Thursday, 30 April 2009

the poetics of film school

Turning to the Page

I remember that cavernous silence
after my first declaration of love,
then, feeling I must have been misunderstood, saying it again,

and, years later, with someone else,
exclaiming, "That was so good!"
and the foreign language she - who was
speaking English - used in response.

I learned there's nothing more shaming
or as memorable as an intimacy
unreturned. And turned, therefore,
to the expected silence of a page,

where I might simultaneously assert
and hide, be my own disappointment,
which saved me for a while.
But soon the page whispered

I'd mistaken its vastness for a refuge,
its whiteness for a hospital
for the pathetic. Fill me up, it said,
give me sorrow because I must have joy,

all the travails of love because
distances are where the safe reside.
Bring to me, it said, continual proof
you've been alive.

So I mentioned in one of my last posts that I bought two new books of poetry the last time I went to Oxford, one of which was Stephen Dunn's 2004 The Insistence of Beauty. I must not have paid very close attention when I was picking it out as I read the whole thing last night and was somewhat disappointed. The only poem I really liked was this one above, Turning to the Page. The rest of the poems feel too watered down, too unfocused, and though it sounds strange, not enough about words. I think he loves himself more than he loves words and it shows on the page.

I don't really love the poem above, but I think the last two stanzas are brilliant and perfectly encapsulate two of the 'big' ideas of writing. One is the how and why we write, the need to validate a life lived in words and on paper, to understand actions through disciplined phrasing. I love especially 'mistaken its vastness for a refuge' because I think that any writer can understand the feeling - sometimes a blank piece of paper is a curse, a taunt. But most of the time it is a refuge, 'a hospital for the pathetic', the melancholy, the lonely and I think he captures this sentiment very well. The other thing I loved about this poem is its undercover reference to poetic history - the Wordsworthian 'emotion recollected in tranquillity' which comes through clearly in the first half of the poem, but especially in the idea that 'distances are where the safe reside.' Personally, I don't agree with Wordsworth's poetic prescription, but still it's interesting to see contemporary poets striving toward this model and how it works itself out in their poems.

In other completely unrelated news, I had my first digital film-making class last night. I think it will be fun to learn how to make a film and finally get off my lazy arse and work out how to use Final Cut Pro, but I'd forgotten what some aspiring 'creatives' are like. I don't want to pre-judge my fellow students too harshly, but why is it that people are just desperate to do something as a career when they hardly even like the medium they so desperately want to work in. I took this class because I love film and have always wanted to learn how to make films so that I can mess about on my own. I don't necessarily want to work in the film industry or become a filmmaker - I'd just like to learn more about it. Like most of the other art forms I'm interested in, craft is fascinating to me. For me, film should be a marriage between storytelling and photography - all my favourite films balance this well, even if I do tend to favour films which are technically or cinematographically (making up words again...) more interesting than the story they're trying to tell. I suppose Russian Ark is a good example of this - as stories goes, this one is pretty meh, but shooting an entire 90 minute film in one single take is nothing short of miraculous.

And this is where the film-making class gets really interesting, because I don't even think any of these other 10 people who profess to be desperate to work as film-makers have even thought about the visual side of film. Maybe it's because I have a background in photography that I get so hung up on the visual and the cinematography, but I nearly died when, at the end of our first course, the instructor gave us 20 seconds to decide on our favourite film and share it with the class. I can't remember them all, but of the ones I can people said:

Annie Hall
Kill Bill 2
When Harry Met Sally
All About My Mother
High School Musical 3 (Sadly, this isn't a joke)
Steam: The Turkish Bath

I have to make a short film with these people!!!!! The course instructor said his favourite film was Star Wars, which even I can admit isn't a horrible answer - if we're going for cinematic history and breaking new ground - but it's a coward's answer. I toyed with saying Lars Von Trier's The Five Obstructions - probably the only film I've ever watched more than 5 times - or Andrea Arnold's incredible Red Road , which was shot largely in Von Trier's Dogme 95 style - a movement I'm very interested in that focuses on 'purity' in filmmaking: hand-held cameras, shot on location, no additional sound work, natural lighting and so on. In the end though, I went with Bertolucci's 1970 film The Conformist which I saw last year at the BFI on a big screen. It's possibly the most visually stunning film I've ever seen - the story is compelling enough to hold your interest for two hours - but the amount of care that went into the photography and editing of this film is obvious in every single frame. To make a movie with such precision and such artistry, this is what I think the goal of film-making should be.

It's all for fun anyhow, something to distract me from my looming chapter deadline. And I'm looking forward to seeing the final project and messing around on my own in between. So keep your eyes peeled - in 10 weeks I'll have a monstrosity of a short film created by a group of rom-com loving 'storytellers' (as the course instructor now insists on calling us) to post up here for your viewing pleasure.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009


Observations on a cloudy Tuesday morning:

Walking to work the bin man was sitting on the fence reading a book. I couldn't see what book he was reading, but it made me smile to see him. I wished I had my camera.

I'm wearing colour again today. Madras dress and pink patent shoes. Yesterday I wore head to toe black, something I rarely do. Everyone commented on the fact that I was wearing all black, which just goes to show that I'm not lying. I'm a colour girl.

My legs hurt from horse riding on Sunday. Sore thighs when walking. Maybe high heels not such a good idea.

Trees on Grey's Inn Road are now more leaves than branches.

Wearing high heels like wearing armour. Something men will never understand. Heels make you feel invincible. Maybe high heels a good idea after all.

Buying a bottle of water at the shop on my way to the Tube. It's £1.49. Why not £1.50? I told him to keep the change. Obviously.

Everyone still reading awful free papers on the Tube. Depressing.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Thought of the day

Yesterday I sat down and read the most recent issues of Spectator and Prospect magazines cover to cover. You really get a good sense of the political positions of magazines like this when you read them side by side.

The conclusion I came to was this:

Labour hate people. Tories hate people too.

Labour pretend to like people by arguing for big government, lots of spending, lots of services. Tories pretend to like people by arguing for less government, less spending, less services. Though I'm clearly boiling this down to its lowest common denominator (and partly for the shock factor fun of it), the point is that the politicos in both parties think they know better than the people they supposedly represent. Whether they say so of course is another matter altogether...

More on this later.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

give a girl the moon...

and she'll plug it in?

I am completely captivated by this light moon. It's almost as fabulous an idea as getting a puppy, but since it doesn't need to be taken out for daily walks it is in many respects a far less high maintenance pet.

See. I'm not
so cynical after all. I love the romanticism of having a personal moon.

I love the images as well - beautiful composition and intriguing narrative photography. Why don't more product designers maintain involvement throughout the whole process - design is surely only one element of the story. You'd think that if you spent so much effort creating a fantastic product, you'd want to be involved through the rest of the stages of development and marketing. You'd want to maintain the consistency of your vision.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

change the world or go home

Just back from a lovely afternoon spent in Oxford with The Fellow. While London may be a wonderful place to live, it is in many ways a very poor place to do a PhD. There's no real sense of community in any of the London Unis and I sometimes go for weeks without stepping foot into King's. This is no inherently bad thing, but sometimes you just want to talk to someone who understands academic research and the academic community. It doesn't so much matter whether they understand your particular research (for who does, really?), sometimes all you need is a chat with a like minded colleague to revive flagging enthusiasm.

So a marvellous afternoon spent mostly gossiping about personal life and a little about academic life in general. It's funny that the closer I get to finishing my doctorate, the less sure I am of my wanting a career in academia. I've always been one of those people who wants and wants to do too many things, too many interests to settle on just one. I enjoy academic research, but I've always wanted to do something creative. The problem with doing something creative as a career is that I don't really know if I want to do that either. I love working with people, being around people - I need stimulation from external sources. I couldn't possibly sit in my study all day writing novels or poetry or painting or whatever: the solitary life is not for me. I like the idea of literary salons. Maybe I'll make like Gertrude Stein and just collect other creatives. Can that be a career though? Also I've realised that I tend to be most productive in the strangest of spaces and places: trains, airport lounges, waiting rooms - confined spaces where passing time is really all there is to do. I don't know why I find so much inspiration in these places, maybe it's because it's unexpected. Who knows. So a literary salon in the first class BA lounge at Terminal could work.

So, for me who perhaps above all things, loves reading and dare I say, loves people (in all their horrific, miserable, agonisingly annoying glory) what career options are there? I want never to be bored (kiss of death in anything), always to be stimulated, I want that buzz which comes from collaborating with other people, I want something creative, yet intellectually rigorous (I don't think I could design clothes, for example - unless I went all Hussein Chalayan I think it would feel too frivolous). I suppose that since at the very least I have committed myself to finishing my doctorate, I don't really have to make any "life-altering" decisions for another year or so. After that, it's anyone's guess...

And before I say adieu, I'll leave you with something else. Apologies to my poetry-loathing friends.

For someone who hates routine and boredom, I have created some quite bizarre rituals. One of which is that every time I go to Oxford I head to the Borders, which has a much better selection of poetry than most bookshops in London, and pick up one or two volumes of poetry. I do my usual cultural roulette thing, leafing through the books until something catches my eye, open it up and read through a few poems to see if it suits. I make my judgements instantly and instinctively (not that I'm advocating this method) and am either gripped or not. Today I got
The Insistence of Beauty by Stephen Dunn and Third Wish Wasted by Roddy Lumsden. I haven't read work by either of these authors before though I understand they are both established poets, but that's what I like about my random little system - they're both new to me. I haven't read the Dunn yet but read all of the Lumsden on my way home and found it absolutely enchanting.

So. A little Lumsden to leave you with. This is called "The Young"

You bastards! It's all sherbet, and folly
makes you laugh like mules. Chances
dance off your wrists, each day ready,

sprites in your bones and spite not yet
swollen, not yet set. You gather handful
after miracle handful, seeing straight,

reaching the lighthouse in record time,
pockets brim with scimitar things. Now
is not a pinpoint but a sprawling realm.

Bewilderment and thrill are whip-quick
twins, carried on your backs, each vow
new to touch and each mistake a broken

biscuit. I was you. Sea robber boarding
the won galleon. Roaring trees. Machine
without levers, easy in bowel and lung.

One cartwheel over the quicksand curve
of Tuesday to Tuesday and you're gone,
summering, a ship on the farthest wave.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Welcome to "Sexy Voices" on BBC Radio 4

Firstly, may I just apologise for such a girlishly frivolous post.

Secondly, who knew radio could be so hot?

My devotion to the BBC is singularly because of Radio 3 and Radio 4, but mostly Radio 4. When I'm at home, if I'm not listening to music, I've got Radio 4 on. I'm not always listening, sometimes it's just background noise, but it's still on.
I've been experiencing a slightly worrying radio voice lust thing lately, which wasn't helped in the slightest by last night's Classic Serial of a dramatisation of Zola's Therese Raquin. I came into the programme half way through, but immediately recognised the voice. Andrew Buchan. Yummy, thought I, and that was all it took for me to spend the rest of the hour absolutely entranced. Buchan, better known as the scandalously delicious Scott Foster from BBC 4's not nearly long enough running TV Drama Party Animals, is from Bolton which means I shouldn't find him sexy voiced at all. But who knows why these things work the way they do. I saw him on stage last year in the Donmar's production of Miller's The Man Who Had All the Luck and he was pretty damn dreamy in that too. There's something delicious about a sexy voice and it's even more delectable when a sexy voice is reading sexy dialogue, and there's plenty of that to go around in Therese Raquin - it's about two lovers who can't be together because the woman is married to another man. Nevertheless our hero and heroine embark upon a torrid love affair, eventually plot and kill her husband in order to be together, drive each other so mad with guilt that they eventually plot to kill each other. What a story, eh?

Then, this morning, I switched on Radio 4 as I was getting ready to head out (I'm in the library procrastinating just now...) and the yummy sounding Will Self was on some show called The Unbelievable Truth which I've always avoided because David Mitchell's cartoonish ferret face is so off putting that I can't stand the thought of visualising it for an entire 30 minutes. I don't think I've ever actually read any of Self's books, but his voice is to die for. Lugubrious yet melodic, it's what molasses would sound like if it had a voice. Though I did experience a brief moment of disconcertion when I realised that that's who the scary chef Anton Ego in Ratatouille reminded me of: Will Self. Still, evil critic turned warm-hearted restaurateur or not, Self's got a sexy radio voice. Enough so, that I managed to turn off my repeated imaginings of David Mitchell's creepy bug eyes and just enjoy the golden-syrupy sounding musings of Mr Self for the remainder of the programme.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Cribs with Crizzle fo shizzle

I was having a nice chat with our digital editor this morning about the website for one of our mags, the Architectural Review. It's not really a proper website, more like a sexed up blog chock full of pretty pictures. We had this house on the site a few weeks ago called the Ramp House which is in Athens. It's not the most beautiful house and I wouldn't really want to live there, but it has a skate ramp and not out in the back garden, but in the living room. One of my least favourite things in all the world is washing dishes, but I might at least stand near the sink in Ramp House if only to have a good view of the skaters.

But the crazy thing with Ramp House is that the AR site got more visitors over the course of a few days than it had in the entire previous year. And all because of a bunch of web crazed skaters. So the digital editor thinks we need to reach out to the cool kids or whatever. So I had two suggestions: Cribs and Kanye West.

In terms of what the super hip, hip-hop loving, web using, forward thinking youfs know about architecture,
Kayne's blog is probably more influential than anything else I can think of. The guy must get thousands of hits a day on his blog, way more than any of the other sites he references. It's interesting as well because his taste in architecture and design is fairly narrow: he likes houses, hyper-modernist houses, houses with "doooooope" swimming pools, and houses with lots of glass. I think we should get Kanye to write a piece for the AR. I don't think anyone else agrees with me, but it would solve the problem of how to get lots of web hits on the site. Manipulate the following and cachet of Kanye.

My other idea was to do a series of videos based on MTV's Cribs. People like to look at houses, maybe it's because there's more of a sense of voyeurism in looking at people's private spaces as opposed to office buildings or public spaces. But because MTV's efforts are ridiculous and vulgar - though maybe it's the vulgarity and ridiculousness that make viewing so entertaining. I always liked the big rap star houses where they're like: "yo, this is where my bitches sleep - solid gold bed, baby. Solid gold stripper pole for a bit of dancing. I love my strippers. Love my gold." But I was thinking we could make Cribs videos more like this:

This is an extra feature on the Marie Antoinette DVD and it still makes me laugh watching it now. Maybe it's because I'm completely crazy about Versailles, but I just thought it was such a silly, witty, inspired idea. So I think we should make an AR Cribs series of videos - architecture porn basically - in the style of Cribs with Louis XVI, well...I suppose it would need to be a little less silly and a little more informative, but I'd be the first to volunteer to dress up like Elizabeth I and give a Cribs tour of Somerset House.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

critics + artists = love

Is it better to create or critique? As someone very interested in both the creation of art as well as the criticism of it, I've always found it hard to swallow the bitter relationship between the two. Recently expressed in a very facile blog post on the Guardian's website, the writer insists that critics shouldn't befriend artists for the sake of maintaining perfect objectivity. She felt that she might be unable to write a negative review of one of her artist friends for fear of hurting their delicate feelings, as if artists were composed of nothing more than wispy layers of tissue paper.

All art, as well as criticism of it, is subjective. A truism perhaps, but neither has the final say which one could argue rests with the consumer of both. Artists who "can't handle" criticism are missing an important part of the process of art. The best and most respected critics, who care passionately about their subject, can function almost as patrons of artists, providing needed support, encouragement, and exposure. Certainly lazy or vicious critics can do much damage, but again, there is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of criticism.

Creators need critics to write about their work as much as critics need creators to produce works worth reviewing. So why shouldn't there be more intimate relationships between the two? I suppose it's partly because the consuming public enjoys buying into the myth of the artist as a fully-formed genius descended from space: the loners, the womanisers, the larger than life personalities - myths largely perpetuated by the critics themselves, for it nothing else, this myth sells.

Many artists hold negative views of critics because they feel, as Whistler famously did that, "none but an artist can be a competent critic." Perhaps, but artists and critics, and furthermore the public, all have different measures of success. Who knows why the public likes what it likes, critics are trying to look at the bigger picture, understanding the artist in relation to himself, his culture, and the larger canon as well as the artist's mastery of his material. For argument's sake, let's say most artists are concerned with their craft, with the technical details of it: the metre of poetry, the painterly technique, etc. Essentially, artists admire other artists who have perfected their craft, who display a mastery lacking in more amateur craftsmen. While any good critic will of course appreciate these skills, they are also considering the more banal issues of enjoyment and emotional response.

It isn't enough for an artist to say that he hates critics because critics don't understand the art making process, a ridiculous claim. Artists cannot have such fragile egos that any subjective negative criticism drives them to despair. Critics have been proved wrong in the past by changes in public taste and they shall no doubt be proved wrong in the future. Certainly, positive criticism can help a fledgling artist establish a career, but the assumption that a critic owes any artist anything other than a carefully considered opinion is ludicrous. Note I stress carefully considered opinion as too often critics indulge their own egos for the sake of shock-factor or publicity.

But to stress that critics and artists are natural enemies makes no sense to me. These two should be allies against the indolent and more and more culturally ignorant public as well as government budget makers who continually attempt to slash funding for arts programmes in this country. To say that critics are failed artists is a mistake, for what is criticism if not a creative exercise. Not that artists cannot and should not be critics, for on the contrary, some of our best literary critics are also some of our best writers. I suppose if anything, this then is my point. Instead of widening the gap between the two, banning artists and critics from being Facebook friends (that's actually what the Guardian blog writer suggests), we ought to encourage a more fruitful relationship between the two.

Monday, 13 April 2009

If Shakespeare had been in posession of a TV set, we'd never now have Romeo and Juliet

If nostalgia is a drug, I think I've recently taken an overdose.

Saturday evening I was transported for three hours to eighteenth-century Vienna, by way of the early nineteenth-century Italian composer, Vincenzo Bellini. In singing so heavenly the part of Romeo in Bellini's
I Capuleti e i Montecchi, the magnificent Elina Garanca opened her mouth and I closed my eyes and pretended I was listening to Farinelli. You may be wondering why a mezzo-soprano would be singing the part of Romeo, obviously a male singing role. Since we no longer castrate young boys, we no longer have great castrati in the opera world. Certainly I'm not suggesting we reinstate such barbaric practices, but who wouldn't give their left lung to spend a night at the Opera House under the spell of the divine Farinelli.

This is what Farinelli actually looked like,

but I much prefer this outlandish image from the 1994 film about his life, well - not really about his life, maybe about his sexed up and not very accurate life, but it's still a fun film.

And the singing is heavenly, indeed, though it's particularly interesting to see how the film's producers got around the tone problem. They recorded the Polish soprano, Ewa Malas-Godlewska and the American countertenor, Derek Lee Ragin separately and then digitally merged the two voices to recreate the sound of a castrato. In a live staging, such digital manipulation is impossible which is why roles like Bellini's bel canto Romeo are typically handled by mezzo-sopranos.

And Elina did not disappoint as a stand in for our missing castrato: her tone was marvellous, in fact I've seldom heard a more toffee caramel tone from a mezzo and it blended sumptuously (can you tell I'm hungry? Caramel, toffee sumptuousness?) with Anna Netrebko's Giulietta, who provided an equally accomplished performance. Sadly, the supporting players were lacking slightly and the staging was at times embarrassingly contrived, but this is after all the story of Romeo and Juliet and the leads more than made up for any of the production's other failings.

Then today I went to the
Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch - another one of those places you sometimes hear about, yet never get around to visiting. It's an absolutely marvellous place; very easy on the eye and, of course, provided another dose of nostalgia to perpetuate my weekend high. The museum is housed in a former home for elderly people and is comprised of "middle class" domestic interiors from 1600 to the present day. While I found the place delightful and fascinating, I also found it quite depressing to watch the gradual ebb of family activity and entertaining from the sitting room give way to the invasive, insular act of watching television. I also found the demise of the fireplace quite sad, and while central heating is obviously more effective (well, sometimes - only when it's working), from a purely ridiculous and aesthetic point of view, radiators are viciously ugly.

All these beautiful sitting rooms, which used to emphasise company, conversation, activity, and entertaining became completely reorganised in the 50s and 60s when the TV set took over. I don't know if people are consciously aware of it, but in so many sitting rooms the television is the central axis around which everything else must be arranged. And here the nostalgia kicks in again. Why can't we go back to spending evenings reading, playing cards, talking, and drinking at home? (she says, as she tap tap taps on her laptop late into the night...) I suppose for many who live in places like London, it's because we don't really have the space. But really, I think it's because TV has become an essential home, especially sitting room, activity. You don't need a lot of space to arrange a convivial sitting room. Get rid of the TV (ha!) and see how easy it is. And if you don't believe me, make a trip to the Geffrye Museum where you too can become a convert to the cult of nostalgia.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

<3 Beirut

I've got a lot of time for this man and his music.

a haunch of venison

Though it was only founded in 2002, Haunch of Venison is already one of London's most important commercial art galleries. It probably helped that the place was founded by Harry Blain and Grahan Southern, two chaps who used to run the contemporary art department of Christie's in London. The gallery only really represents superstars in contemporary art - two of the four 2007 Turner Prize nominees are HoV artists.

In 2007, HoV was bought out by Christie's and the art world went absolutely cracking mad. Auction houses are only supposed to sell work that has been previously purchase in a gallery. It's like when Damien Hirst caused such an uproar in the art scene when he bypassed the dealers and sold straight to the auction houses. Things just aren't done this way in the protocol-obsessed art world. I'm not suggesting I agree with any of it, but it's interesting to know what riles people up in the high financial stakes world of art dealing. In any event, HoV is not allowed to bid for any works at Christie's auctions nor were they allowed to show at the Frieze Art Fair in 2007, but no one really wants to go on the record as saying they have an issue as the big boss of Christie's, Fran├žois Pinault, shells out an awful lot of money on contemporary art. You wouldn't want to piss off the man who keeps your gallery in business, would you.

Still. Some good has come out of the buy out. HoV clearly has a lot more cash to throw about and the first thing they did was abandon their old gallery space in Haunch of Venison Yard, just off Bond Street. The space was quaint, but cramped and impossible to find, so it's a relief that they've moved. The gallery's new home is in Burlington Gardens, where the old Museum of Mankind used to be, though I didn't even know there was a Museum of Mankind. Unfortunately, like a lot of grand buildings, there's a massive discrepancy between upstairs and downstairs spaces. The curators should be banned from showing any work in the downstairs section of the gallery: the resemblance leans more toward an unloved 80s hotel which has seen better days and can't be spruced up with a coat of white paint than a grand gallery space. It's unfair to the works to show them in such inappropriate spaces, and I still can't figure out whether I really didn't like any of the art on the ground floor, or whether the rooms just put me in that bad of a mood for considering art.

When I walked up the grand staircase onto the first floor however, prospects immediately looked up. The first room I went in was spacious and light - simply far more appropriate for the display of contemporary art. Why do curators think white walls, white boxes all the time? The piece in this room is a new installation by Jannis Kounellis which consists of rows of dark overcoats pinned to the floor by iridescent lead plugs and framed by a single row of worn shoes. The piece is untitled, which always irritates me, but I've seen enough holocaust films to get the visual message. However, when I read the blurb, it talks about the trio of materials forming a lexicon that conveys messages of warmth, protection, and the passage of people and time, carrying the imprint of nomadic individuals. Right...

I laughed out loud when I walked into the next room, where hanging from the ceiling were two "anatomically correct" skeletons of Tweety and Sylvester by Hyungkoo Lee. I love the idea of using contemporary art to poke fun of or engage seriously with the practices of something like the displays at the Natural History museum. It's such a fresh and light-hearted take on contemporary art's obnoxious fascination with skulls and images of death. There were at least four different artists at this exhibition who either showed skulls or skulls juxtaposed onto human or animal bodies. It isn't new anymore, there's no shock factor or controversy in doing this and frankly the association has become a bit tired.

I have a weird thing about taxidermy. I just like it. I don't think it's sick or disgusting, but very pretty and sort of delicate. A little macabre, maybe, but I still like it. These taxidermy dogs are by Jochem Hendricks and are funny, creepy, and gorgeous. I loved this room as well. I'm not certain if HoV isn't allowed to hang things directly onto the walls or if there are renovation works still in progress, but the upstairs rooms all had floating walls in front of the original walls on which the artworks were hung. It made for a slightly strange viewing environment, but I did like that they at least painted these walls interesting colours as in the below image, where the wall was painted a deep turquoise.

My favourite piece in the show was an installation by Ed and Nancy Kienholtz from 1994 called 76 J.C.s Led the Big Charade. There are 76 different representations of Christ mounted on wagon handle pulls with the hands and feet from different (what looks like) ceramic dolls. Ed Kienholz was a religious cynic and thought the iconographic representation of Christ was an abuse of spirituality by organised religions which only contributed to a disillusion of faith. It's an absolutely marvelous installation, very well thought out, and quite provocative. At least more so than many of the other installations.

And finally we come to Bill Viola, the primary reason why I went to see the show. Viola is one of HoV's bigger artists and I've seen his work exhibited there previously in 2006, when he created a piece around Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Viola makes video installations - some are marvelous, others less so. Like the Michalek Slow Dancing film I posted about a month ago, Viola films nearly everything in slow motion. His videos are surprisingly painterly and I think you can get the sense of what I mean from the second image below, an installation called Small Saints. They look exactly like Harry Potterified Renaissance icons and are transfixing in their loveliness. The other piece on show is called Incarnation, though I couldn't find any images of it (the photo below is from the Tristan and Isolde video from 2006). Lately many of Viola's pieces seem to feature a sort of screen of water which his actors walk through - it looks incredible in his rich, saturated colours and slow motion films. Viola has a tendency to be a bit fantastic, a bit romantic, and a bit obvious, but nevertheless, he makes you work for every second of meaning.

So while this may not be the most thought provoking, change-your-life provocative show of contemporary art happening, it certainly is entertaining, light-hearted and whimsical. And sometimes what you really need from art is just a few hours of fun.

Thursday, 9 April 2009


I'm going to Berlin in a month. It's the only big European city I've never been to. Everyone tells me that it's the perfect city for me, which may be why I've resisted for so long.

I'm going with The Philosopher so it's bound to be an enlightening experience, but I want suggestions and recommendations from people with a bit more perspective.

What should we see? Where should we go? Any fantastic restaurants not to be missed? Great bars? Enquiring minds want to know.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

creating dystopia

One of the more tortuously embarrassing moments of my University life occurred early on. First semester, first year of Uni I had torrid, but thankfully brief, almost-kind-of-fling with an older man (who happened to have a pregnant on-again-off-again girlfriend). In a last ditch attempt to get my man I went over to his flat to argue my case. He pulled out the pregnant girlfriend card and that was that. In some ridiculous act of self-flagellation I accidentally locked my keys in my truck and so had to face the further humiliation of spending the night in said man's flat. He slept on the floor. I slept in his bed. Not how I originally intended the evening to pan out.

The next morning, walking back to my flat to pick up a spare set of keys, I rang my mother. I didn't tell her what had happened the night before and I don't remember most of the conversation, but I do remember telling her that I wanted to drop out of Uni, that I was being suffocated by the constriction of only being able to look at things in books that I wanted to see first hand. I told her that I was fed up and that I wanted to travel - to get away from everything. She said, as only one's mother can, that I was being an idealistic dreamer and that once I had finished my degree I could go and travel until I died. And finish I did, though I managed to make it to Europe and quite a few other places before I finished my degree.

Last night I went to an interesting theatrical phenomenon called Theatre in the Pound. The point of TITP is that it's a night of first come, first served performances. Each group performing pays £10, each attendee pays £1 and you get to experience a gaggle of interesting, if a bit rough around the edges, theatrical works in progress. I went to see The Boy and his merry band of men perform in their first gig in nearly a year. Of about six performances, The Boy's crazy George Orwell meets Jacques Tati performed entirely in the dark (with torches) sketchy play called "Dystopiary" was far and away the most interesting (and best performed - nicely done, chaps). Not to belittle their achievement, but considering they were in the company of an awful lot of students, two guys who had written a musical called "Motherland" set during "the epic battle of Stalingrad," and some poor chap who only had nine hours to rehearse his monologue, it might not be a fair comparison. Part of the point about TITP is that the audience is asked to provide feedback about the performances in an attempt to help the actors/writers/directors perfect their piece. This is how I know so many of the writers and actors were students - they volunteered the information.

I'm certainly not the first person to wonder whether art school or film school or any other creative education programme is worth it. If you want to make connections, get feedback, or have constant and regular incentive to practice or create, I can see how these reasons might justify spending the time and money. But wasn't it Epictetus who first said, "if you want to be a writer, write." Yes, some very talented and creative people have been nurtured through art schools or creative writing programmes, but it you want to be a writer, playwright, filmmaker, cellist etcetera, then write, make films, play the cello, take photographs, whatever. I also can't help but wonder whether someone like The Boy, who has a very unique and absurd sense of humour, might not have been discouraged rather than nurtured had he done a "comedy writing" course. I don't know. I don't really have a definite view on the issue - it was just sparked by the contrast in performances last night. The people who are a part of the school machine seem to be stilted and even a bit machine like themselves, while people outside the fold are maybe more able to develop truly original and innovative creativity. I think everyone needs support and maybe structure, but can you really be a true original if you're constantly surrounded by people all trying to do the same thing? Education or experience? No easy answers indeed...

Monday, 6 April 2009

dinner party diva

I used to love giving dinner parties. Well, I should say I used to love the idea of giving Martha Stewart perfect dinner parties. Once everyone actually arrived, or maybe even before that - during all the prep - I was too much of a control freak to have a good time. And so I hated them and I think my friends hated me for forcing them to come to my control-freak dinner parties where everything was just about perfect, but no one had a good time. Sorry chaps!

Once I moved to London, though, I seriously chilled out when it came to throwing a party. I adopted an "I don't give a damn" attitude and I certainly wouldn't bother cooking anything, let alone a sit-down three-course meal for 10. Take lots of people, add plenty of booze, a bit of funky dance music and there you have it, a party. Though I later learned, cleaning up a red wine soaked flat the next morning isn't much fun either, so better to do what everyone does and meet up for a night on the town. No more domesticated dinner parties for me - I'm a reformed soul and pleased to say that I haven't lapsed in over three years.

Now going out to dinner, that is another matter altogether, and one which I wholeheartedly endorse. Where is this going, I hear you ask? I was minding my own this afternoon, enjoying an absolutely delicious lunch at Skylon (go, go, go - the food is delicious, the service is perfect, and I could linger over the view for hours) and keeping myself company with May's Esquire. One of the first posts I ever wrote was about Esquire magazine and I still read it regularly. They have a sort of agony aunt sex page where people can "write in" with questions. This month's question was "My girlfriend loves dinner parties. I hate her friends, and when I am with them I begin to hate her. What should I do?" Even though I suspect this is in infringement of twenty or so copyright laws relating to intellectual property, I'm going to reproduce the answer in full below (it's long) because it made me laugh so hard I practically snorted amaretto sour out my nose. It's written by a journalist called Tanya Gold (I now wish I hadn't googled her...) so the powers that be don't think I'm trying to cop the credit.


Ah, the dinner party - the foodie equivalent of the Battle of Ypres, but with little bits of salmon. The first question we must address when dealing with your problem is: what are dinner parties for?

The answer is: they are for spreading evil. Have you seen Omen III? The one where the devil buggers a woman with a perm, to demonstrate satanic intent? Or the Keanu Reeves film with Al Pacino as the devil? Or the Arnold Schwarzenegger film with Gabriel Byrne as the devil?

And what did all these Antichrists have in common? Horns? Tails? Little size-three gnarled feet? No. They all went to dinner parties a lot. Damian Thorn of Omen III looks just like the Gold Blend man. I think he is the Gold Blend man, actually. And so my second question is: how long have you been dating the Antichrist?

Please don't think I judge you. I dated the Antichrist at university and it wasn't that bad. It took me to the Taj Mahal for a curry and gave me at least a third of an orgasm.

But enough of me. Dinner parties were invented solely for upper-middle-class people to show off to each other, while pretending to be friends. It goes like this:

"I earned £4m on my way back from the loo, Martin. Why do you have black toilet paper?"

"Nice bottle of white burgundy, Alan. My wife saw the black toilet paper advertised in Wallpaper* magazine."

"It's a chablis, actually, Martin."

"Oh, I thought it was a white burgundy, Alan, because I spent £9,000 on a bottle of white burgundy 10 minutes ago, and it tasted just like this."

"Oh, Martin, you should consider doing a wine-tasting course at Sotheby's so you sound more affluent and less stupid. Fiona and I did one last year and it was so interesting that we completely forgot that we hate each other and that the last time she gave me a blowjob that was not in exchange for jewellery was in 1986."

I can think of three reasons why your girlfriend likes them. Possibility 1. She is bulimic and like to eat in public, so people don't realise she is bulimic. As in, "I saw Poppy at a dinner party last week! She can't possibly be bulimic!" "Oh no! We will have to think of something else to talk about!"

"Oh no! I had to fire my conversation guru, as well as the man who styles my logs, due to the credit crunch!"

"How about, is your child more likely to be strangled by a Cornish paedophile with funny eyes or run over by its father driving a BMW X5?"

"Do you know anyone who styles flattened child corpses?"

"No! Yes! Yes, I do!"

Possibility 2. Your girlfriend is stupid and facile and believes that lying about opera is fun.

Possibility 3. Antichrist. Sorry. I really am. (I'm really not.) I'm sure the children will get into Westminster anyway and plastic surgeons can do incredible things with horns and little size-three gnarled feet these days. It may even start a trend.

Solutions? If the answer is 1, you need a shrink. To catch one, stand outside Tesco in Hampstead High Street for 1.8 seconds and one will walk past. You wil recognise it because it is 86 years old and wearing ripped Levi's 501s and a tight T-shirt. It is about to join a 25-year-old blonde woman with an Electra complex in a bright red Jaguar XJS convertable for a dirty weekend. When it is back, and has confessed to its wife, it will sit in its Harley Street consulting room and write your girlfriend prescriptions, so she can shrug off bulimia and become addicted to pharmaceuticals.

If the answer is 3, however, you need an exorcist. Check out the Tatler Society Exorcist Supplement. Some of them use Theo Fennell candlesticks, and are recommended by the Pope.

If, however, the answer is 2, you should cure her yourself. I would suggest you dump her for being a dinner-party-loving-slut-imbecile-retard-whore, who wants to waste good shagging time on passive-aggressive conversation, but I suggested that last month and I don't want to repeat myself because Esquire might not pay me. So. How to cure her?

Um. I'm thinking. This is the bit where I give proper advice. So I'm thinking. Umm. Must get a biscuit. Ummm. Must have a wank. Ummmm. Must wipe the kitchen with an anti-bacterial wipe. Ummmm. Thinking. Thinking. Tanya is thinking. Thinking. I have it! I think you should make her watch Feed, a 2005 horror film where a serial killer feeds obese women the liquid fat of obese women he's just killed, through a straw. He finds a fat woman, feeds her fat, she dies of fatness, and he feeds her fat to the next fat woman. Etcetera. If she doesn't take the hint, re-enact the movie for leisure reasons.

(Okay - so the end is a bit weak - but the rest is marvellous)

Saturday, 4 April 2009

I know it isn't politic to say, but I really can't stand Jacqui Smith

Despite the whole taxpayer funded porn fiasco, I'd hate the lady anyway if only for her association with the positively draconian Home Office whose policies make me want to string her up from the Tower Bridge. But more on that later...

Another beautiful Saturday and I'm stuck inside. I've got a chapter deadline in two months, and having done little more than five minutes worth of work in the last two weeks, I've come out to the middle of nowhere to put my head down and catch up on two weeks in two days. No distractions, no noisy upstairs neighbours, no, um, kitchen to distract me (ha ha ha ha) - no other distractions, apart from myself that is. Every time I look up from my shiny macbook, I'm confronted with my own face (because there's a large mirror hung on the wall - not because I'm hallucinating). Sure I like my face, but it's a bit strange to always see yourself looking back at you, every time you're trying to understand why 18th-century Frenchmen were so blood-thirsty...

Not only that, but I may have accidentally brought along a few distractions in the form of a few films and a thick stack of magazines. I think I may have a magazine obsession. It's not healthy. I have only one sibling, a younger brother, and when we were little he wanted to do pretty much everything I wanted to do and naturally, my mother encouraged him as it meant we could be shuttled around simultaneously. He's into his own hobbies now, thank god, but it's funny how a two way relationship eventually developed. Two things my brother loved when he was younger: Calvin and Hobbes and Wired magazine. I think my brother has sadly grown out of both, but luckily for the family name, I'm keeping the torch alight. I adore Calvin and Hobbes and I was also rather heartened to discover that Wired has just launched a UK version of the mag. I'm not a huge techie, but for some reason I really like Wired. It's beautifully put together and the features are interesting. I stopped reading newspapers apart from the FT and most fashion-y magazines because I always felt cheated and vaguely disappointed after flipping the last page over. Like I'd just invested all this time and energy into reading the whole thing only to be filled with thoughts of the world's impending destruction, children who'd been raped at the age of 2, or fashionistas who needed to get a serious grip on reality. I like the FT, the Spectator, Wired, and the New Scientist because they don't make me feel like I've wasted my investment of time and brain space. I'm interested in the world and its happenings, but I want to know what's important - without the doom and gloom bollocks that sells other papers and tabloid mags.

Take the whole Jacqui Smith expenses fiasco. Predictably the Guardian half-heartedly defended the Home Secretary and the reporter focused much of her attention on a possible Labour mole in the fees office - as if we should all be shocked at the moral reprehensibility of the mole who leaked office secrets. The Telegraph got Boris to deliver a rousing denunciation of Labour over-spending in general, not just expenses. It was only the Spectator's Rod Little who made the point with panache, humour, and a relatively bipartisan attack on the sheer ridiculousness of tax payers effectively subsidising MPs living expenses. That old US saying, "no taxation without representation" obviously holds no weight on the other side of the Atlantic... And just because it pisses me off, but what in the world did Jacqui Smith's husband have to apologise for? As far as I'm concerned she is responsible for putting through her own expenses, or at the very least, approving what goes on the expenses. Why are any TV or internet bills going through her expenses? Surely the only things that ought to be paid for by taxpayers are for expenses that directly relate to the business of being an MP: travel and related expenses, the second house allowance (which obviously needs a serious overhaul), and that's it. I don't see how it's her husband's fault - even if he should read my last post on porn and cease use immediately. Though I imagine if Jacqui Smith were my spouse, I'd resort to porn too. Surely there's one positive: at least he wasn't using taxpayer money to claim expenses for prostitutes...

Enough distraction. Back to work.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

the brain that changes itself, part 2

If you want to experience the power of neuroplastic change, I suggest you develop a porn habit.

I promised a discussion of pornography and plasticity in my last post on the topic and I'll try to give at least a bit of an explanation here.

Pornography appears, at least on a surface level, to be a purely instinctual matter: sexually explicit images trigger instinctual responses which are supposedly the product of millions of years of evolution. But supposing that were true, we would assume that pornography would be static and unchanged over the years. We would expect that the same triggers, body parts and proportions that appealed to the first consumers of porn would still excite us today.

Obviously this is not the case at all, and you only have to hop on the web to find endless evidence which counteracts this claim. Pornography is a dynamic phenomenon that perfectly illustrates the progress of acquired tastes. Thirty years ago 'hardcore' porn typically meant the explicit depiction of sex between two partners, while softer porn usually meant pictures of women - on a bed or at a dressing table - in various states of undress. Now, hardcore has evolved into something completely different and its subsections have increased ten-fold: BDSM, group sex, anal sex, you name it, pretty much anything goes - but quite a lot of hardcore porn fuses sex with violence, hatred, and humiliation (on either gender, not necessarily traditional gender roles). Softcore porn is now what hardcore was a few decades ago, which even Jacqui Smith's husband can download from cable TV. Those softcore images of women from 30 years ago are now entirely commonplace and show up in all forms of mainstream media.

This wider cultural trend speaks to the more particular effects on the brain maps of individual consumers. Like other facets of human sexuality and romance, the key issue is tolerance. On the cultural and individual level we are like drug addicts who can no longer get high on the images that once turned us on. And the danger is that this tolerance will carry over into relationships, leading to ah hem...potency problems and new, at times unwelcome, tastes. I'm not saying that porn is evil or you'll go to hell for using it and casual, irregular use is probably not much of an issue. But what people don't realise is that, like any other addictive behaviour, all addiction involves long-term, sometimes lifelong neuroplastic change in the brain.

Pornography is more exciting than satisfying because we have two separate pleasure systems in our brains, one that has to do with exciting pleasure and one with satisfying pleasure. The exciting system relates to the 'appetitive' pleasure that we get imagining the things we desire - sex or good food - and this chemistry is largely dopamine-related which raises our tension level. The second pleasure system has to do with satisfying the 'appetitive' pleasure - when you actually get the sex or the food. Its neurochemistry is based on the release of endorphins, which chill you out and lead to that calming, fulfilling sense of pleasure. By offering your brain an endless stream of sexual objects for excitement, porn hyperactivates the appetitive system. Regular viewers develop new brain maps based on the photos they see and the videos they watch. And because it is a use it or lose it brain, when we develop a new map area, we long to keep it activated. Just as our muscles become impatient for exercise if we've been sitting all day, so too do our senses hunger to be stimulated.

It's unbelievable how much people take this repetition for granted. Our activities significantly alter our brains and thus our brains have the ability to significantly alter our actions. We are creatures who absorb the environment around us, who suck up stimuli like Brawny paper towels. There's an interesting theory linking the increase of autism among children to the fact that more of the world's population live in cities. The constant stimulation of children who live in cities leads to a lack of an ability to differentiate between white noise and important noise - these are the sort of factors which contribute to autism developing later in life - an overstimulation of the nucleus basalis (the part of our brain that allows us to focus our attention - during a child's critical period, a nerve growth factor called BDNF or brain-derived neurotrophic function, turns on the nucleus basalis and keeps it on throughout the entire critical period - this is why we learn language (well, learn everything really) so easily as children and find it much more difficult after the critical period when the nucleus basalis is only activated by periods of directed concentration) means that the children take in too much information and find it difficult to focus and differentiate later.

If you're still with me, let's go back to sexuality and also bring back the idea of nature/nurture.

If another way of considering the nature versus nurture issue is acquired versus natural tastes, then plasticity has yet another interesting contribution to make. Sexual tastes are often acquired, influenced by cultural tastes (why so many people find Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie attractive) and experience (if you had a blonde lover and he was fantastic in bed, you might be more likely to believe that blonde men make better lovers) and is often acquired and then wired into the brain. Sexual plasticity is a good overarching metaphor for neural plasticity. People can have fluid sexualities, engaging in relationships with white women, black men, find younger people attractive, hell - some people find cars or shoes attractive. Given that we accept sexuality as an instinctive and biologically necessary behaviour, the possibility for the variety of our sexual tastes is bewildering. As Doidge points out in his book, instincts generally resist change and are thought to have a clear, non-negotiable, hardwired purpose, such as survival. Yet the human sexual 'instinct' seems to have broken free of its core purpose of reproduction, and varies to an extent not seen in other animals. Anthropologists have demonstrated that for a long time humans did not know that sexual intercourse was required for reproduction - it was a learned behaviour then, just as it is now. This detachment from its primary purpose is perhaps the ultimate sign of sexual plasticity.

Sexual plasticity may also be related to dopamine. Dopamine loves novelty and just like the body builds up a tolerance to drugs if they are abused, so does the brain develop a sort of tolerance of a lover which inevitably leads to the loss of that romantic high (you know, the honeymoon period). This change is not so much a sign that either lover is inadequate or boring, but that their plastic brains have so well adapted to each other that it is harder for them to get that same dopamine buzz they got at the beginning when every experience was new and novel. There is this idea that the partners are responsible for providing the relationship's stimulation, but what is interesting is that when this bored couple engage in new experiences together they are using novelty to turn on the pleasure centres (releasing dopamine), so that everything they experience, including each other, excites and pleases them.

So dopamine and pleasure seeking can, unsurprisingly, be both good and bad.

To keep the mind alive you must learn something truly new with intense focus. This is what will allow you to both lay down new memories and have a system that can easily access and preserve the older ones. Take a physical activity, dance for example. Simply performing the movements you have already learned will not keep your motor cortex in shape. This is why an activity such as learning a new language as an adult is so beneficial for the brain. Because it requires intense focus (if you're doing it properly, that is), studying a new language turns on the control system for plasticity which helps to lay down and maintain the new memories. If you're learning a new language under a method which supplies some kind of reward for progress, even better as this stimulates the control system for plasticity to keep up its production of dopamine and acetylcholine - both of which enhance the amplitude of synaptic potentials following long-term potentiation in many regions - i.e. reward during learning triggers the pleasure centres in your brain (the dopamine), which makes you want to keep learning and the acetylcholine enhances the synaptic potential of these new connections.

So turn off the porn and figure out how to make the brain's pleasure centres work for you and not against you.