Sunday, 25 March 2018

Counter Investigations: Forensic Architecture at the ICA

Legal cases usually allow both legal teams - prosecution and defence, in criminal cases - to examine and make use of the relevant evidence. But while governments have their own evidence-gathering experts and the money and knowledge to commission additional external expertise if needed, the people and organisations that might find themselves having to defend themselves against or challenge the state generally don't have access to these kinds of resources.

That's where Forensic Architecture comes in. It's an "independent research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London", according to London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, which is showing an exhibition of the agency's work.

The ICA's website says: "Forensic Architecture is not only the name of the agency but a form of investigative practice that traverses architectural, journalistic, legal and political fields, and moves from theoretical examination to practical application."

Actually, if the exhibition is a reliable guide, then the agency practices very little architecture as most people would think of it, and really carries out research encompassing interviewing, forensic examination, reconstruction and - the area where architecture is most at play - digital and physical modelling.

They've been commissioned by non-governmental organisations and families to examine evidence relating to potential human rights abuses, crimes and state violence, including police killings, state airstrikes, and the EU's handling of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.

It's a fascinating subject for an exhibition, and the ICA devotes a lot of space to it, including multiple videos and charts and a recreation of the floor-plan of an internet cafe where a murder took place.

Eddy Frankel was fairly scathing in his review of the exhibition in Timeout, and he has a point when he says:

"All along the opening walls of this show are long, involved, mega-academic essays on the ‘forensics of aesthetics’ and shit like that. Is it a concession to the usual blah-blah waffle of the art world? Or is it simply an inability to condense down all the inward-looking, shoe-gazing academic theory at the heart of Forensic Architecture into something that can really connect with people? Probably a bit of both."

The section of the exhibition he highlights is interesting in flagging that aesthetics plays a part in courtroom presentations of forensic evidence even though evidence itself is supposedly straightforwardly factual, but it's a point that has minimal relevance to the case studies presented. There are also far more accessible ways of saying that the human body records evidence of the impacts of some of the things it experiences.

Furthermore, it's not always clear what, if anything, resulted from the agency's work. In some cases this is because the work is ongoing, but in others - such as the reconstruction of an airstrike - it seems to have been left out.

Likewise I had doubts about some of the findings. An increase in deaths in the Mediterranean is attributed to a specific cause, whereas it looked to me like it could have been due simply to the seasonal increase in attempted migrant crossings during the summer. A video is asserted to show a soldier pretending to discharge a shell from a rifle, when actually something that looks very much like a shell clearly ejects from the chamber.

But Forensic Architecture is, as I said, a fascinating agency that seems to help provide a counterpoint, in situations of a massive power imbalance, to the ability of governments to control the generation of evidence and expert analysis. And this exhibition provides a substantial, if at times somewhat confusing and frustrating, insight into how it does that.

It's well worth dropping by.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Review: Andreas Gursky at the Hayward Gallery

People at the exhibition

Art is at least as much about what's left out as what's included. A sketch of someone can be all the more moving for excluding their surroundings; a photograph can highlight neglected details by zooming in on parts of a whole.

This also mirrors how the human eye and mind work. Our eyes can focus on only one small area at once, while our brain generally limits our attention to what matters most at any given moment, filtering out the rest.

But this is not how the world really is, and that's part of the point of the Andreas Gursky works currently on display at London's Hayward Gallery.

Many of Gursky's works are very large, and depict monumental scenes of people interacting with their environment on an epic scale.

More than that, he uses post-production techniques to splice together multiple images of the same scene, so that he can capture and reproduce more of it - and all with the same sharpness of focus, rather than with any blurring, curving or fading away at the edges.

This is not how we perceive the world, and yet it represents the world as it really is. Objects we aren't focusing on at any given time don't really become blurry, just as background noise doesn't really reduce in volume as we eavesdrop on a particular conversation - it only seems that way to us. In reality these things carry on as before, just as big or small, just as important or unimportant, regardless of who's looking.

Similarly, the things that seem monumental to us are actually hardly any more or less so than the things that seem inconsequential. The different threads in a carpet, as depicted abstractly in one Gursky photograph, are barely any different in size to the glacier and mountains depicted in another if considered on the scale of subatomic particles or the distances between galaxies.

Even when Gursky takes more egregious artistic liberties, such as when he manipulates the capture of two Formula 1 pit crews to make the team members more multitudinous and their exertions seem simultaneous with each other, he gets closer to the real truth by doing so. A single snapshot of a pit stop wouldn't convey the frantic speed of the action or the competitive importance of it as brilliantly as the hyperreal, toyed-with version.

In collapsing several moments and perspectives into a single work, like David Hockney did with his Polaroid collages, Gursky gets closer to the reality of multidimensional spacetime.


Not that Gursky always wants to portray everything as it really exists in the world. His depiction of the Bahrain grand prix circuit chops the track up into multiple kaleidoscopic pieces that lead to nowhere, while the one of the pit crews intensely isolates the cars and people in a sea of black space like a computer game emphasising a highlighted character or object selection from an array of options.

But even here one could argue that Gursky is getting closer to the truth. Even if, in the real world, photons fall from the sun onto surfaces at the same rate regardless of what those surfaces are made of or how they got there, likewise raindrops and wind, and even if all materials are ultimately made up of the same subatomic stuff, the deeper truth is that some things are different by virtue of their origin or emotional resonances. A Formula 1 car is different to a mountain because of the thousands of hours of human effort and ingenuity that have gone into its design and manufacture, while a tarmac loop in the desert deserves attention for the sheer absurdity of its having been forced into being.

Gursky somehow captures that. One of the many things he does with his pieces - as well as documenting the interplay and mutual impacts of people and the environment - is make us think differently about the world and our place in it. And that, again, is what art - some great art, if not all - is about.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Rachel Howard; Study (2005)

Rachel Howard's painting Study, currently on display in London's Newport Street Gallery, is a rendition of the infamous photograph of Ali Shallal al-Quisi being tortured by US military personnel in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

It's being exhibited alongside 14 other paintings, each of which was created by pouring paint and varnish down the canvas, to produce an effect similar to that used to reproduce al-Qaisi's robe in Study.

Those paintings are all mostly abstract, and might not have brought much to my mind. But because Study is figurative, and perhaps because I'd been prompted by TimeOut's review of the exhibition - opening sentence: "Humanity is capable of abominable acts of violence and degradation" - I found myself thinking of the runs of paint as representing humanity literally draining out of the world in response to the horror of the situation; colour and richness drawing away in abhorrence or despondence.

From that point of departure, the other paintings, despite their abstraction, can be seen as extensions of the first, if you choose to view them that way - as showing life in flight.

Probably that's not what Howard had in mind, but that was my take.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Book review: The Story of The Face, Paul Gorman, 2017

The Face was the coolest British magazine to garner a fairly large mainstream following, a feat that made it enormously influential not only in the publishing industry but also in fashion, design, photography and music. In this book, Gorman traces the history of the magazine from its establishment on a shoestring by founding editor Nick Logan in 1980 through to its peak at the height of Cool Britannia and its subsequent decline, sale and death after the turn of the millennium.

What comes across most strongly are the low-budget, small-scale, egalitarian, collegiate but perfectionist nature of the editorial office and how The Face changed the game with its insistence on great design alongside editorial standards and capturing the zeitgeist. It feels like Gorman had a good degree of access to the main players and materiel, not least Logan.

The book itself is high-end, with generous glossy reproductions of the magazine's covers and contents. At £35 it isn't quite as good value as say some Taschen books (it's published by Thames and Hudson), but it is a big, hefty bugger - and that's very much an asset, not a failing.

If it has slight shortcomings, they're that the focus is perhaps too much on The Face itself, when more attention to some of its competitors and stablemates - particularly in the photographs - would have been useful, and that in the later stages the telling becomes somewhat of a churn of barely identifiable editors and contributors. More photos and telling details of the cast might have helped there.

But ultimately the book is a treat: a lush, comprehensive encapsulation of what was so great about possibly the greatest British magazine. It feels not merely warranted, but necessary - and it almost lives up to the standards of the publication it eulogises. Almost.

Book review: Adults in the Room, Yanis Varoufakis, 2017

Adults in the Room, economist-turned-politician Yanis Varoufakis's account of his attempts while Greek finance minister to get the country's creditors to agree to write off some of its debts in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, opens like a thriller. Although it then goes on to become a slightly overlong blow-by-blow account, it always maintains its grip on your interests, even though you know how things turned out

You can understand why Varoufakis would have wanted to set the record straight with a microscopic account of the events given how he was maltreated by the media through the machinations of his political opponents, but the middle part of the book does drag slightly with the succession of meetings and papers.

On the other hand, how often do you get the chance to take a ringside seat at the eurogroup? Not very.

Among the major players, only Varoufakis and Emmanuel Macron emerge from the book with their reputations essentially intact. The Eurogroup itself, most of its member ministers, the media, the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, Sigmar Gabriel, Wolfgang Schauble and even Angela Merkel all display varying degrees of incompetence, ineffectiveness, illogicality, callousness and foolishness, even allowing for some bias on the part of the author. 

This is a sometimes-thrilling, ultimately depressing account of how governments and institutions can allow themselves to become trapped by circumstances, group-think, myopia and stubbornness. There are glimmers of hope for a better future, not least in Macron, but will those glimmers coalesce into a guiding light?

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Ask me, ask me, ask me

The prospect of a second referendum on the UK's membership of the EU, or on the nature of its future relationship with the EU, has been on many a lip and TV show since Nigel Farage suggested he might be open to the idea in order to kill off the question for a generation.

One pretty common reaction is demonstrated by the guy 40 seconds into the above video - asking how many referendums there might be, or whether there should be a "best of five", etc.

For many people, the idea is a bit like this scene in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, where our heroes are aggrieved to have to play the Grim Reaper over and over again having already beaten him at Battleships:

But the EU referendum differs from this in crucial ways, as Farage has recognised. Firstly, the result was ridiculously close. Farage even said before the referendum that if the outcome was split 52%-48% (he was assuming that would be in favour of Remain), there ought to be a second ref.

Requiring a straightforward majority is standard in referendums internationally. However, "supermajority" requirements of say 60% and double majority requirements (meaning both an overall majority and a majority backing of, say, in the UK's case, all four of its component nations), are far from unknown (PDF and article).

Furthermore, in this instance, almost every promise made by the winning Leave campaign has now been reneged upon. There will be no £350m per week for the NHS, economic growth will be lower outside the EU, migration will need to remain high, sovereignty will be relinquished to the US, China and India rather than to an entity over which the British people have a substantial degree of control, etc etc.

All of which favours a second referendum. Ideally one in which the options are clear and the campaigners are held to account for what they say.

Personally, I'd be in favour of taking no drastic action - neither leaving the EU nor lending British backing to further EU integration - unless there is at least a 55% majority, and ideally a 60% majority, one way or the other.

One objection that is often raised is that the British people will feel like they've been betrayed if there's a second ref. This tends to go hand-in-hand with the suggestion that the referendum will be repeated until the "elites" - whoever they are, given that the Leave campaign included the likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg - "get the result they want".

This is ridiculous. People don't collapse when they're asked the same question more than once. Remember Ed Miliband?

Nor are people like fruit machines that spit out different answers at random. If people feel strongly one way or another, they'll turn out again and vote in accordance with their feelings. If they don't they'll stay home, and will have no right to complain.

And if the answer isn't clear cut, the political outcome should be one of compromise that pays heed to the closeness of the result.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Winner takes all, but victory is Pyrrhic

Theresa May's Brexit plan, which entails leaving the EU's Single Market (which the UK itself essentially created) and not being part of a customs union with the EU, is the most extreme form of Brexit shy of a "no deal" situation (which would be utterly disastrous).

In pursuing this hard Brexit, May is ignoring the views of the 48 per cent of referendum voters who backed Remain. She's also ignoring the narrowness of the result, the vagueness of the referendum question, the many lies told by the Leave campaign, the likely preferences of EU citizens resident in the UK, the Remain majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the preferences of most businesses and, last but not least, the fact that young people, who will have to live with the effects of Brexit the longest, overwhelmingly favoured Remain.

Why is May doing this? She was herself a remainer, after all, albeit not a very effective one.

In large part, she's probably doing it because she's wanted to be prime minister all her life, and she knows that she would face a leadership challenge from hard-core eurosceptic Tories if she pursued a softer Brexit. She's putting her career ahead of the country.

But it seems to me she's also probably been enabled and emboldened by the standard model of British politics, which is the first-past-the-post electoral system.

Under FPTP, the party that wins an outright majority can implement its manifesto in full - or in practice can do whatever the hell it likes - with no regard to the extent to which any given policy was emphasised in the election, the level of support for it among its own voters, the divergence on that issue in the opposing parties' manifestos, or the level of support for those policies among the opposing parties' voters.

The public mostly puts up with this, in part probably because people hope that their party will win next time, and in part probably because people are now so weary of politics in general that they can't be bothered to kick up a fuss.

But Brexit is different, or ought to be. First, the closeness of the result and the preference for Remain among young people make it very likely that there will be an outright majority in favour of Remain in the near future. That's assuming that there isn't already such a majority, which there might well be given the number and importance of the Leave lies that have now been exposed. Is it really wise to go through the horrendously costly and time-consuming process of leaving, only to then attempt to reverse that process in a few years' time?

Second, while we can probably assume that most Remain voters would favour staying in the Single Market and joining a customs union, while most Leave voters wouldn't, we don't really know. Certainly there are some Leave voters who favour those softer Brexit options.

So the fairest, least divisive, least disruptive options would be to recognise the closeness of the result and pursue a compromise remain or compromise soft Brexit, or hold a second referendum on the nature of the Brexit.

Unfortunately, the Labour opposition leader is an undercover leaver, and has done little if anything to oppose May's damaging actions, just as he did so little during the referendum campaign.

Hence it's fallen to rebels in both parties, like Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna, to provide the checks and balances that have been so sadly lacking.

Charles Tannock was one of three rebel Tory MEPs among 20 who signed a letter last week calling on May to remain in the Single Market and join a customs union with the EU.

As the Guardian reported, he "described the 52% victory for leave in the EU referendum as a margin “not convincing for Brexit, let alone the hardest of Brexits” given the scale of constitutional change".

Or as Andrew Adonis put it in his letter resigning his position on May's cross-party infrastructure commission:

“If Brexit happens, taking us back into Europe will become the mission of our children's generation, who will marvel at your acts of destruction.”

Monday, 1 January 2018

Book review: On Europe, Margaret Thatcher, 2017 (2002)

This extract, published this year, from a book Thatcher wrote in 2002 is interesting to read today for several reasons, foremost among which is the extent to which the arguments she advanced for reforming or terminating the UK's membership of the EU, and for the likely success of that endeavour, were adopted by the Leave campaigners in the UK's 2016 EU referendum, warts and all - and warts there are in plenty.

Take for example "The rest of the EU needs us more than we need them" and "EU workers are going to bring pressure on them [EU politicians] to keep our markets open". Both of these were uncritically parroted by the Leave campaign, and both are utter nonsense.

In support of the former assertion, Thatcher cites the fact that the UK is a "substantial net importer from the rest of the EU". Well, as well as this ignoring that British consumers want to purchase these EU goods, and would be unhappy at not being able to do so, it also ignores that the proportion of UK exports to the EU is much higher than the proportion of EU exports to the UK. Meaning the EU has the UK by the short and curlies. The latter assertion has now been disproved by history, as Germany's car manufacturers have lined up to emphasise the importance of the integrity of the EU's Single Market.

Indeed, On Europe is full of the kind of subjectivity, hypocrisy, wishful thinking, woolly logic, appeals to authority, and outright falsehoods that characterised the Leave campaign. For example, Thatcher complains that when she became PM, the UK was "on the verge of becoming the EEC's largest net contributor, even though we were then only the seventh richest nation per head". This of course is comparing apples with oranges: the net contribution of the UK, which is a total for the country as a whole, and therefore dependent on population size, and the UK's wealth per head, which is an average. To give just one more of the many examples of unsound argument, Thatcher compares unemployment in the UK, USA, Germany, France and Japan in order to attack Europe's stronger social protections, which she says hinder job creation. But she does so for just a single time point, rather than over a prolonged duration, and she ignores any consideration of whether, for example, France's citizens might prefer early retirement to low national unemployment.

But the book's biggest problem is its near-complete failure to engage with what ought to be the main question of any debate about the EU, which is: what is the ideal scale at which democracy should take place? Thatcher does make the occasional baseless assertion that, for example, the EU is inherently undemocratic purely because "there exists no pan-European public opinion", or that Europe is inherently divided because "it makes no sense at all to lump together Beethoven and Debussy, Voltaire and Burke, Vermeer and Picasso, boiled beef and bouillabaisse". But she makes no attempt to set out why it makes more sense for, say, defence policy or interest rates to be decided at the scale of the UK rather than that of Europe, or why Westminster should have total sovereignty but not Scotland, or why decentralisation is a good thing when it entails more power for nations but a bad thing when it means more power for regions (e.g. through the Committee of the Regions).

There may well be answers to these questions that make EU membership less attractive - it's a fascinating thought - but Thatcher didn't provide them, and nor has anyone else that I've seen, either prior to or since the referendum. Thatcher's arguments were a thin tissue full of holes that ought to have been shredded in the referendum. That they weren't says more about the nature of human decision-making and the state of British politics and journalism than we have yet dared to admit.