As assertions of female strength go, the eye make-up of the women of Jeddah, were they ever to win any battles, would undoubtedly be a catalyst for Pyrrhic victories. Jeddah is a very different town from Riyadh. A historic trading port dating back to the 6th centrury BC, its involvement in Arabian trade has always made it a multi-cultural hub within the Arab world. It is religion, despite the dominance of Wahabism within the Saudi state, that has helped keep Jeddah so cosmopolitan. Every year over 3 million muslims from every corner of the world descend on Makkah for the Hajj, bringing with them along with their shared faith, local cultures from places as disparate as Chicago to Bradford to Jakarta. It is because of this, amongst other reasons that on Jeddah’s streets, we see a significant portion of women walking with faces uncovered, and many young women wandering the malls, hijab removed laughing with cousins and nieces.
The most remarkable trend amongst the women of Jeddah, though, is their ability, within the confines of ‘modest’ dress as interpreted in Saudi- hijab, abaya, and often niquab- to assert their sexuality, a small assertion of an impotent power perhaps, but one that at least seems at odds with expectations of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Kohled, Mascara-ed, and eye-shadowed to match jewellry or coloured highlights of their abaya’s, their eye make up was a flag of individuality and sense of self within the confines of a set-up that to the west seeks to dehumanise or if not, certainly relegate to a lower division, women and femininity.
Don’t confuse this with any semblance of strength- though you could argue it was a sort of quiet sexual power game bubbling deep beneath the surface of a deeply patriarchal state. Seeing one woman leave her home, accompanied of course, and get into a car that she will never be able to drive and catching sight of a calf through the side of an abaya slit up to the knee gives the impression that however glacially, things are changing.
From Jeddah, on Makati: Trying not to devalue the urban experience
Makati feels like the kind of place where your key life choices should be to eat, drink and masterbate. And frankly it doesn’t inspire the imagination and I would be petrified of searching for pornography on my work machine. Fast food chain and identikit 5 star hotels line the corners of the avenues, interspersed by mall after mall, brands and concessions grouped by socio-demographic aspiration; dreams tempered by the realities of income. The highlight of Manila’s central business district is the ability to obtaining a small but tactical cache of over-the-counter ( at least here) medicines that will allow one to function the next morning if you decide to drink yourself into a stupor this evening. Tramadol- Check. Methanemic Acid- Check. Melatonin- Check. Diclofenac- Check. Propranalol- Check. The frequency of pharmacy’s points towards a preponderance amongst the populace to medicate. Clearly a highlight of any visit to the Philippine capital is a visit to the purveyor of rare chemicals and cures. Unfortunately both Diazepam and Vicodin are off the menu.
At breakfast in the Dusit Thani, rheumy eye-men old men and their young, hard-edged Fillipina brides sit close together like a mis-matched pairs of shoes at an end of season sales. Driving round the city, there are the most tantalising hints of what the European visitor may crave- old narrow streets, pedestrians, an allusion to some sense of past. An ancient monument under an overpass, a break in the canopyless trunks of anonymous skyscrapers hint at the historic centre, a clearing in the copse. But, to borrow from Taratino, its a wax museum with a pulse.
Wandering round the Malls as an outsider, you feel as though you are in some souless Stepford take on the urban experience. To approach Makati like that is to miss the point. The mall is the urban dream for so many. It’s the contemporary Agora. In Greenbelt 4 groups of young men in their friday best prowl the raised walkways, while young women congregate in knots outside cafes and bars while tables of businessmen, sleeves unbuttoned and rolled, and lone stiletto-heeled escorts both try energetically to seal their deals. Cities are born of their time and shaped by their age (I would contend that some become bridled by them) To impose one model of urban living on all is to miss the vibrancy and fascination that is there.
The strip-malls and shopping centres of Jeddah are the same; couples with and without children bustle into screened off ‘family areas’ in restaurants, while groups of younger men, enjoying ‘time with the boys’ circulate, an endocrine-induced Pavlovian response to the possibility of the night, despite the absence of any unaccompanied females. Its teeming with life and heat and ‘what-ifs’ hanging in the night air
The story is the same in any number of growing cities around the globe, and it is nothing other than real. To impose preconceptions on these cities is to put a barrier between yourself and what they have to offer. Its exactly what I did my first time in Makati City. They may not have the same cultural smorgasbord laid out as older places, but they can offer a very different and equally valuable version of the urban narrative. To see them without really looking because of certain expectations is to devalue the urban experience they have to offer. Cities like this are always more difficult for the visitor to interface with, but a closer look offers a tantalising hint of what is just out of your reach.
There was a time when the pinnacle of automotive achievement was to be ‘the ultimate driving machine’ ( I always thought that ‘the ultimate driver’s machine’ would have made a much better line, or if not a great proposition if you were briefing a team for BMW’s competition) Car advertising was about technical prowess, engineering as art. This was represented through a number of tropes. Whether it was the hyperreal phase that a number of premium manufacturers passed through pre-Lehman (typified by Lexus’ car on blue ray-gun road in black ‘nowhere’ enviroment), followed by the modernist phase that they settled into after (car with concrete-and-steel nu-new-international style edifice in background), extreme robustness- Polo’s small but tough- or unimpeachable build quality ( the long-standing foundation of Toyota and what lies belief Golf’s Golf-ness), cars were epic ode’s to manufacture. They celebrated intolerance of micrometric marginal errors. These were cars to be marvelled at, to be respected, to be feared, to be in awe of.
Recently though, it seems like the strong silent world of automotive advertising, where just like when Saturday comes on the terraces, it was permissible to show your emotions, but never to talk about your feelings. And just like that first breakthrough in therapy, once those emotions start flowing, it is increasingly difficult to hold them back. It should have been clear that this was in the pipeline when BMW told us a few years back that they were all about JOY. After that everyone followed.
One of the most interesting emergent trends in automotive communications at the moment is the notion of ‘aliveness’. Of course the car is just another machine, another tool, really little different from a magimix or a crowbar. Cars are also one of the most expensive purchases any consumer will make. Coupled with the amount of time many people spend in one, the ideas that you might place all your loved people and possessions in one and hurtle it across the country along a strip of tarmacadam at multiple times the maximum physical speed that man was designed to top out at ( Bolt’s 27.79mph between the 60th and 80th meters of his record breaking run in Berlin) and for some orders of magnitude greater a distance and it begins to take on a much more significant role. Modern cars, with the addition of driver aids, airbags, limiters and cruise controls are safer than they ever were before- all these machine controls mitigate the risk from the most unreliable part, the driver themselves. Of course, man’s hubristic nature means that as increasingly more sophisticated, and for most, unintelligible, layers of help are introduced, we feel more helpless, more detached. As driving is made better and better, it feels less like driving, and our own paranoiac complexes feel threatened, debilitated by this. So as the engineering drives (!) us ever closer to constructing the ultimate driving machine, we see a counterfactual narrative emerge in the way in which they are sold to us.
This is where the idea of Alive comes in. As cars get ever more clinical, we are now seeing OEMs tell us how ‘alive they are, how intuitive they are, how they feel. Not how they feel to drive, but how they feel. As cars, through engineering, through regulation, through restriction become hyper-rational, we are told that they are intuitive, that they are different from our magimixes and crowbars and televisions. They are or almost are, living breathing machines. It makes sense factually as well as counterfactually. As regulation means that all modern cars offer the same levels of engineering, and increasingly due to fuel and CO2 regulation and the way that dictates aerodynamics, the way they look, we can forget about the actuality of them, and buy into a myth that is purely emotional, instinctual and personal. Peugeot have made a play on the sensation of driving with their new 208 comms- ‘Let your body drive’. Nissan go even further with the Juke- constructing the car around their driver as he falls to earth, onto a stunt ramps, into a destruction derby arena while it is sprayed, before having the finishing kit added underwater, after which we are told it is built to thrill. To thrill idling outside the school gates? Stuck in heavy traffic on the M40? Any good lie, and car advertising, when it works are some of the best, needs a grit of truth. Peugeot uses a touch of humour to encourage suspension of disbelief, but we look at the Juke advert and can;t help thinking ‘yeah, right…’
The best two plays though on Aliveness, offering a fantasy of real sensation as our lives comes to resemble more and more a kind of over-legislated simulacrum come from two very different car makers. In fairness to Jaguar, they have a head start with the permissions afforded them with the name, but how alive are you acknowledges the increasing mechanical complexity that we are surrounded with, encouraging you to contemplate its dystopian possibilities, before encouraging you to prove that you are different from all that by buying car that has more processing power than the machine this is being written on. It is, however a neatly crafted push-pull, highlighting the problem you never knew you had with the machines around you then offering you the solution. The other comes from Toyota, who set you up as being in this ‘real’ virtual world, a Grand Theft Auto, computer-game existence, the escape from which can only come from their new GT86, a car that will wrench you, or rather allow you to wrench yourself into the ‘real’ real world. Modern cars as antidote to the increasingly numbing and standardised real world? Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Initial mental sketches for the post were filed under the heading ‘Why the Paralympics should stand on its own two feet’ but I realised that sounded like some kind of sick joke, which certainly wasn’t my intention. As the excitement dissipates from this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic games, London can look back on what was, a very successful summer. Records were broken, probably most significantly in attendance across the two games, and the public’s seemingly inexhaustible chest of complaints ran out just as Frank Turner set foot onto Danny Boyle’s toytown version of Glastonbury Tor, leaving us with nothing except hope for the summer’s games. By the time Thomas Heatherwick’s transient and transfixing flame was extinguished for the second time, people were saying ‘Olympomania’ with a straight face.
The momentum ( and last minute ticket grabs) that the Olympics created, shifted the Paralympics up a gear, generating a level of excitement previously unseen, causing by the end of the games a growing clamour of voices eager to merge the two. This summer’s games certainly established Paralympic sport with its own identity, stronger and more distinctive than before, and frankly, I believe combining the two is counterproductive, especially at a time when both brands are stronger than ever. Commercially, it is a hinderance to growing the Paralympics strength, and from a narrative perspective it is the wrong decision.
Aside from the obvious, that bringing the two together will encourage people to compare them as if they are ‘apples to apples’, it raises all kinds of sports science questions which we have seen tarnish sports twice recently- with the record-breaking era of the Speedo LZR swimming suits and with the protracted can-he-can’t-he over Oscar Pistorius and his Carbon Blades. The swim suit case was much more open and shut, and what was deemed to amount to mechanical doping was eventually banned by FINA. Pistorius’ is more interesting, as there have been many conflicting papers published over the advantages or disadvantages of his carbon blades- whether they recoup more energy than a set of biological calves would in the second half of a middle distance race. Furthermore, Pistorius’ own determination to run both games feels like it is a tacit undervaluing of the Paralympics. The question over any possible ‘unfair advantage’- with swimsuits or prosthetics- uncovers the the central plot to the Olympics; that, after the opening ceremony, the international goodwill, the spirit of the Olympic Truce, it is about individual glory, singular achievement- a ruthless, relentless and frankly, selfish, desire to be the best.
The Paralympics is a much more fascinating, nuanced thing- test-cricket to the Olympics T20, Dostoevsky to the Olympics Chandler. Channel 4 captured this brilliantly with its Superhumans trail for the paralympic games- the complex narrative arc, the incredible feats of humanity to get to the start line, the grit and guts and the teamwork ( in the broadest possible sense)- the real points of difference- in a way that felt neither patronising nor forced. A different broadcast and different lead sponsors in the UK gave the Paralympics a real chance to be set up if not in opposition, then certainly apart from the Olympic games. And the Paralympics benefitted for this. It seems counter to all this work to then try to merge the two, to try and combine these two stories, particularly as the Paralypics is the newer of the two, and as demonstrated by NBC is still a long way off from being immune from prejudice.
The boldest thing to do would be to run the Paralympics further apart- giving time to re-brand stadia, adapt facilities and give the public time to catch their breath before plunging them into a new drama, rather than run the two together and risk one feeling like the other’s denouement. Combining the two would simply cloud two brilliant and very different brands.
Forty day and forty nights since the last post on this blog. It has a faintly biblical ring to it. That fact isn’t for lack of ideas, there has been a surfeit of ideas, a torrent even, but run on time. When you finally sit down to write, invariably it is the last thing that you thought of that is the first one out.
I was reading a piece in this weekend’s FT magazine that reminded me of something I had written earlier this year, which in turn echoed a piece I had writted some time the year before. Entitled ‘Free for all, read by none’, in it, Gillian Tett, asserted that the internet, rather than connecting us with the rest of the world, draws us into an ever decreasing spiral, our circle tightening and tightening, like an overwound clock spring that refuses to break. But in many way a break is exactly what is needed. My own version of this ‘Is the Guardian making you stupid?’ was aimed at the self-affirming reading habits at many of those in positions of cultural dominance as well as in fact many who operate in the corridors of hard power ( the current discussion that just reared its head this morning to bring back the death penalty demonstrates how everything is up for grabs, and may come as a surprise for many who have been blithely living in that liberal monoculture). A previous post, some time back ‘Places other than London’ reflected on the geographical version of this navel gazing, particularly applicable during that particular spell in advertising when that was written. Tett’s article takes this to the next logic stage. That as the web becomes bigger, the world that we interact with on it becomes smaller- add to that selecting traditional media brands that hold a mirror to ourselves and parrot back that opinions that we hold to be truths ( Analysis on Radio4 last night was very interesting on this) and the internet is shrinking our mental worlds, just as the cross-connected Alpha cities may be shrinking our geographical ones. The web gives us the potential to connect to ideas as diverse and as challenging to Aboriginal rights in Australia to Lesbian womens emancipation in Zimbabwe. Yet we persist with the same three Comment is Free columnists and an amusing picture of a seal.
So what is the answer to all this. There was a gem of an idea emerging, something which, as a second tier future citizen (‘those who cannot code’) I cannot execute. Google for the curious- a search engine for serendipity, a ‘random article’ button for the whole of the web, to select from the widest possible range of the interesting, obscure, engaging and challenging that is out there. If Google narrows, then this should broaden, provide a sense of chance, happenstance and delight to the web. To bring alive the great undiscovered world that is only one, bling lazy and as-yet un-done click away. There have been those that have tried- those who claim to be ‘discovery engines’, but here for discovery, read ‘similarity’. What we need is a way of plugging into the possibility of the web, rather than limiting the bounds of our own curiosity.
Ai Wei Wei and Herzog and Meuron’s Serpentine Pavillion was described by its curator as a ‘palimpsest of ghosts’. The structure takes the foundation of the previous 11 years buildings and circumscribes their foundations and rubble to create a structure that is both wholly original and yet also clearly derivative. It is less a structure in its own right as it is a meditation on how the past lives side by side silently with the present. It softly muses on what it means to remember, what it is to live with memory.
It’s record is in many way incredible human. It is in fact a subtle jamais vu. The previous foundations were never there to be ‘unearthed’ in the process of this one’s inception. Instead, it was created by laying the previous designs over each other, building up the past layers as if the next architect had literally as opposed to figuratively built upon each previous pavilion.
The collaboration represented a chance for the artist to collaborate with Herzog and de Meuron on his own terms, after having been employed as a consultant to the architects to work on the design of the Bird Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics and later distancing himself from the project and the whole Beijing 2008 project, wondering why China lacked ‘the self-confidence to clearly examine yourself, rather than to give this kind of pretend smile on your face’. The collaboration itself nearly did not go ahead, with Ai unable to leave China. Skype and other online methods had to be used to overcome his geographical confinement.
In many ways it is typical of both its creators work. Ai deals with memory, forgetting, the past and loss across many mediums in his work, from modernisation’s wrenching of China from its historical past to the experience and memory of the individual within the collective, such as his 2007 work Fairytale where 1001 citizens from across China were brought to Kassel in five groups over 40 days, left to wander, see, and simply exist, bringing their memories and taking with them new ones. Herzog and de Meuron are best known in the UK for their work on the Tate Modern and have a record of integrating extending, refurbishing, and working with previous buildings, reshaping the past, from the extension of the Walker Museum in Minneapolis or their subtle synthesis of winery with vineyard at the Dominus Winery in the Napa Valley to their enlargement of the Unterlinden Museum in Alsace. Both have a streak running through their practices of attempting synthesis where different temporalities come into conflict.
The result of their collaboration at the serpentine, a still shallow disc of water sitting above this soft cork semi-subterranean structure that outlines this architectural archeological model, reminds us of the ghosts all around us, and despite lacking the knowing, gauche irreverence of post modern in-jokes, it quietly acknowledges that everything is derivative and nothing is really new. It is a design that is remarkably low on ego and all the better for it.
The same can be said of conflicts that one may have pre-empted in the newly opened Tanks at the Tate Modern by Herzog and de Meuron, an underground performance art space in three converted oil tanks.Turning storage to display and the closed and claustrophobic to the open could have been a call for drastic reengineering, but the resulting space has been born out of a sympathetic transformation, creating something that is new while remaining wholly recognizable as the previous space, which the Tate Tanks- as art and performance space- both inhabit and exhibit in their new role. It is an incredible achievement, and one that is more significant than the first phase of the Tate Modern- cathedral of power to cathedral to art was always going to be an easier transubstantiation.
The artist and the architectural practice seem to have found collaborators who are very much each the other’s equal, and in London, a place that is a strong fit for both. Ai Weiwei’s and Herzog and de Meuron’s work, whether alone or in collaboration seems to sit well with this city whose present is constantly negotiating with multiple versions of its past and lacks one defining previous era through which to frame that discussion.
Shareholders. Those people. The individuals whose ownership means companies put profits before people. Some see it as an opportunity to concentrate the capital accumulated by companies in the hands of the few. Shareholding in bulk by the few is a very good way to increase gaps between those who have and those who have not- allowing them ( if all things are going well…and it can be a big if….) to allow the captial that they have to work harder for them, profiting from the hard work of ( and ultimately surplus capital extraction from) others. Seen in a different light though- and funnily enough, it was the same light that one of my personal bete noire’s Lady Thatcher saw it- it can be a redistributive tool, if you can encourage more people to own them- in the same way the Iron Harridan saw home-ownership- then everyone gets richer. Or so the logic goes.
Of course encouraging base self interest and enshrining the idea that we can all simply make money from simply having money, be that through shares or through property (when did houses stop being homes?!) is something which cannot be seen as positive for society. ( Or as they called it ‘back in the day’ Usary). So why then, if I am going to open this post with my schlock socialist schtick (like Karlo, the 6th Marx brother) why is this titled the rebirth of the shareholder?
Until the environmentally driven express train of social-opprobrium against the very act of consumption itself (because, lets face it, buying new shit, no matter how green it is, is never good for the planet) accidentally sideswipes the juggernaut of capitalism at the level crossing of global warming ( these are getting worse…) capitalist democracy looks pretty comfortable in its hegemonic position. Co-opting and commoditizing all dissent ( how are those book sales going, Slavoj?) it is unlikely to move any time soon. And if we do see the democratic half of that equation- the ying to capital’s yang, becoming increasingly administrative rather than ideological, with supra-national companies superseding states, then maybe it is time we franchised ourselves on the capital side. We must not see shareholding as a get-rich-quick, trickle-down riches quick-fix solution to disparities in wealth, but what it can be is the new ballot box.
This isn’t some kind of half-brained Occupy/99% BS. Frankly, from a global point of view, most of those at St. Pauls or Wall Street or any of the other global locations were probably in fact in the 1%. What it is though is a recognition that if companies are making a difference in our lives, then we should have a say in how they are run. If they can affect us as much as our government can- think Gas companies making record profits in a recession by keeping bills high when wholesale prices fall, risky loan decisions that lead citizens being affected as private companies precipitate public sector cuts, news outlets tapping peoples phones and intruding into the private sphere in ways in which the police wouldn’t dare- then perhaps we should have a say in how they are run. And in this brave new future, we have to buy votes, there is no right to them.
This all sounds very extreme, but regulation has failed time and again, so true citizen democracy will have to be shareholder democracy. It’s not so crazy, think about recent shareholder rebellions over executive pay. Potentially we are at an inflection point where what it means to be a shareholder could fundamentally shift. Pension schemes- who hold millions of shares, ultimately on our behalf- are in the US suing Bank of America for misleading shareholders about the strength of the company. FTSE250 listed Heritage oil had nearly 50% of its shareholders refuse to rubber stamp its Chief Exec’s pay deal, despite him holding 33% of the company’s stock! Cairn energy saw 67% of its shareholders reject a pay deal for bosses. Shareholder activism may offer a powerful democratic tool to so many who feel powerless. I would encourage the loony left to try it- if they will put their money where their beliefs are (even if the idea of becoming shareholders feels instinctively wrong) then maybe they might make something happen. After all (political) ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.