The Deal

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What you’re looking at is one of the towers of Lasalle College, a small private art school in central Singapore. Built in 2007 to a design by RSP, it was extensively funded by the Singaporean government who have been enthusiastic promotors of all things ‘creative’ since the early 2000s. Of all the things I saw in Singapore last week, this was perhaps the most thought-provoking, less for the architecture (which is undeniably spectacular) than for the attitude that it embodies. It makes a simple deal: accept that the arts are in the service of the national project, and they will be funded with an inconceivable generosity.

The deal is legible enough in the window vinyls, the words ‘excellence’, ‘spectacle’ and ‘critique’ screaming out the message. For many UK humanities academics, this kind of of sloganising is simply grotesque: aren’t these words supposed to be a means of interrogating the very things they seem here to support? You can picture a generation of cultural studies scholars with their heads in their hands.

That reaction, to my mind, would miss the subtlety of the deal. Of course ‘spectacle’ and ‘critique’ and all those other words shouldn’t be turned into mere decoration. But I doubt those words are really much more than decoration in any of the work we might do in the west, the business of naming being, after all, a form of commodification (and where would critical theory be without all those publishers making a business from it?). Lasalle abruptly challenges that myth. To believe in the myth, you have to cling onto the comforting idea the arts can be somehow stand ‘outside’ society too, a zone of freedom beyond the reach of government.

That freedom would be nice were it real, but my twitter feed during the period I was away suggested that my world was in fact a narrow and censorious one. Too often last week, my academic freedom seemed to be the freedom to agree with a majority view.

Lasalle’s windows inadvertently say the unsayable: our freedom is conditional on complicity. It’s discomforting for westerners, but in Singapore’s case, for 50 years, the government has been adept at meeting its part of the deal, remarkably so. It houses and feeds its citizens better than any European country I can think of (certainly Scotland, whose record on both is scandalously awful). Of course, Singapore’s wheels may well be coming off, as two NUS academics, Donald Low and Sudhir Vadaketh, have argued in an excellent new book. But for the time being, Singapore remains a compelling, if troubling example.

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The Year In Culture, Kind Of

1. THE WIND RISES. The last film by Hayao Miyazaki, animated by Studio Ghibli. A sprawling epic about the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. Humour, tragedy, pathos, the surreal – all human life is there. The aircraft are magnificently realised too, especially the huge Junkers G. 38, whose interior spaces form one of the film’s most intriguing tableaux.

thewindrises2. THE EDINBURGH SCULPTURE WORKSHOP. Designed by Sutherland Hussey, and completed in 2012 or so, it’s now into its second phase of development. A collection of studios and exhibition spaces supported by a mixture of private and public funding. It’s a very, very good building indeed. Simple top-lit spaces, robust surfaces, and spaces for reflection. An undemonstrative, deeply practical building it’s the exact opposite of almost everything built for culture these days. Brilliant.

3. ADVENTURE TIME. I came to this series late, now in its sixth season. The most mindblowingly weird programme ever broadcast on mainstream TV, it’s the visual equivalent of a nitrous oxide-LSD trip. But there’s real depth to it too. Jake the Dog is one of the all-time great cartoon characters, a classic hippy philosopher in the Jerry Garcia mould. Unlike Garcia, however, he has magical shapeshifting powers, useful in uncertain times.

4. DONGDAEMUN DESIGN PLAZA in Seoul by Zaha Hadid. I have all kinds of difficulty with Hadid and co., not least the vacuousness of their theory of ‘parametricism’. However this building is a complete triumph, because for once the formal ambition is matched by the ability of the (genius) builders. A swooping, bulging, genre-defying thing, it’s both architecture and landscape.

5. WHY THIS OPTIMIST IS VOTING NO. The referendum on Scottish independence was inescapable in 2014. The vast majority of friends voted in favour, and I could see perfectly well why they might. But after a struggle, I felt I couldn’t join them. The reasons are best explained by Carol Craig in an essay for the Scottish Review. A sensitive, beautifully written essay, it was one of the few interventions in the referendum to address its psychological complexity.

6.ALBERT SPEER: HIS BATTLE WITH TRUTH by Gitta Sereny. Published in 1995, it took me 19 years to read it after several attempts. A vast, rangy book, full of digression and repetition. Once I realised it was basically Moby Dick for the Third Reich, I was hooked. What I experienced as faults first time around now seemed necessary to express the moral complexity of the subject.

7.SUBARU IMPREZA I needed a cheap car quickly towards the end of the year and found myself with an ’07 Impreza with 85k on the clock. By comparison with modern cars, it’s tinny, unrefined, and pumps out far more Co2 than it should. It’s not even very fast. But it’s built to last decades, and has an engineering integrity that few designed objects have these days. In other words it is almost the exact opposite of Apple’s i-phone, which has the feel of integrity that it, in reality, lacks. (The car, needless to say, has no USB socket).

8. ARE YOU LOCATIONALIZED? by Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan. A two-part art installation in Portree, Skye and Lochmaddy, North Uist which turned public buildings into giant cartoon characters Part of the experience was getting there, of course, but this was also robust, funny work of real quality. The Lochmaddy part was a wall painted with a cosmic scene, babbling poetry through a trumpet-like beak. ‘Look’ said a beaming O’Sullivan, when he showed it to me, ‘it’s the Master of the Universe.’

9. THE LEGO MOVIE. Overlong, flabby and the closing live action is a mistake. The opening 15 minutes is however complete genius. The theme song is ‘Everything is Awesome’ by the Canadian duo Tegan and Sara. With the accompanying scene setting in the Lego City, the sequence is simultaneously completely stupid and totally profound. I showed it to awestruck students at every available opportunity.

10. HAWKWIND PLAY THE SPACE RITUAL. A one-off benefit gig at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire for badgers (yes, badgers). An average age of 68, the band played for over three hours. According to the Guardian’s Ed Vulliamy who was also there, somehow during the night they lost all the money they raised. If you know Hawkwind, you’ll know this sort of disaster goes with the territory. But it was a magnificent occasion, every bit as convincing as the ’73 original, and only £20.

Are You A NEW METROPOLITAN?

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Life has been a bit quiet in these parts because we have been busy with thenewmetropolitan.com A new web magazine about cities and citizenship, it brings together people from across the University of Edinburgh as well as half a dozen European institutions. It’s finding its way, but the hope is we develop a distinctive, but independent voice. Above all, we hope it looks good. Tell us what you think, the good and the bad. And if you want to contribute,  just say. We’re all ears.

The Creative City. It’s War.

0041-1THE USE OF ‘WAR’ TO DESCRIBE CITY LIFE IS A CULTURAL STUDIES CLICHE. In City of Quartz (1990) Mike Davis famously described Los Angeles as ‘militarized’, thinking of the bum-proof benches of downtown, and signs on suburban lawns warning of ‘armed response’ to intrusion. Teresa Caldeira’s account of São Paulo, City of Walls (2001) did something similar for the Brazilian metropolis, describing a city so conditioned by fear of crime that it might as well be at war. I’ve used the metaphor of warfare plenty of times myself, for example in my own accounts of Brazilian cities, which noted the tendency of local journalists to describe them as being in a state of de facto civil war. In that piece, I referred to a much-quoted statistic: during the four-year siege of Sarajevo 1992-6, more people of were killed on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, ostensibly a city at peace. War is a cliche, however, and an increasingly inaccurate one in these terms. LA, New York, São Paulo, Rio (etc. etc.) have become immeasurably safer since everyone started talking about how dangerous they were. And while Baghdad kills 50 or so people per day in a state of genuine warfare, it is frankly unethical to even use the term in relation to what are safe and wealthy places.

Still, that is what I am going to do. In my last post, I mentioned Richard E. Caves’s Creative Industries (2000) in relation to the sociability, or otherwise, of the creative city. The  intense, but intermittent, sociability of the creative city is in fact that of a condition of emergency. As Rebecca Solnit has written lately (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2009) natural disasters destroy communities, but also  produce  marvellous new ones. The more I thought about them, the more Caves’s core principles suggested such a condition of emergency. ‘Nobody Knows’, the ‘Motley Crew’, ‘Time Flies’ (and the rest) invoke an exceptional state of being. The future is unknown and unknowable, threats are permanent, change is ever-present, the project (movie, exhibition, artwork, performance, book, campaign) routinely demands the impossible. Time is  essential; everything must be now. The resources required are immense: it must store materials, skills and ideas in anticipation of a future that may never occur. It is subject to high levels of security and secrecy. Its workers are mobile and rootless, and live in de facto camps, separated and sometimes secured from the city proper. And each project – for which read ‘campaign’ – demands absolute commitment. Desertion is death.

Caves doesn’t describe the creative city in quite these terms, but the implication is there to  be had. And at the time he was writing, there were plenty of other writers invoking a sense of emergency in contemporary life: the sociologist Ulrich Beck’s ‘risk society’ is a perfect example.

On the ground, there are real figures of this metaphorical war. Superficially, many of the most creative cities have also been literal ruins at some stage of their development, caused, often enough by conflict (Berlin, London and Manchester bore until recently the literal scars of war). Artists have always been drawn to the ruined parts of cities for economic reasons, but they have also long cultivated an aesthetic of ruination – and resisted attempts to clean up. The creative city and the ruined city often seem to overlap.

However there’s more to this metaphorical war than ruins. Caves says a lot about LA and the movie industry, and if you know that city, you know how reminiscent its great studio complexes are of military encampments or munitions factories: sprawling, secure complexes, surrounded by high walls, blind to the outside world. And inside, they’re populated by transient gangs working secretly to impossible deadlines, for campaigns that become apparent only when they’re in progress. Making movies is uncannily like going to war. It’s no accident that war has been such a natural movie genre. And it’s arguably no accident that LA’s other main activity, at least until the 1980s, was armaments.

If the creative city is also metaphorically a city at war, is it right? The creative city undoubtedly suits those with the wits and education to take advantage of it, and weather its vicissitudes. I have thought of myself in that category often enough. But how does the creative city suit the weak, the sick, the very young? How does it work for anyone thinking beyond the next pitch?

Picture: Still from Alfred Hitchcock, ‘Saboteur’ (1942). Exploding munitions factory created on a Warner Bros studio lot.

THE CREATIVE CITY: A CORRECTION

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Since posting, Paul Morley published this piece on the Salford and Media City, which is connected. Most accounts of Media City have been unfavourable – sometimes simple snobbery, sometimes a failure to understand the landscape and its history.This discussion is more nuanced, and well worth reading. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/f5cc1646-c90b-11e2-9d2a-00144feab7de.html#axzz2VEXeJU4s

We hear a lot about the creative city these days. For city managers in the industrialised world, creativity is the way to go, meaning a rebalancing of urban economies away from manufacturing, and even financial services, towards advertising, the arts, culture, web design and so on. The chief advocate of the creative city is Richard Florida, a most entrepreneurially-minded sociologist. Florida is everywhere, and his concepts have been accepted by city leaders the world over. Good for him. His work, however, is predictive and future-oriented; there remains a notable deficit in the literature of the creative city as built, the ‘real’ creative city.

One writer to take it seriously is Richard E. Caves, a Harvard law professor with longstanding interests in copyright. His book The Creative Industries – although published a decade ago – is a compelling, and still rare, analysis of the creative city as it exists and functions, rather than as a fantasy yet to be built. Caves’s argument revolves around a set of principles, which he says, describe unique behaviours of those working in the creative industries. These include (1) ‘nobody knows’ – no-one has the least idea of the likely success of a creative product, with no predictable connection between the capital investment in a project and its likely profitability; (2) the ‘motley crew’ – the necessity for an extremely diverse set of skills to realise projects, most likely supplied by a flexible, self-employed labour force; (3) ‘time flies’, the principle that once underway, a creative project will require absolute subservience to its timetable; (4) ‘art for arts’ sake’, in other words the principle that the actors in creative enterprises are not motivated solely by financial gain, and in many cases will work for the sake of the work itself. The sociologist Sharon Zukin described something similar, the AMP or Artistic Mode of Production, in her celebrated book Loft Living. Caves’s book is underwritten by the detailed knowledge of two cities, LA, focused on the experience of the movie industry, and New York, with a concentration on the art scene, at (I would note) a moment of great transition.

Caves’s principles, if we accept them, have severe implications for the nature of the creative city, indeed the city in general. It is widely assumed that the creative city is intensely sociable. The theme of sociability runs all the way through Florida’s work, for example. Creative types are by their nature gregarious, we are led to believe, and visibly so. They spend all day in cafes, yacking away to each other, tweeting their friends, making deals. That image is widely, and popularly understood; it drives real estate markets, provides fodder for TV, informs fashions in food and clothing and gadgets. It’s immensely popular with city politicians and managers too, for obvious reasons.

But it’s misleading. Caves’s principles imply a city that is far more anti-social than you might expect. Firstly, the creative industries are hopelessly profligate (‘nobody knows’), so they have en enormous amount invested in storage of all kinds. Materials, talent, ideas – most of which, most of the time remain unused, but must be kept available. Storage means space rather than sociability. Secondly, creative workers by and large are not working together, but as individuals who come together on a project-by-project basis (the ‘motley crew’). They’re subject to fits of intense socialisation to get business, but their work, most of the time, is not sociable. Thirdly, ‘time flies’: the creative city sublimates everything to the ‘now’ of the project, cutting across the normal time and space of city. It makes people subservient to the project, not the community. And so on. In summary, if you buy Caves, you buy into a world view that is arguably as anti-urban as it is urban. I don’t present this as a criticism at all, merely an observation. We have choices, after all.

Here is an example of why I think Caves’s analysis is right, namely the large, impressive media complex in Salford, Manchester, MediaCityUK, opened in 2012 and home for a substantial portion of BBC activity. You arrive at MCUK by newly-built light rail at a public plaza defined by glass buildings. There are outdoor TV screens everywhere; coffee and food abound; there are constant ‘events’ of one kind or another. It’s a relentlessly sociable place, almost exactly as the developers imagined. They must be delighted, and rightly so. Walk a few hundred metres to the north, however, and the sense of civilised urbanity falls away, and you find yourself in a warehouse zone, all blank walls and razor wire, seemingly uninhibited. Before MCUK, it was perhaps the definitive landscape of this part of Manchester. Many of the journalistic accounts of MCUK have focused on this disjunction, as if it were a fault. Yet on closer analysis, MCUK merely describes in built form the nature of the creative city. It’s sociable, but only intermittently so. The vast majority of its revenue-producing business comes from things beyond public view. Those warehouses look abandoned, but they house production facilities, sound stages, sets and props, as well as a huge range of informal workspaces. MCUK’s plaza is the public performance, as it were, of the creative city. The real work happens elsewhere.

MCUK was a purpose-built facility, a set piece. In form it reiterates the landscape of arguably the world’s first creative city. It’s an industrial-looking sprawl, dotted with pockets of frantic socialisation. The movie industry, which defines so much of the city, made it like that. The studios are epic in scale, but necessarily inward-looking and anti-social; their public faces, like the attractions on Hollywood Blvd., are designed, quite purposely, to direct attention away from their real business. So it is with all the other motors of the creative city. Far from being drivers of sociability, these businesses are, for most of the people involved in them, most of the time, deeply anti-social. That’s not, as I say, a criticism. But it’s worth pointing out that if sociable cities are a priority, then ‘creativity’ may not be the way to achieve it.

Richard E. Caves, The Creative Industries: Contracts Between Art and Commerce (Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard UP, 2002)

Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2004)

Sharon Zukin, Loft Living (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989)