Consider the mink

One of the saddest non-human spectacles in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic has been the mass cull of mink on Danish fur farms in the autumn of 2020.  The fate of 15 million mink, which were believed to harbour the C5 variant of the virus, illuminates some of the hidden dimensions to the global “zootechnosphere,” to use the historian Chris Otter’s phrase, and the treatment of non-human others.

The images of these huge fur farms – Denmark is world’s foremost producer – remind us that the significance of the post-Fordist economic transition towards more dispersed or flexible forms of production has been over-stated in relation to capitalist agriculture.  The use of large-scale mass production remains very significant for the production of food and many other commodities.  The fate of these animals highlights the hidden violence towards animals under modernity that is largely occluded from the sphere of consumption and everyday life.  The practical problems in disposing of millions of dead mink are reminiscent of the eerie funeral pyres for cattle slaughtered in the UK in response to the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001, in another controversial mass killing of otherwise healthy animals.  As in the case of the mink, the underlying reasons for this thanato-biopolitical response are rooted in the unprofitability of caring for unsaleable animals or their products.  The use of a cull can be conceived as a brutal kind of corporeal devalorization in which these animals become too expensive to keep alive, despite evident public unease and wider political reverberations.

As the philosopher Clare Palmer shows, the question of animal ethics is often framed by specific situations: the treatment of an animal in a zoo, for instance, is likely to be very different to those confined within industrialized facilities.  The question of human obligation to protect animals from harm is clearly context specific: it is rare, for example, to observe human intervention to prevent death or suffering of animals “in the wild” but when non-human others fall under our power or control the ethical questions become more complex and more pressing.  It is, after all, the violence of human interactions with nature, and with animals in particular, that has provided the multiple “spillover zones” for many of the most dangerous zoonotic threats under modernity.

 

Night Moves

The exploration of radical environmentalism in the thriller Night Moves (2014), directed by Kelly Reichardt, is a fascinating study in character development and ethical complexity.  The film steadily builds a sense of extreme tension in relation to the planned destruction of a dam that has unintended consequences.  Shot over just thirty days in southern Oregon, the sparsely populated landscape provides a poignant backdrop to the inner turmoil of the three main protagonists.  A sense of foreboding permeates the film as it drifts inexorably towards its violent denouement.

High Life

The grim possibilities of multi-generational space travel to reach potentially inhabitable reaches of the solar system are explored in Claire Denis’s film High Life (2019) where human “refuse” is propelled into space as part of a system of extra-terrestrial laboratories. The scarred and psychologically damaged human cargo are “recycled” as part of a largely unseen nexus of scientific experimentation.  The film presents an unsettling post-human journey in which the limits to humanity become brutally exposed: in one strange sequence the decaying spaceship docks with another experimental space station full of dead and dying dogs.  The doomed mission lies trapped in a liminal state between the claustrophobia of confinement and an inky abyss beyond.

Covid and Brexit: the accursed duo

The senior public health expert, Professor Anthony Costello, warns that the UK is likely to have one of the worst, if not the worst, death rate from Covid-19 in Europe.  The UK has been experiencing a slow-motion catastrophe, unfolding over a period of weeks and months symbolized by the current incapacity and near death experience of the Prime Minister.  Why has the UK been much more badly affected than Denmark, Germany, South Korea, and many other countries?

i) From the outset the British government tried to pretend that they had a superior approach to the coronavirus crisis that contrasted with the “panicky” overreaction of their European neighbours. There was a palpable sense of “British exceptionalism,” now liberated from the strictures of European cooperation (the UK had only just “celebrated” its departure from the EU at the end of January).  Opportunities to share procurement opportunities for essential equipment were simply rebuffed (and then denied).

ii) Tellingly, many of the leading ideological zealots and opportunists behind the Brexit campaign are now at the heart of the UK government, bringing with them the same degree of hubris and insouciance that has marked policy making over recent years. The art of “winging it” and dispensing with preparation has become a mode of governmentality, born out of a neo-colonial sense of superiority, as the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole has brilliantly observed.  It seems oddly appropriate that last summer’s ill-fated leadership campaign for the Conservative Party, launched by the hapless health secretary Matt Hancock, was quickly dubbed “the charge of the lightweight brigade” (after a famous nineteenth-century military disaster).

iii)        A major strategic exercise in pandemic planning in 2016 — Exercise Cygnus — found serious gaps in preparedness but was never acted on.  All government attention since 2016 has been subsumed by the on-going Brexit fiasco sucking resources and expertise away from every other area of public policy.  Breezy talk of economic self-reliance has quickly fallen apart during the coronavirus crisis leaving a landscape of broken supply chains, idle factories, and food left rotting in the fields.

Covid-19

I was wrong about the Covid-19 virus.  On Friday 6 March I met with my students in Cambridge to reassure them that I had every intention of taking them to Berlin for their overseas field class: at that time there were just 8 recorded cases of the coronavirus in Berlin and there seemed little reason to simply cancel the planned trip.  Just 24 hours later I had changed my mind.  The latest figures from the Robert Koch Institute indicate over 2,000 cases of the virus in Berlin (with over 53,000 cases across Germany as a whole).  All of the cafes, museums, and restaurants that we would have visited are closed.  As a group of 25 people all of our planned field excursions to parks and nature reserves would have been illegal.

As I write this blog I am sitting at home in Stoke Newington in North London.  Under placid blue skies there is an apprehensive atmosphere.  Many people wear improvised face masks.  Some strangers swerve to avoid each other in the street whilst others walk towards you out of defiance towards new rules on social distancing.  The few shops still trading have long and anxious queues snaking into side streets.  The other day an army truck trundled down Church Street as if a distant coup was underway but not yet announced to the wider population.  Strange notices appear such as anti-jogging signs in the local park.  Accumulations of refuse suggest that public services are beginning to fray under the pressure.  At night the city is quieter than I have ever known—the silence is broken only by the sound of foxes and distant ambulance sirens.

The coronavirus pandemic is already revealing stark differences in the public health preparedness of different nations.  The contrast between the UK and Germany is striking: whilst senior members of the UK government fall sick after failing to follow their own half-baked advice it is already apparent that mass testing in Germany, combined with a better prepared health care system, is saving many lives.

Urban atmospheres

I have become increasingly fascinated by the “affective atmospheres” of late modernity, connecting with the study of light, sound, and other facets to the multi-sensory study of urban space.  The post-humanist challange to the idea of the bounded human subject opens up new lines of reflection and analysis.  I am interested in emerging fields of conceptual dialogue between historical materialism and affect theory.

Attentive observation

A botanical transect is an embodied methodology par excellence: the systematic recording of plant life involves not just training the eye to notice small details, using sophisticated forms of pattern recognition, but also the use of other sensory clues such as smell to help identify specific plants, haptic interactions with leaves to explore their surface textures, and an awareness of small variations in light and shade, to produce an “incidental sensorium” that is open to the unexpected.  I explore some of these issues in my essay “Queering the transect” and I am also writing a longer essay about walking methodologies and the urban sensorium.

The urban Anthropocene

It is striking that most of the significant theoretical work in relation to the Anthropocene has only engaged indirectly with the urban arena.  There are parallels here with the first wave of political ecology literature in the 1980s that focused predominantly on a rural or global South context.   The Anthropocene debate has had an uncertain articulation with urbanization beyond the identification of specific empirical parameters or material traces.   I have begun to explore these issues with a paper on urban biodiversity and will be developing these ideas further in my next book where I consider the role of “urban refugia” in relation to the sixth mass extinction.

Urban epidemiology

I have a longstanding interest in public health, urban epidemiology, and corporeal geographies.  I initially explored these themes in relation to the development of modern cities through the provision of water infrastructure and other basic services.  I have also developed the question of disease in relation to the resurgence of  tuberculosis, the history of malaria, and the presence of complex boundary phenomena such as multiple-chemical sensitivity.  In my current work on urban nature I am interested in expanded conceptions of other-than-human geographies that extend to zoonoses and neglected facets of urban entomology.

There is significant scope for a critically reworked political ecology, in combination with new insights into the independent agency of nature, to explore evolving relationships between human health and the urban environment. Although existing studies within environmental history and other fields have emphasized the role of infrastructure networks and other measures against the threat of water-borne disease these insights can be extended to other socio-ecological and epidemiological dimensions of urban space.

Documentary filmmaking

I am interested in the use of film as a research methodology.  Documentary filmmaking can be conceived as a series of choices where a putative “reality” — or at least a cinematic semblance of the real — becomes framed, deciphered, represented, and ultimately enters an intertextual and fluid domain of meaning. A documentary faces a series of constraints in terms of how to convey its purpose, how to indicate varying degrees of verisimilitude, and how to connect with diverse audiences.  With my first film Liquid City (2007) I explored cultural and political dimensions to water and urban infrastructure in Mumbai with a particular emphasis on the use of interviews interspersed with everyday life and urban landscapes.  My most recent film Natura Urbana (2017) also uses interviews but draws on extensive archival footage to develop a historical document in its own right.

Cinematic landscapes

This on-going strand of work has involved a close engagement with developments in film studies, art history, literary theory, and related disciplines.  I have been exploring cinematic landscapes in films such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964), Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995), Werner Herzog’s Lessons in Darkness (1992), and Hiroshi Teshigehara’s Suna no Onna (1964).  I have also been writing essays on artists who work with nature and landscape such as Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, and Ulrike Mohr.  I plan to write a book on Cinematic landscapes that links insights from art history and cultural geography to the study of film but which extends the European focus of some of this earlier work to cinematic developments in east Asia, Africa, and elsewhere.

Cyborg urbanization

My work on cyborg urbanization has been both an exploration of the material experience of urban space – our reliance on complex technological networks for survival – but also an engagement with metaphors in urban discourse.  I think our choice of words is important: too many contemporary urban metaphors are either warmed-over nineteenth-century concepts or a pot-pourri of the latest scientific ideas used for rhetorical effect.  I want to use the cyborg concept as a way of exploring not only the vulnerability of the human body but also ways of re-thinking what is meant by the public realm as a shared set of interests.  I have recently extended my work on corporeal themes to light, sound, and the affective atmospheres of late modernity.

 

 

Urban wastelands

I have long been fascinated by “wastelands” since my early forays into London’s so-called “bomb sites”. A focus on spontaneous forms of urban nature transcends the merely speculative or utilitarian potentialities of ostensibly empty spaces. Within urban ecology significant attention has been devoted to wastelands as “ecological refugia” or islands of bio-diversity. These spontaneous ecologies can serve as “accidental laboratories” for cultural and scientific curiosity.

Urban metabolism

This area of work has involved research into the development of sanitation, urban water supply and urban environmental politics in Britain, France, Germany, Nigeria, India, and the United States.  Key outcomes from this work are the books Concrete and clay: reworking nature in New York City (The MIT Press, 2002) and The fabric of space: water, modernity, and the urban imagination (The MIT Press, 2014).  Concrete and clay examines five interrelated aspects to New York’s urban environment: the building of a modern water supply system; the creation and meaning of public space; the construction of landscaped roads; the grassroots environmental politics of the ghetto; and the contemporary politics of pollution.  With my book The fabric of space I turn to cultural and historical dimensions to water and human society through a series of developments in Paris, Berlin, Lagos, Mumbai, Los Angeles, and London.

Roma

Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma (2018), named after the eponymous neighbourhood of Mexico City, is framed through the experience of a middle class family’s maid Cleo (played by Yalitza Aparicio Martínez).  The film evokes an intense sense of time and place from the early 1970s inspired byCuarón’s childhood memories.  The set design encompasses specific details such as tile patterns along with the use of black and white photography and rich soundscapes to lend the film an especially poignant atmosphere.  The narrative weaves together the emotional turbulence of the main protagonists with wider events such as the Corpus Christi massacre of university students of June 1971.  Roma provides a subtle exploration of the intersections between place, politics, and memory, incorporating the claustrophobic drama of a family in crisis, as well as the stark social divisions that underpin modern Mexico.  Cuaron’s Roma reminds us why cinema can be both aesthetically and politically compelling.

Truth is out there: Forensic Architecture

“In my understanding,” argues the founder of Forensic Architecture Eyal Weizman, “truth is something that is like a common resource”.  “The truth is just like air or water,” continues Weizman, “something that we all need in order to understand, that provides evidence for civil society groups that are confronting state crimes and human rights violations worldwide.”   In this brief yet eloquent interview, that accompanies Forensic Architecture’s short listed entry to the 2018 Turner Prize, we gain some fascinating insights into this radical interdisciplinary research programme that Weizman initiated at Goldsmiths over a decade ago.  This remarkable body of work brings questions of epistemology and politics into dialogue as part of an unsettling of the human subject within architecture, art history, and related fields.

The work of Weizman and his colleagues provokes a series of critical questions that offer an important alternative to the recent emphasis on neo-vitalist or object-oriented ontologies:

i)         An enriched reconceptualization of the human subject can transcend the limitations of humanism as well as the flattening and undifferentiated dimensions to some post-humanist perspectives.

ii)        The conceptualization of buildings and also plants as evidentiary markers or sentinels could surely be extended to other organisms such as insects because of their extremely precise responses to environmental change.  There is in this sense an interesting parallel with the emergence of “forensic entomology” and the use of biological data in criminal investigations.

iii)       The radical use of technological tools, and the democratization of digital cartographies and other modes of representation, opens up new possibilities for articulating technologically enhanced forms of citizenship.

iv)       The idea of truth as a collaborative synthesis derived from multiple perspectives, whose modes of scrutiny or validation are transparent, is a welcome foil to more cynical, nihilistic, or post-truth formulations.  There is an emphasis on the accountability of science rather than its degree of fallibility or infallibility.

Corbyn: a political tragedy

I voted for Jeremy Corbyn twice in the two most recent Labour leadership elections.  The first time because he was the only candidate that seemed to directly address substantive policy issues and the second time because I felt he deserved a chance to succeed despite his lamentable performance during the EU referendum of 2016.  Had any other candidate won I would have rallied round and supported them as usual: the only time in recent years that I have withheld my support for Labour is for Blair in the 2005 general election, in the wake of the disastrous Iraq War.

It’s clear that Corbyn takes a 1970s view of the European Union that is both conspiratorial and wrong headed.  His few remarks on state aid for industry indicate a misunderstanding about the role of the EU in the fields of technological change, competition policy, and regional development. Other socialist politicians in Europe have urged Corbyn to adopt an internationalist perspective but he will not let go of a parochial and backward looking stance.  The repeated mantra of the current Labour leadership for a “jobs first Brexit” ignores the impact of a shrunken economy on any progressive political programme.

If Labour’s support for Brexit is driven more by political expediency than anything else then this stems from a misunderstanding of British politics. Although many constituencies with Labour MPs voted for Brexit in 2016 a majority of Labour voters opted for Remain.  Recent surveys show that the shift towards Remain among existing and potential Labour voters has further strengthened so that a pro-Brexit position risks alienating millions of supporters.  It would be far better to combine a commitment to Remain via another referendum with a clear programme to end austerity and tackle critical challenges such as the need for more social housing, the impact of inequality, and declining public services.

Clinging to the “Lexit” position seems even more disastrous when we move the focus from economic policy to cultural identity.  Brexit is a project of and for the political Right: the referendum was narrowly won by the Leave campaign on the basis of cheating, lies, and the deliberate use of racist rhetoric to unleash a kind of angry nostalgia.  This is the vision of Enoch Powell not Clement Attlee and Labour’s dalliance with a destructive form of English nationalism risks shattering their commitment to anti-racism and social justice.  As the Swedish sociologist Göran Therborn has recently argued, the defining failure of centre left parties across Europe in recent years has been to allow worsening socio-economic inequalities to be blamed on migration rather than neo-liberalism. This failure of political leadership predates Corbyn but he has neglected to challenge dangerous misconceptions about the causes of poverty, inequality, and industrial decline.

So here we are, just a matter of weeks away from Brexit, unless article 50 is rescinded or delayed.  And time is rapidly running out for the Labour leadership to take a principled position on the most critical political dilemma of our generation.

Wisconsin

In Michelle Obama’s eloquent speech given in New Hampshire against the rising tide of hatred and misogyny unleashed during the American election campaign she did not refer to Donald J. Trump by name but merely as Hillary Clinton’s opponent. Now we will have to get used to reading and saying his name more often but politics is never just a matter of a single individual, even under the extreme reactionary swerve of US politics, that has taken everyone, not only Americans, into a dangerously uncertain and perhaps even irreversible situation.  The Paris climate change treaty may be in jeopardy.  Key domestic achievements of the Obama years could be ripped up including wider access to health care.  New appointments to the US Supreme Court will have lasting significance for American society.

The Democrats had foolishly assumed that Wisconsin was safely in their camp but the primaries had already given signs of deep disenchantment with the dynastic Clinton party machine.  However effectively Hillary Clinton managed to present her own agenda she was nonetheless unable to completely emerge from the shadows of the last Clinton administration (as may also have been the case with Al Gore in 2000). Both Gore and Clinton were ultimately ahead in the popular vote but cursed by the final outcome of the electoral college system (and also in Gore’s case by the infamous Florida count and its legal aftermath).  It turned out that Barack Obama’s broad-based coalition of progressive voters simply could not be mobilized in sufficient numbers to hold Wisconsin along with other crucial electoral college votes spread across the so-called “rust belt” of the Mid West.  Would a Sanders-Warren ticket have done better?  Maybe, but we shall never know. Furthermore, with over forty per cent of American adults not participating in the election, let alone a further seven per cent disqualified as former felons or for missing papers, the actual outcome of this debacle was decided by less than a quarter of the adult population, and far fewer if we look at the wafer thin margins in five or six bell weather states.

The rise of right-wing populism now endangers liberal democracy at a global scale.  A toxic brew of pervasive inequalities, manipulated grievances, and historical amnesia threatens to overwhelm attempts to articulate a progressive alternative. The social democratic tradition in particular finds itself in deep crisis, its sources of mobilization splintered and scattered, and its previous achievements steadily eroded.

Boyhood

Richard Linklater’s remarkable film Boyhood (2015) took twelve years to make.  The film focuses on Mason Evans Jr (played by Ellar Coltrane), who we first meet aged six, along with his sister Samantha (played by the director’s daughter Lorelei), his mother (Patricia Arquette), who is a constant in his life, and his wayward yet loving father (Ethan Hawke).  We follow this ensemble of characters and actors in real time from 2002 to 2014, the film being shot for a few days in each year, and then crafted into a cinematic document.   With the passage of time the emotional nuances of each scene become magnified through an intense kind of cinematic verisimilitude.

The representation of time is one of the most complex dimensions to cinematic art.   The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze even divides the history of cinema into a putative shift from the “movement image” to the “time image” in his idiosyncratic overview of the medium.   Though occasional spaces of real-time have been eloquently evoked in the unhurried films of Michelangelo Antonioni, John Cassavetes, and other directors, the brilliance ofBoyhood is to take the question of time in a fundamentally different and exhilarating direction.  At one level Boyhood serves as an elaborate documentary experiment that works as both a sociological snapshot of American society but also a dramatic device of poignant emotional intensity.  In the final scene we encounter Mason, now an eighteen-year old student on a camping excursion with his new friends from university, and we are taken back to the precise spot, by a lake in the mountains, to which he had gone with his father years ago.  The beauty and repetition of this tranquil landscape is startling.  Mason wonders whether the familiar refrain that one must seize the moment should really be turned around since it is really the moment after all that seizes our consciousness.

Ex_Machina

In this stylish and intelligent new science fiction drama, directed by Alex Garland, a young computer programmer is sent to an isolated research facility, run by an eccentric recluse named Nathan Batemen (played to terrifying effect by Oscar Isaac), to determine whether his new robotic creation possesses artificial intelligence.  The computer programmer Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson) encounters an enigmatic female robot called Ava (played by Alicia Vikander), who quickly surpasses the boundaries of the Turing test, revealing what appear to be a range of human feelings including loneliness, vulnerability, and desire.   The emerging emotional connection between Smith and Ava, or rather projected onto Smith by Ava as part of an elaborate experiment, begins to unsettle the power relations within the subterranean labyrinth.

There is a touch of Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) here in Garland’sEx_Machina (2015) where the power of imagination emerges out of an interface between human and machine and consciousness resides in a tangle of wires and flesh.  The film’s spectacular denouement hints at a near future in which Turing’s anticipated avatars stroll among us.

Harlow as viewed from Berlin

In the wake of the EU referendum there has been a surge of racism and xenophobia across the UK including acts of extreme violence.  A spate of attacks on Polish people in the Essex town of Harlow, for example, located not far from London, culminated in the murder of Arkadiusz Jóźwik, and has attracted international attention.  Unlike the muted media coverage in the UK external observers see this murder and the atmosphere of intimidation as a shameful indictment of the UK’s declining status as a respected European nation.¹

Harlow was the future once.   As one of the original new towns established under the New Towns Act of 1946, and designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, Harlow was a state-of-the art planned settlement created in response to acute overcrowding in London.  Its buildings exemplify some of the most important examples of post-war British architecture and its comprehensive park system reflects the richness and complexity of the local topography.

Politically, Harlow is a classic bellwether constituency:  Labour in the 1970s, Conservative in the 1980s, regained by New Labour in the 1990s, lost again to the Conservatives in the 2010 general election.  In the 2015 election this working-class seat seems to have slipped further out of Labour’s reach than ever before: it is more Tory now than even under the high water mark of Thatcherism in the late 1980s.  Without Labour winning Harlow there will probably never be another progressive government in the UK again.

Part of the UK’s problem is that it has never gone through a process of collective self-reflection over its colonial antecedents, whether in Ireland, Kenya, India, or elsewhere.  A fog of self delusion pervades national discourse so that the UK’s complicity in the geo-political turmoil that has generated the contemporary mass movement of migrants and refugees is scarcely acknowledged.  Equally, the enormous contribution of migrants to British society, over many decades, has been drowned out by years of wilful misrepresentation.   The imperial mantra of “free trade” has become part of the labyrinthine tautology of “Brexit means Brexit” where vacuity and mendacity rule supreme.

The fading of Harlow’s post-war dream is a poignant cipher for the wider ills of British society.  But the European Union is no more responsible for the town’s perceived decline than the rings of Saturn.  Why blame Europeans for the failures of Britain’s ruling class?  I hope very much that Neal Ascherson’s interpretation of the UK’s predicament is correct: we will spend three years trying to get out of the EU and then a further three years trying to get back in.²

1  Christian Zaschke, “Rührt euch,” Süddeutsche Zeitung (10/11 September 2016)
2  Neal Ascherson, “Where are we now?,” London Review of Books  (14 July 2016

Schlachtensee

This afternoon I grabbed my towel and headed for Schlachtensee — a lake in the south west of Berlin, surrounded by the vast Grunewald forest that stretches beyond the city limits.

It’s been just over ten years since I swam in this lake — the last time I was here, Germany were hosting the world cup, and I had a picnic on the lakeshore.  As I swim out through bands of warmer and cooler water, beyond the dappled shade provided by alder and poplar trees, I am alongside coots and great crested grebes bobbing about on the surface, making occasional dives into the muddy depths.  Large dragonflies skim across the water like turquoise jewels in the sunshine.  In the distance I can the see the bright green reed banks on the other side — my destination as I gradually leave the crowds behind.

In the early twentieth century speculative developers tried to grab the lakeside to build private villas and restrict public access.  Luckily a new city planner called Martin Wagner stopped this from happening in the 1920s as part of his inclusive vision for urban nature.  How many swimmers know that somebody had their future in mind nearly 100 years ago?  This is public space at its best!

Landscape as political transect

Tower Hamlets (32.5 % Leave  67.5 % Remain)

It is the afternoon of Saturday 25th June and my train draws out of London’s Liverpool Street Station amid a thunderstorm, heading east for Ipswich and Norwich. It is a grubby poorly upholstered train with many empty first class carriages whilst the rest of us are crammed into the other half of the train.

As the train leaves the station I can see a familiar mix of Victorian terraces interspersed with post-war social housing.

Newham (47.2 % Leave 52.8 % Remain)

The Olympic Park, Westfield shopping centre, and high-rise student accommodation.

Cranes, tents, and half-finished buildings in the rain.

Cemetery, pylons, overpass.

Car parks, transport depots, inter-war retail units.

Barking and Dagenham (62.4 % Leave 37.6 % Remain)

Petrol stations, big box Wickes store.

The train slows slightly but does not stop at Chadwell Heath station.

Semi-suburbia and standardized poor quality new build housing.

Havering (69.7 % Leave 30.3 % Remain)

Sports playing fields and multiplex cinema.

We pass through Romford and Gidea Park stations.

Pylons, undulating suburbia, copses.

We are now leaving the administrative boundary of London and entering Essex.

Brentwood (59.2 % Leave 40.8 % Remain)

Sewage works

We pass over the M25 orbital

Splash of green graffiti

Pipe sections by the railway tracks

Heaps of gravel, greenhouses.

Fields fringed with white flowering umbellifers.

Bird on a wire.

Isolated homestead near the tracks.

Muddy brook and country lane.

The white of willow leaves flashing in the sunshine against a dark grey thundery sky.

Chelmsford (52.8 % Leave 47.2 % Remain)

We draw into Chelmsford station, the tracks lined with buddleia, elder, and sycamore.

Political vandals

Last Sunday I followed the lead of Unison’s Dave Prentis and reported Nigel Farage to the police for inciting racial hatred: his now notorious poster depicting refugees seeking a safe haven from war and violence marks a debasement of our political culture that cannot go unchallenged.  Given the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox, and rising levels of racism and xenophobia in the UK not seen since the 1970s, the task of defending society from the politics of hate is a responsibility for every citizen.

When the UK Prime Minister David Cameron foolishly called for a referendum on UK membership of the European Union he set in train a process that has yet to be fully played out regardless of the final outcome on 23 June.  At one level we have the spectacle of a Conservative leadership campaign in which political recklessness has been re-fashioned as an absurd bid for English independence that further divides the different nations, regions, and communities of the UK. And standing behind the right-wing populist Boris Johnson is his new aide-de-camp Michael Gove, a curious ideological zealot, still smarting from being sacked by Cameron as Secretary of State for Education. The simmering internal disputes over Europe within the Conservative Party have been re-energized by a cocktail of bitterness and political ambition.

Among the glaring features of this referendum, illustrated yet again by the final debate at Wembley last night, is a pervasive hostility towards “experts” and rational argument. Millions of voters are convinced that the decline of manufacturing industry, falling living standards, and underinvestment in public services is the fault of the European Union and not successive UK governments. The longstanding lack of investment in education, skills, innovation, infrastructure, and all the other ingredients of economic success has scarcely been addressed.

If there was ever an illustration of why a referendum is a crude and dangerous political tool this Thursday’s polarized and unnecessary choice shows why. The EU is not perfect but to leave would be an act of political vandalism based on a misreading of history and a retreat from reality.

Spacey city

I recently took the Berlin-Warszawa-Express and made my first visit to Warsaw. As soon as you leave Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof you are already in Poland: freshly cooked pierogies are immediately available in the restaurant car. The crowded car necessitated a nicely Hitchcockian juxtaposition of strangers: behind me I could hear an urgent discussion about the political situation in Belarus.

My hosts were mainly architects and urbanists who explained to me how post-socialist Warsaw has been characterized by a construction frenzy, especially on the urban fringe, so that the grey vistas of state socialism now jostle alongside a kind of neo-Disney palette of pink and orange. The sense of a postmodernist hangover is perhaps most directly evoked by Daniel’s Libeskind’s Złota 44—an immense edifice of luxury condominiums plonked right in the middle of the city.

One of the most characteristic features of Warsaw is the use of almost every available space for advertising: above all, during my visit, the ubiquitous presence of the actor Kevin Spacey to promote a mobile phone network. Spacey seemed to peer at you from all angles as if he formed part of some ill-defined political campaign. The powerful effect of an urban landscape dominated by billboards is reminiscent of the geographer Anton Wagner’s encounter with Los Angeles in the early 1930s.  Wagner was fascinated by the garish landscapes produced by weak or uncertain planning regulations: a topography in which real spaces were hidden by a proliferation of imaginary ones.

Street scenes: Thomas Struth and the distillation of vision

Among the eighteen photographers featured in the recent show Constructing Worlds at the Barbican Centre in London I want to reflect for a moment on the work of the German artist Thomas Struth.  Struth forms part of an influential circle of former students of Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Düsseldorf Academy where significant advances were made in the use of large format black and white photographs to record the scale and detail of urban and industrial landscapes.

One of Struth’s photograph stands out for me in particular, entitled Clinton Road, London (1977), which captures a wide-angle view of an empty London street, perhaps on a Sunday morning so as to be as unobtrusive as possible (save for a possible curtain twitch to the left).   In a series of photos taken in the late 1970s in several cities—among them Brussels, Cologne, and New York—Struth sought to distil the essence of an entire city into a single image.  In the case of London this is no easy task.  Nevertheless, this street is instantly recognizable as an example of the type of turn of the century terrace housing that dominates many of London’s newly built suburbs of the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries.  There is a studied ordinariness to this image that captures something of the enigma of London as a city.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to notice what is taken for granted.  Like the Danish architect Steen Eiler Rasmussen achieved, with his marvellous book London: the unique city, first published in 1934, Struth has also managed in the field of photography with his carefully chosen location.   That this image is a large format image, with all the skill and technical complexity that that entails, merely adds to its poignancy.  And with the use of black-and-white rather than colour, the image seems to be both closer in time and yet simultaneously further away.

Camberwell Beauty

Feeling the glimmer of January sun this morning I recalled one of my most vivid memories of last year. On the morning of Saturday 29 March, at just after noon, I cycled past a favourite spot amid the woods and waterways of Spreewald, a biosphere reserve that lies about 100 kilometres south-east of central Berlin. As I passed the point where two canals meet, next to towering ash and poplar trees reaching up into the sky, an unmistakable butterfly swooped up into the air: a Camberwell Beauty, Nymphalis antiopa, which owes its English name to an early sighting in 1748, in what is now part of South London. I stopped my bike and frantically assembled my camera in time to take a bad shot of the butterfly sunning itself on the track some ten metres behind me before it took off over the trees. At least I had proof of having seen it but otherwise only a blurry likeness. I waited maybe an hour in the vain hope that it might reappear but there was a strange stillness in the March sunshine and nothing was to be seen.

The next day I approached the exact spot again, at precisely the same time, riding my bike quite slowly: to my delight I could see that the Camberwell Beauty was already there several metres ahead of me so I made another stealthy attempt to take a photograph. Again it soared upwards at my approach only to reappear a few minutes later further down the track, now being pursued by another Camberwell Beauty, flying even faster. The two butterflies took off together, spiralling around each other, higher and higher, way above the treetops, until they were a mere pair of specks in orbit silhouetted against the sky.

I stood by the track and waited patiently, camera in hand. About twenty minutes later I happened to glance to my left. A Camberwell Beauty sat sunning itself on a warm twig jutting out from dead vegetation, this time just a few metres away. I edged towards it and this time it did not fly away. Evidently the strange creature advancing towards it no longer seemed to present a threat; I had made a temporary connection with their world.

City of the Lord

On 20 December I spent a weekend in Leeds.  The city is the third largest in the UK (after London and Birmingham) but this agglomerative accolade is as much the outcome of cookie-cutter administrative boundaries than any geographical fact.  It is a regional centre for banking and retail, along with significant remnants of its once dominant role in manufacturing.  On the recommendation of a friend I decided to stay at the Queens Hotel, an eerie Art Deco building dating from 1937, because I had been given a small task to complete: to photograph the hotel ballroom.  The ballroom of the Queens Hotel has a distinctive place in the music culture of northern England — during the late 1970s many bands performed there— but what is the venue like now?  I finally set out to complete my task on the Sunday morning but immediately found that the pathway to the room was staffed by succession of stewards for the LIFE Church, a recently founded religious organization based in Bradford, with branches in Leeds, Belfast, and most recently Warsaw.  As an agnostic atheist I felt rather like an imposter edging my way ever closer to the room; as I neared the entrance someone tried to hug me, I was clearly entering an alien spiritual domain.  The room was filled with a glittering darkness of acoustic guitars and biblical incantations; an imaginary post-industrial nirvana far removed from the sound and fury of the past.

Material is it: Burri’s modernity

Alberto Burri is one of the most interesting yet little known twentieth-century artists. Born in Umbria, Italy, in 1915 he became one of the leading exponents of Art Informel in Europe during the 1950s. His experimentations with manufactured or synthetic materials can be read as an exploration of the aesthetic characteristics of industrial modernity and the post-war transformation of Italian landscapes. He was certainly influenced by Umberto Boccioni’s Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture (1912), which exhorted artists to combine as many materials as possible in their work. Burri’s fascination with fire, metal, plastics, sacking, and the colour red in particular, was also a significant influence on Antonioni’s film Red Desert (1964), which explores the industrial landscapes of Ravenna. Burri pushed materials to their limits, examining variations in form and texture under extreme conditions, and produced works that evoke organic elements such as body parts, cracked mud, or even the vastly magnified strange worlds that are revealed under the lens of a microscope.

His recent exhibition at the Estorick, London, is the artist’s first solo show in the UK since 1960s. To encounter many of these works gathered together in one place, and to see their rich colours and intricate surfaces in close proximity, is a powerful experience. The discreetly lit gallery rooms cast their own subtle shadows across the many textures producing yet more variations. Though the almost deserted gallery was very quiet I could sense a kind of aesthetic hum as if these works could instil mysterious synaesthetic effects. It appears that Burri himself, however, was resistant to interpretation, claiming that words are of little use, and that his work speaks for itself. Yet it is difficult to ignore the wider context: his experience as a military field doctor before switching to art may have informed the bloody corporeality of some of his works; his encounters with the semi-arid landscapes of southern Italy or North Africa are strikingly evoked by the parched, cracked and burned spaces of some of his canvases; and above all, his consistent fascination with synthetic materials marks a tactile engagement with the manufactured worlds of modernity in all their strangeness and unpredictability.

Trishna

Michael Winterbottom is an erratic and prolific British film director but Trishna (2011) must surely rank amongst his best works to date.   In this striking adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the setting is transposed from late nineteenth-century rural England to contemporary India. The story moves from the rural poverty of Rajasthan to the bustling hi-rise metropolis of Mumbai and then back to Rajasthan for its tragic denouement. The doomed love affair emerging from a chance encounter between Trishna (played by Freida Pinto) and Jay Singh (played by Riz Ahmed) serves as a poignant metaphor for the devastating effects of gender inequality, poverty, and cultural oppression amid the glitz of Mumbai, luxury hotels and the superficial allure of the tourist gaze. The unhurried cinema verité style lends weight to the unfolding drama. The everyday scenes of agricultural labour and factory work, for example, are reminiscent of the video art of Harun Farocki. A sense of fatalism and dusty monotony is powerfully evoked.

By moving Hardy’s novel to a different setting Winterbottom succeeds in drawing out broader themes concerning the tension between modernity and tradition. The striking cinematography, along with very effective use of music, also poses interesting questions about vantage points for cinematic representation. To use a nineteenth-century British novel as a means to depict contemporary India is fraught with potential difficulties in terms of the blurring of period, place and perspective. What is clear, however, is that Trishna is a far more effective, and in many ways honest, portrayal of contemporary India — albeit from a very specific viewpoint — than other less interesting works that struggle to combine “slumdog” realism with narrative convention.