brexit negotiations makes me wonder what people expected from a process that was bound to be complicated, painful, protracted and prone to brinkmanship. The level of ineptitude shown by the British Government may have surprised people, but it doesn’t account for the catastrophising zeal of those commentators who consistently attempt to invalidate or sabotage both the goal and the process of the negotiations. 

One of the juiciest cherries atop this absurd cake is the acknowledgement by Scotland's First Minister that the 35 Scottish Nationalist MPs at Westminster will back any proposals for a second referendum on the Brexit terms. One must accept that nationalists will, by definition, view everything through the prism of their desire for independence; with that in mind, it doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to imagine a situation in which Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum might have resulted in a similar melodrama.     

Imagine, for a moment, a world in which that independence referendum had resulted in a narrow win for the Yes team. There would have been all kinds of heated discussion about the future, with just under half of the population dismayed by the result and just over half in a state approaching euphoria. Many within the Yes movement would have been elated, but some might also have urged a note of caution about the challenges lying ahead, perhaps considering it foolish to assume that it would be easy to dissolve a 300-year old partnership.

Our First Minister would have had to appoint armies of civil servants to deal with the many complexities of what, for the purpose of this flight of fancy, we'll call Scoxit.

There would, surely, have been questions over border controls, currency, share of national debt, location of key businesses, ownership of assets etc. Perhaps, given the closeness of the result, there might even have been some division within the independence movement. Hard line Scoxiteers might have argued for immediate secession from rump UK with as little compromise as possible; others may have reasoned that the hopes, fears and aspirations of the half of the population which did not vote ‘Yes’ would have to be taken into account during the negotiations.

Imagine, on the losing side, that a group of rich and influential people (bankers, politicians, business folk, cultural taste-makers) started to cavil about the result. Imagine that their default line of attack was that the Scottish electorate had been ‘duped’ and did not understand the complexities of the issues concerned. These low-information voters, it might have been argued, were forcing us to break up a successful partnership that had endured for centuries. That Scoxit vote, portrayed by some as essentially anti-English and driven by ‘blood and soil’ xenophobia would have to be overturned; a second referendum (or, if you will, a peoples’ vote) would be required.

The discerning reader might consider this to be a dismally low-resolution interpretation of a binary vote, but let us imagine for the moment that such a fanciful notion somehow had the power to gain some traction in the public consciousness.  

As the deadline for the Scoxit settlement loomed, one could envisage the negotiations stalling, perhaps snagging on technicalities and conflicting interpretations of some of the terms contained within the Act of Union. The First Minister would have been caught between a rock (the ‘Stop Scoxit’ movement, agitating for a second referendum, but perhaps willing to consent to a settlement involving as little disruption to the Union as possible) and a hard place (the Scoxiteers, insistent that a newly-independent Scotland should not be bound by rules, terms and conditions dictated by Westminster).

Aiming to maintain a conciliatory approach to an increasingly divisive issue, let us imagine that the beleaguered First Minister might have flown to London to present a compromise deal, one which –arguably- contained just enough juice for both parties to accept, allowing us to get on with the business of forging effective links between Scotland and rump UK. Imagine that this plan was quickly rejected by the Westminster negotiating team and that the First Minister was sent homeward to think again.  

Weary of being traduced for their ‘stupidity’, their ‘ignorance’ and their ‘xenophobia’, it is not difficult to imagine that Yes voters would have started to fear that the prize they had won was going to be denied by intransigence in London. Many would have been angry about a ‘foreign’ power deigning to grant secession only on terms that seemed unduly punitive.     

There is, of course, a possibility that those voters might have weighed up the stalled negotiations, the slights to their First Minister, the endless slanders and calls for a ‘peoples’ vote’ and thought:

"Well ... this is rather more hassle than we expected. Maybe all those celebrities are right; perhaps we should just have another vote."

Or perhaps they would have taken a deep breath and said:

"Now, perhaps, some of you are beginning to understand why we wanted to leave the UK. We were asked a question and we gave you a clear instruction; now, please, give us what we voted for."

Given the circumstances, which of those responses would have been more likely?

To ask that question is to know the answer.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

About that FIFA Club World Cup ...

Speaking at the opening of the Asian Football Confederation's new headquarters the other day, FIFA president Gianni Infantino reiterated plans to expand the Club World Cup. He said he wants to make it a "real competition" that "every club in the world can target".

Thank goodness it’s going to be a genuine World Cup for clubs and not, as some had suspected, a ‘let’s get all the big teams playing each other in the middle east and then rake in TV millions’ Cup. Mr Infantino is clearly looking after the interests of the global game and not just building strategic alliances by courting dodgy regimes with big barrels of cash; FIFA’s spotless reputation means that we can trust them to look after the best interests of the sport.

The claim that ‘every club in the world can target’ this new competition is, though, worth a little bit of scrutiny. In what meaningful sense can, say, Ayr United, Bolton Wanderers or Carshalton Athletic ‘target’ the Club World Cup? FIFA has 211 member countries; the big, traditional footballing nations have thousands of professional and semi-professional teams (if you want to make a whole morning disappear, go look up the number of teams and leagues in Brazil). Even a small country like Scotland has 276 registered professional and semi-professional teams; England has 480 affiliated divisions with more than 5,000 registered teams. It would not be unreasonable to estimate that, across FIFA’s member countries, there might be an average of, say, 750 professional or semi-professional clubs. If they can all legitimately ‘target’ (i.e. enter) this new competition, the Club World Cup could start with 158,250 entrants. How might that work? 

First, let’s address the question of whether games should be organised on a one-off ‘knockout’ format, or on a ‘home and away’ basis. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we’ll be going with a straight knock-out format (to avoid the tournament becoming a tad unwieldy). The observant reader will have noticed that an ‘all-in’ draw featuring 158,250 teams in a knock-out format will, at some point, throw up an odd number of surviving competitors. If all the teams went into the hat for the first round draw (it will have to be a big hat … maybe a barrel would be more appropriate. Or, now that I think about it, a skip; or rather, several skips), by round 5 we’d be left with 9,875 teams; put simply: odd numbers don’t work in cup competitions.   

My guess, therefore, is that FIFA will arrange a preliminary round in which the bottom-seeded 56,416 teams will play each other for the right to enter the full competition. Once that preliminary round has eliminated 28,808 minnows, the first round ‘proper’ will feature 129,792 teams playing 64,896 ties.  

There are one or two practical issues to consider.   

I estimate, based on extensive research (i.e. watching the draw for the quarter-finals of the League Cup on TV the other night), that it takes an average of 38 seconds to draw two numbered balls from a hat or barrel, or skip (or skips).  With 64,896 games to arrange, our first round draw will, therefore, take somewhere between 28 and 29 days to complete. I think FIFA should brand this draw as a month-long celebration of football administration. Factoring in time for commercial breaks, celebrity appearances and bringing on substitutes when people collapse from exhaustion, the draw would be a terrific televisual sporting event, a bit like the Super Bowl, but with less Beyonce.   

As a Scottish football fan, I’d love to see our smaller clubs get a chance to compete on the world stage. Imagine the tantalising prospects such a draw might deliver:

Inverurie Loco Works v Fótbóltsfelagið Giza

Whitehill Welfare v Jagiellonia Białystok

Esportiva Guaxupé v Newtongrange Star

(One of the downsides of that last tie would be that, since deregulation, the bus service between Newtongrange and Guaxupé has been shocking; this, combined with kick-off times designed to suit TV channels, might put off some Newtongrange fans from travelling to Brazil).   

Once the matches get underway, they’ll probably be spread over several days in order to maximise TV revenues; by scheduling around 1,000 games per day, the first round could be completed in two months. I won’t go into the logistics of rounds 2 to 14, save to say that by the time we get to round 4, the number of competing teams will have been reduced to 16,224; by round 7, we’d be pretty much down to the ‘elite’ level of 2,028 teams. Only by round 12 will we have reached the magical number of 64 teams, proven by scientists to be the highest number that football fans easily understand (it’s a bit like the theory that birds can only count up to 5, which makes it OK to steal eggs from their nests if there are 6 or more in it. Or maybe they can count up to 6? Whatever).

If one or two of the smaller teams manage to benefit from kind draws and a bit of luck, there would be an outside chance of some mouth-watering quarter-final games. How about Real Madrid v South Normanton Athletic or Kakamega Homeboyz v Manchester City? The prosaic truth, though, is that the last eight will probably feature world football’s most popular ‘super clubs’, plus Bayern Munich.

With tight scheduling and round-the-clock fixtures, it should be just about possible to complete the entire event within a calendar year (remembering that the first month of each new year would be entirely devoted to making the draw for the first round). And yes, I’m aware that the preliminary round draw must always precede the first round. In a tight footballing calendar, it is therefore possible that we might have to play 28,208 preliminary round ties for ‘year two’ while the tournament for ‘year one’ is still running. Not ideal, I know, but it would at least help FIFA advance their strategic goal for the total football environment, i.e. televised football happening all the time. Everywhere.           

The final will probably be played in Riyadh or Doha on Christmas Eve, kicking off at 3.25am GMT.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Tribute Act blues, part 2.

The release of the Freddie Mercury biopic reminds me that I once had a spell playing with a Queen tribute act.

We played lots of gigs and built up a small but dedicated group of fans who followed us around the country. We got to know some of these fans quite well. One of the most devoted was Tessie, a friend-of-a-friend of our drummer. She was quite a big lady with a lively sense of humour and a fondness for pranks. She enjoyed our gigs but, more than anything else, she loved playing practical jokes on the band, invariably involving some spurious ‘emergency’ about one thing or another. On the way to one show, we got a voicemail message stating that the venue could not provide electricity after 9pm (that turned out to be Tessie). The day before another gig, we got an email asking if we could insert a couple of Abba songs into our set as there was a fan convention taking place in the town in which we were due to play (that turned out to be Tessie). Her pranks were occasionally amusing and usually harmless, but could sometimes be a pain in the neck when we were preparing for a performance.   

I remember one gig at a small town on the Ayrshire coast. We arrived late after our van had broken down on the motorway. Not only did we have no time for a soundcheck, but the manager of the venue proceeded to put us under additional pressure by making an unusual request. Bohemian Rhapsody was normally the closing number in our act, but he asked if we could start the show with it. He felt that, because we would be playing to a ‘difficult’ Friday night crowd, we might need something big to get the inebriated locals onside as quickly as possible. After some awkward negotiations, we reluctantly agreed to open the set with what would normally have been our show-stopper.

The last thing we needed at that point was another complication, but shortly before the gig was due to start, we got a phone call from a woman claiming to be from the local bee-keeping society. She told us that they had been using the venue for a meeting earlier that day and that one of their members had accidentally left a large working hive behind in the 'trap room', immediately underneath the stage. According to this woman, we wouldn't be able to start our concert until they had removed the hive, as there was a strong possibility that a sudden outbreak of amplified music would send thousands of agitated bees flying up through the floorboards to attack members of the audience.

Despite the suspicion that this might be yet another prank by our number one fan, we agreed to check out the story. Upon entering the trap room, we came across a large wooden structure, which looked like a cross between a wardrobe and a series of stacked boxes with holes in them. None of us were experts. We might well have been looking at something a professional bee-keeper would use, but it could equally have been a stage prop for concealing a large human being.

Mindful of the fact that we were due onstage in a few minutes to start our show with Queen’s most famous tune, I turned to my bandmates and asked the only question that seemed appropriate:

“Is this a real hive? Is this just fat Tessie?”