Thursday, 28 January 2010

Not only photographers but dogs too...

[Image - I'm A Photographer, Not A Terrorist by Adrian Toll]

Following my previous post announcing PHNATs Mass Photo Gathering last Saturday, I thought it was about time I provided an update. Unfortunately I wasn't able to attend but thankfully there has been a respectable amount of press coverage: BBC, Guardian and Amateur Photographer. Encouraging reports suggest that over 2000 professional and amateur photographers were in attendance. Oh, and don't forget the dog!

[Image - I am a dog not a terrorist by Helen Duffett]

Aside from a very minor disagreement reported between a PCSO and a young woman just after noon, the protest seems to have passed peacefully. Spirits were no doubt raised by the attendance of several colourful and unusual characters including The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

[Image - The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence by Loz Flowers]

The event clearly provided a great opportunity for photographers from a range of backgrounds to get together and mingle in a public place. This is a rarity and can only help efforts to build a more general awareness about s44 and related issues. In this regard the protest was a definate success. However, more events are required in order to encourage the government to reasses current anti-terror legislation. Hopefully I'll catch you at the next.

Many thanks to Loz Flowers, Helen Duffett and Adrian Toll for agreeing to allow use of their excellent photos under Creative Commons licences. More photos can be found on Flickr's Mass Photo Gathering Group.

The subversion of city streets...

Following my ACL reconstruction last week the combination of pain and medication has left me totally unable to focus my attention on anything for more than a couple of minutes. Having given up on writing a blog post I went to have a look on Vimeo instead. While looking at videos on parkour I discovered this excellent flick book style animation of a traceur in action. Since one of my interests in writing Urban Orienteer is to find out about different urban cultures and practices, this film by the curiously named saggyarmpit had obvious appeal.

Watching it I was reminded of Michel de Certeau's dictum from The Practice of Everyday Life that "space is a practiced place". The animation captures this particularly well in the way that the urban backdrop almost completely disappears as the traceur moves. The city becomes a blur of surfaces and street furniture, a flow of partial objects perhaps, foregrounded only insofar as they impede movement, or provide the opportunity for a change of direction. Place emerges only when the traceur stops for breath. As such parkour provides an excellent illustration of Certeau's position on the relation between space and place in his account of spatial practices. 

Going forward I expect to write more about Certeau. For the present I just want to consider whether his work would have anything to offer the world of parkour? I suspect that if the traceur did turn to Certeau's book it would be as a means of establishing parkour's claim to be a critical practice. To this end they have recourse to the key distinction he introduces between 'strategy' and 'tactics'.

Very broadly, a strategic practice could be described as the attempt to control contingency or uncertainty within a field through the combination knowledge and planning. According to Certeau this implies the following:
  • The privileging of spatial relations over temporal ones.
  • Delineation of an autonomous centre of control or "proper" place (propre in the original French implying "one's own property") from which to manage its exterior.
  • Subdivision of that exterior to render it as a "readable" series of places. 
  • The application of a "panoptic practice" of surveillance.
    Despite his use of military terminology it should be emphasised that Certeau's primary concern was to develop a theory of the way in which ordinary people subvert the cultural and political structures encountered in their everyday lives, particularly by means that would usually be considered passive acts of consumerism. Strategic practices then could include anything from the use of satellite imaging to co-ordinate military operations, through to the combined application of CCTV and a specific isle plan within a supermarket to discourage theft.

    Tactics by contrast are determined precisely by the fact that they have no "proper locus". Rather they can be said to "poach" on the "space of the other". As such their efficacy is determined by the strategy they exploit or parasitize. In his chapter 'Walking in the City' Certeau goes on to elaborate the way in which the simple act of walking can subvert the intentions of urban planners, solely by traversing the places they've created in unexpected ways. Parkour then would be exemplary insofar as it can be understood as a détournement of street furniture:

    However, while parkour may have a valuable critical function with regard to certain strategies of urban planning, it does not follow that there is anything inherently subversive in either the practice of parkour, or in mobility more generally. For example, we can take parkour off the street and put it in the supermarket mentioned earlier. However, since the strategies determining that place are concerned specifically with the maximisation of profit through sales, and limitation of loss through theft, it isn't clear that parkour has any critical import here: see for example Flipping in the Supermarket or Parkour Asda! Short of shoplifting, a more appropriate tactic in this context would be the kind of culture jamming employed by groups like the Space Hijackers, in particular their Buy Nothing Day interventions in 2007 and 2009.

    The validity of a tactic then is determined by its context. It is a matter not only of the 'where', but more crucially of the 'when'. According to Certeau:
    Tactics are procedures that gain validity in relation to the pertinence they lend to time - to the circumstances which the precise instant of an intervention transforms into a favorable situation, to the rapidity of the movements that change the organization of a space, to the relations among successive moments in an action, to the possible intersections of durations and heterogeneous rhythms, etc.
    For Certeau the efficacy of any tactical practice, whether mobile or sedentary, is ultimately a matter of timing.

    Would be traceurs are undoubtedly drawn to parkour for different reasons. Whatever their motivations it is also clear that the media have been attracted to parkour as a marketable commodity. At the same time parkour also seeks legitimacy as a sport. In order to achieve that end it seems likely that parkour will be increasingly drawn away from the streets, and into specially constructed arenas such as the one created for the World Freerun Championships 2009 in Trafalgar Square. As the sport grows its practitioners will have to court media attention all the more in order to secure the sponsorship necessary to get them to events. It would be easy to be cynical and suggest that a compromise has been made in the move away from the streets. Personally I think that this would be the wrong approach. In any case it is a matter best addressed by those within the parkour/freerunning community: Tim 'Livewire' Shieff is Barclaycard World Freerun Champ! 

    Whatever your personal view I think it is clear that parkour can provide a great opportunity for youngsters, particularly when they don't have anything else to do in their area. Hence, rather than take the cynical approach, I'd be more interested to find out whether there might be an identity crisis emerging within the parkour community itself, perhaps inscribed in the traceur's preference of either 'parkour' or 'free running' as the term used to describe their activity. More specifically then, will there come a time when the ambivalent media projected image of the traceur as urban renegade/freedom-fighter becomes untenable for the very people it is intended to promote?

    I'll have to save these questions for another day. In the meantime I'd better get back to my physio. For those wishing to find out more about parkour or freerunning I recommend starting with either of the Urban Freeflow or Parkour Generations sites.

    Friday, 22 January 2010

    NoBorders proposes a day out...out of control!

    Following my previous post on PHNAT's Mass Photo Gathering taking place tomorrow, I just discovered that London NoBorders will also be staging a further series of protests later that afternoon. The first is planned for 2pm at St. Pancras International. The second will take place at 4:30pm in Piccadilly Circus.

    The first protest concerns the new e-borders controls established their by the UK Border Agency. Closer to the current concerns of Urban Orienteer, the second protest is intended to raise awareness about the constant surveillance of unwitting commuters, shoppers and tourists passing through London's West End. Somewhere underneath Piccadilly Circus and the Trocadero lies a network of tunnels leading to the City of Westminster's CCTV Control Room. It was for this reason that pictures of Piccadilly and the Trocadero were used in the images produced for my current collaboration with Mark at Dancing Eye. Further information here

    If you do happen to attend any of the events on Saturday, please feel free to let us know how you get on by commenting below.

    Tuesday, 19 January 2010

    If you're a photographer...

    Amid growing concerns that photographers are being singled out for stop and search under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, the campaign I'm a photographer, Not a terrorist! (PHNAT) are inviting you to join their "mass photo gathering in defence of street photography". The event was organised following the stop and search of architectural photographer Grant Smith on the 8th of December last year. Details of that incident are available on the campaign's blog where they ask police Didn't you get the memo?

    The memo they refer was a communication on the 4th of December from Chief Constable Andrew Trotter, Head of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) Media Advisory, addressed to all Chief Constables and Commissioners in England and Wales. In the document (reprinted here) Trotter clarifies that: 
    Section 44 gives officers no specific powers in relation to photography and there is no provision in law for the confiscation of equipment or the destruction of images, either digital or on film. 
    However, only days after the incident involving Grant Smith the Guardian journalist Paul Lewis was also stopped. To the police's embarrassment Lewis a colleague managed to capture the scene on video. Taking place at the foot of 30 St Mary Ax it uncannily enacts one of the scenes portrayed in the posters I've been working on as part of my current collaboration with Mark at Dancing Eye.

    Trotter's memo was by no means the first in 2009. Back in July the Metropolitan Police Service offered their own 'advice for photographers' regarding the application of sections 43, 44 and 58a of the Terror Act in relation to photography in public spaces (revised copy here). Commenting about that advice on the Guardian website the photojournalist Marc Vallée proposed that continued use of these "blunt instruments" would be viewed by professional photographers as "part of an ongoing campaign to create a hostile environment for photography in the public sphere". Responding to these concerns the Home Office then issued their own circular in August. 

    While sources within the police report insist that the problem is merely one of confusion, resulting from an "internal urban myth" circulating amongst lower ranking officers and PCSOs, others are inclined to think that it is institutional and systematic. In early January this year The Independent reported how, on Christmas day, a group of tourists who went to see the Queen at Sandringham church had their cameras confiscated by police. Dominic Lawson who wrote the article suggests that "a peculiarly modern form of bureaucratic insanity" is to blame, and warns that "if we are all under suspicion, we are all under threat". It is not only professional photographers who are affected then. Amateur film makers, tourists, painters, train spotters and even children under 10 have all been approached by police acting under section 44.

    The police are naturally keen to encourage the view that concerns such as Lawson's or Vallée's are overstated. However, the findings of Lord Carlile's 2009 review of anti-terror legislation (pdf) provided significant evidence of a vested, institutional interest within the police in its systematic misuse. In his report Lord Carlile agreed with the police chiefs that "it is essential that the police must know what they are doing, with every officer being accurately briefed" (p.28), but only after specifying that "Any arbitrariness on the part of the police is unlawful" (ibid). Elaborating on this more fundamental concern he raised controversy by suggesting that s44 had been used to help "balance" race statistics. Quoting from the report at length:
    Examples of poor or unnecessary use of section 44 abound. I have evidence of cases where the person stopped is so obviously far from any known terrorism profile that, realistically, there is not the slightest possibility of him/her being a terrorist, and no other feature to justify the stop. In one situation the basis of the stops being carried out was numerical only, which is almost certainly unlawful and in no way an intelligent use of the procedure. Chief officers must bear in mind that a section 44 stop, without suspicion, is an invasion of the stopped person’s freedom of movement. I believe that it is totally wrong for any person to be stopped in order to produce a racial balance in the section 44 statistics. There is ample anecdotal evidence that this is happening. (p.29)
    The reasons that s44 lends itself so readily to these kinds of abuses are threefold:

    1. Unlike other articles of anti-terror legislation s44 only applies in specially 'authorised areas'. The difficulty for the public is their locations are both secret; insofar as they are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (as reported here), but also temporary; subject to renewal by the Home Secretary every 28 days at the request of a Chief Constable. The result is that members of the public are unable to verify whether they are in an s44 area or not, and hence which of their rights apply at any given time.

    2. While the preceding section 43 enables police officers to conduct stop and search anywhere in the country, as long as they have 'reasonable suspicion' of terrorist activity, s44 allows police to dispense with that requirement. As such the application of s44 is discretionary and relies on the officer's judgement. 

    3. The power to use s44 has been extended to PCSOs who can use it in designated s44 areas, when authorised, and under the supervision of a constable. Problems inevitably arise in the absence of immediate supervision or when the officers in charge are themselves unsure. PCSOs have been known to take it upon themselves to act. The events leading up to the arrest of Italian student Simona Bonomo in November illustrate this.

    While senior police officers might have us believe that the problem lies with a few individuals who are failing to get the message, I'd argue that the real difficulty lies with the nature of the legislation itself. By dispensing with the requirement for reasonable suspicion s44 diminishes police accountability. In doing so it undermines the legitimacy they garner as public servants. In this regard it is worth considering to the eighth Principle of Good Policing: 
    To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
    Another relevant criticism of Lord Carlile's concerned the Met's extensive use of s44, "throughout London and on a continuous basis" (p.30), even though the stricter s43 would have sufficed. Now we find that legislation innocuously proposed as having application only in exceptional circumstances, but within a spatially and temporally limited zone, has somehow become the rule. In so doing it approximates the form of arbitrary rule that Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has designated the State of Exception.

    Beyond being a mere inconvenience, stop and search under s44 is an encroachment on the civil liberties of us all. Last week the European Court Of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled in the case of Gillian and Quinton v. The United Kingdom that stop and search under s44 of the Terrorism Act was "not in accordance with the law". Their argument was that "in the absence of any obligation on the part of the officer to show a reasonable suspicion, it is likely to be difficult if not impossible to prove that the power was improperly exercised". The Guardian's summary can be found here. Current indications suggest that the British Government will appeal the ruling.

    In order to show them what you think why not grab your camera and head down to Trafalgar Square on Saturday. Unfortunately I won't be able to attend as I'll be convalescing after an operation I'm having later in week. If anyone attends and would like me to post their Flickr set please let me know. Better yet, how about writing a guest report?

    In the meantime you can visit the I'm a photographer, Not a terrorist! blog. In addition to compiling a map of sites where photography is restricted in the UK, they've also prepared a downloadable Bust Card that advises you on your rights if stopped under s44. Good luck!

    Sunday, 17 January 2010

    Helping you back to work...

    [Image - Still from 'Every Day The Same Dream' by Molleindustria] 

    Having struggled through the first half of January you may have already reneged on your New Year resolutions, and resigned yourself to yet another of the same routine. In order to help shake you out of your malaise political videogame designers Molleindustria offer their latest creation Everyday The Same Dream. The game was created in six days for the Experimental Gameplay Project. The game's designer describes it as follows:
    “Every day the same dream” is a slightly existential riff on the theme of alienation and refusal of labor. The idea was to charge the cyclic nature of most video games with some kind of meaning (i.e. the “play again” is not a game over). Yes, there is an end state, you can “beat” the game.
    Playing the game as an anonymous white collar worker you are invited to go through the motions of the weekly routine i.e. get up and go to work. The cyclical structure of the game, monochrome aesthetic, and hypnotically repetitious soundtrack, all serve to foreground the limited opportunities for agency in both the gaming environment and, by extension, daily life. Although I have reservations about whether it fully succeeds in conveying its intended message, it looks fantastic, and is definitely worth a go. The game can be played online or downloaded from the same location: Everyday The Same Dream. 

    Another game by Molleindustria on the theme of work is TamaTipico. In this variant on the Japanese Tamagotchi, rather than caring for a virtual pet, your task is to balance the work commitments, happiness and welfare of your own virtual flexi-worker. The intention is that in doing so you identify with the character. The simplicity of the game means that its message is far more immediate. As you struggle to ensure that your TamaTipico remains productive and gets sufficient sleep, it becomes painfully obvious how little time is left for anything else.

    The same character also makes an appearance in Tuboflex. Here you work for a global Human Resources service called Tuboflex Inc., who literally pipe temps down tubes to their next jobs. Working for Turboflex you can end up anywhere from a factory to a shopping mall as Santa Claus. Make too many mistakes though and you'll be blacklisted. Although the game has a serious message about the relation between globalisation and wage labour, it is also the most amusing of the three. Perversely enough I found busking Frère Jacques with an accordion, after being blacklisted, to be most enjoyable. If you click on the dog he'll bark along.

    These games fascinate me, not only for their attempt to educate us about the complexities of commodification in global markets, but also because they try to enact meaningful resistance through play. In their own words: "Radical games against the dictatorship of entertainment".

    [Molleindustria by Paolo Pedercini on Vimeo]

    For those interested in learning more about Molleindustria's unique fusion of video gaming and politics I recommend reading Alessandro Ludovico's report on a talk by founder Paolo Pedercini: Molleindustria, videogame rules as a political medium. Please feel free to comment below and share your thoughts.

    Saturday, 2 January 2010

    Throwing stones at glass houses?

    30 St Mary Ax

    I'd like to begin Urban Orienteer by tracing the series of discoveries, thoughts and events that have influenced my current collaboration with Mark at Dancing Eye. The working title for the project is 'In the Shadows of the Crystal Palace'. Here Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace serves as a motif in our exploration the ambivalence in Western democracy's valorisation of transparency as an ideal. Formulated as a question: "What happens when the demand for transparency is realised only asymmetrically, and when a desire for control on behalf of the authorities gains autonomy over and against citizens' demands for accountability?" The simple answer: "read the news!"

    Consider concerns over police brutality following G20, the British police's deployment of Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT), their use of spotter cards to help identify and track particular individuals, and their classification of otherwise lawful protestors as domestic extremists. More mundanely there is also the pervasive use of CCTV in British towns and cities. What these developments seem to intimate is an interest, at the local and State level, in maintaining, if not a monopoly of violence, then at least a generalised condition of what economists refer to as information asymmetry. If there has to be a divide between the authorities and the rest, then let it be transparent. Increasingly the glass divide is replaced by the two-way mirror. One response has been the formation of FIT Watch; a group who attempt to redress the balance by publishing their own spotter cards of FIT operatives and literally watching the watchers.

    Our own reaction is an attempt to explore these issues at the level of ideology. In doing so we hope to counter apathy, and the belief that there is no alternative, by suggesting through art how this situation came about, and provoking others to explore how can we change it. At present Mark and I are working to produce a series of posters for screen-printing. My personal favourite so far is titled 'Crystal Palaces Cast No Shadows':

    Crystal Palaces Cast No Shadows

    The decision to create posters came about after Mark and I visited the Tate Modern's Red Star over Russia exhibit, featuring examples of Soviet propaganda on loan from the David King Collection. Mark and I were keen to explore ideas in a visual way, originally to form part of a special edition of Dancing Eye devoted to the theme of War. At the same time I also discovered Mike Holliday's article on the Ballardian website about J.G. Ballard's obscure 'Court Circular'. What caught my attention was not so much the 'Court Circular' itself as the fact that Ballard's intention had been to 'advertise ideas'. In a further two part essay (Part1, Part2) Rick McGrath asks this crucial question of Ballard: "what exactly is he trying to sell?" Applied to our own case this question raised conceptual difficulties we were unable to resolve at that time. What if, in the process of criticising war, we were inadvertently advertising it, perhaps even glamorising it? Further considerations outlined below led us to postpone that project and refocus our efforts on a concern for personal freedom in relation to processes of commodification and diffuse application of techniques of control.

    In recent months Mark and I have been experimenting with montages of digital photographs that I've been taking for the project. Back in November we had the opportunity to exhibit three of our test images (pictured below) at the Chocolate Factory studios in Wood Green. The occasion for this was their annual open studio event.

    Installation View
    [Image - Installation View of the  Urban Orienteer and Dancing Eye collaboration at the Chocolate Factory studios]

    I mentioned above that our first concern had been war. Although this theme is not obviously apparent in our current work, it continues to influence the project. A key inspiration was our discovery of Paul Virilio's writings. Of particular interest was his theorisation of the 'logistics of perception': the idea that war has become increasingly mediated by images, and can therefore be fought by means of them. Remnants from this stage of research are Mark's sculptural embodiments of Virilio's Vision Machine (pictured above). Virilio's notion of the 'vision machine' captures the sense of 'sightless vision' that he associates with devices or systems that see on the user's behalf. An example from the contemporary battlefield would be the unmanned drones used by the US Air Force.

    Virilio's general concern is the increasing autonomy these systems gain with regard the user, and the way this can actually constrain human perception and encourage the deferral of responsibility. The recent announcement that US drones unencrypted video feeds have been 'hacked by Iraqi insurgents' is unlikely to have shocked Virilio who considers the 'accident' as integral to technological development. Examples of vision machines pertinent for our own project might include smart CCTV systems and gaze-tracking cameras. The former alerts the CCTV operator to 'suspicious' behaviour while the latter actually watches the eyes and viewing pattern of the operator in order to generate a summary of the footage they miss during their shift. I wonder if, aside from the already documented potential for operator abuse, the new unexpected accidents concerning CCTV might arise from lazy gaze trackers and overly suspicious smart cameras. Perhaps these scenarios have already been explored in science fiction.

    Around the time we were reading Virilio we also attended an extremely rewarding lecture on Feral Cities and the Scientific Way of Warfare that had been organised by the Complex Terrain Laboratory. The featured speakers were BLDGBLOG's Geoff Manaugh discussing Richard J. Norton's essay Feral Cities, and Antoine Bousquet introducing his book The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity. A video of the event can be found here. The unifying theme of the evening was the desire to spatially order an environment in such a way as to minimise contingency and achieve control. As such an implicit connection was made between what military strategists attempt to achieve on the battlefield, and what authorities and city planners might try to achieve in the urban environment by means of what has come to be known as 'Military Urbanism'. I recommend Brian Finoki's blog Subtopia to anyone interested in finding out more.

    Given the emerging facts regarding asymmetric and network-centric warfare Mark and I felt that our understanding of war had been anachronistic and remained too heavily influenced by presuppositions of symmetry and reciprocity for us to develop a genuinely critical approach at that time. Our emphasis naturally shifted toward an investigation of 'control' as applied to the urban environment and civil population. Anna Minton's book Ground Control came just at the right time in early 2009. This book deals explicitly with the social and psychological effects of heightened surveillance and the privatisation of public space. The strength of the book lies in its tracing the complex interplay of competing interests, whether of the State, local authorities, or private companies, that help shape the legislation facilitating 'control'. In doing so she offers concrete answers to the question "How did this situation come about?"

    Broadgate Tower

    Of particular interest is the police initiative known as Secured by Design (SBD). With the encouragement of insurance firms this represents the attempt to literally design out the opportunities for crime. Minton argues not only that this initiative necessarily fails, but also that it actually raises anxiety over crime. Minton traces the development of SBD back to Oscar Newman's principles of defensible space that were intended to curb crime in New York during the 70s. Minton highlights the difference between its original context and that of a post-credit crunch UK where the zeal it has inspired for territorialisation, fortification and surveillance might be misplaced. Combined with policies facilitating the privatisation of public space, in financial and commercial areas such as the City of London, Canary Wharf and Liverpool One, and the use of ASBOs to criminalise otherwise lawful behaviour on the part of specific individuals, the net results are suspicion, exclusion and anxiety.  Minton goes on to examine this heightened anxiety over crime that persists despite the evidence that crime is actually falling. Here are brief summaries of her views concerning CCTV and the privatisation of public space.

    It is perhaps ironic that the glass facade features so heavily in the new London architecture found in the kinds of private estates Minton criticises. In his book New Glass Architecture Brent Richards noted in passing how, at the beginning of the twentieth century, 'glass became the ideal material to symbolize the incoming new democracy, as monarchy gave way to workers and private domains gave way to public spaces' (p.15). Despite this one of the buildings featured in his book has recently featured in the news not as a symbol of democracy, but rather for its involvement in the overzealous application of anti-terror legislation. This occurred when the journalist Paul Lewis was detained by police under section 44 of Terrorism Act 2000 for taking photographs at 30 St Mary Axe (the Gherkin). A full report and video of the incident can be found here.

    The project finally came together with our discovery of the Crystal Palace as the precursor for Richard's 'new glass architecture'. The palace was originally designed by Joseph Paxton to house The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London's Hyde Park. Intended as a temporary structure, popular demand led to it being reconstructed three years later, in modified form, on Sydenham Hill in south London. The palace remained there until it was destroyed by fire in 1936. The popularity of the building led historian Jan Piggott to refer to it as the Palace of the People in his book of the same name. The palace remained on Sydenham Hill until it was destroyed by fire in 1936. Continuing this sentiment there is an ongoing campaign to build a new Crystal Palace on the Sydenham Hill site by 2014. All that remains of the original site are a number of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins' original dinosaur sculptures in the lower park, and a series of sphinxes that would have guarded the palace entrances on the now empty terrace above. These are overlooked by the Crystal Palace television transmitter.


    Despite the palace's popularity at home its legacy in the history of ideas has been far from unequivocal. For example, in Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is To Be Done? (1863) the figure of the Crystal Palace functioned as the imaginary support for the process of modernisation and the socialist utopia to come. Both Dostoyevsky, in his book Notes From The Underground (1864), and Yevgeny Zamyatin, in the more overtly dystopian We (1921), have offered criticisms of Chernyshevsky’s faith in scientific rationality and transparency. The fact remains that the palace also functioned as the ideological support for British imperialism around the world. Hence the Crystal Palace can stand for the attempt to control or neutralise the outside world, either as commodity or spectacle. Speaking at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 2009 (transcript here) the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk goes further to consider the existence of a fundamental human need to 'immunize existence' through creation of and management of interior spaces, whether architectural or cultural. Hence, referring to Walter Benjamin's treatment of the Parisian arcades in the unfinished Arcades Project, Sloterdijk writes:
    In the case of the arcade, modern man opts for glass, wrought iron, and assembly of prefabricated parts in order to build the largest possible interior. For this reason, Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, erected in London in 1851, is the paradigmatic building. It forms the first hyper-interior that offers a perfect expression of the spatial idea of psychedelic capitalism. It is the prototype of all later theme-park interiors and event architectures. The arcade heralds the abolition of the outside world. It abolishes outdoor markets and brings them indoors, into a closed sphere.
    Sloterdijk concludes by arguing that if modern men cannot exclude the outside through the creation of insulating interiors they subdue it by internalising it. Contrary to what he describes as a 'current romanticism for openness', he argues that 'people can only be outside to the degree that they are stabilized from within from something that gives them firm support'. We are left in the hands of the architects and planners, hoping from within our apartments that someone will come to pay us a visit. In the meantime Sloterdijk's wager seems to be that our 'foam' of 'relatively stabilized personal worlds' will provide sufficient insulation against the symptomatic expression of 'intolerable ecstasy' that we might associate with the happenings of J.G. Ballard's dystopian novel High-Rise. While we find Sloterdijk's diagnosis compelling, his conclusions seem disappointingly Conservative. In future posts I hope to explore Sloterdijk's discussion of Sphere's further. Unfortunately there is little else available in English translation at this time.

    To end I would like to propose another approach to the significance of the Crystal Palace by way of its connection, via Paxton, with the Victoria amazonica water lily. While head gardener at Chatsworth House, Paxton was the first Englishman to succeed in getting the lily to flower in captivity. A popular story has it that Paxton's inspiration for the design of his glass houses came from the structure of the underside of the lily's leaf. What interests us here however is not solely the lily's structure but also its means of reproduction. This can be seen in the video below:

    Here we find that the lily's reproduction is necessarily mediated by the beetle. This it traps for the duration of a day in order to avoid self-fertilisation. The beetle is then released from what Attenborough refers to in the film above as its 'beautiful prison', but only after having picked up another load of pollen with which to fertilise the next lily. Here we propose that an analogy can be supposed between the way the beetle supports the reproduction of the lily, and the way consumers mediate exchange and support capitalism in free-market economies.

    "What is to be done?"

    The project is intended to culminate this summer with the production of a series of around six screen-prints. This will coincide with the release of the next issue of Mark's publication Dancing Eye. We also intend to host our own exhibition featuring a short film and works by other artists.