Archive for June, 2010

Mark McGowan speaking at Creative Networks, Leeds College of Art

Friday, June 25th, 2010

I knew absolutely nothing of this performance artist before I attended the talk, and so my expectations were low. Good job really.

He commenced his talk with interminable video clips of his appearances on breakfast shows and the like. It was apparent that he filled the media slot usually preceded with the words, “And finally…” and features things like skateboarding cats or balloonists caught on camera, tangling with electricity pylons. This produced several thoughts for me.

  1. Why, after so many high profile pundits have expressly forbid it, do speakers insist on taking up valuable time with video clips I could just as easily see on the internet. They are there in person to tell the audience something personal. If I can get just as much from a video, what is the point of them being there at all? Admittedly, a short clip is sometimes warranted if they want to speak specifically about what is in the clip, but twenty minutes is far too long.
  2. The works, as described in the news reports, were more akin to old Monty Python comedy sketches than anything I would define as art.
  3. The overriding impression I got from this video montage was a desperate cry for attention – “Look how famous I am! I have been on all of these specious shows!”

Thankfully, he stopped the video clips and started to speak. What came out though wasn’t much better. There was a football story about psychologically driven managers, another football analogy about something or other and references to trips abroad. Absolutely nothing about his philosophical standpoint or the values and beliefs that he holds (I assume he has some because he referred to GlaxoSmithKline as being ‘dirty’ patrons of the arts).

Finally, he asked for questions and during this interchange, something interesting cropped up. It was revealed that he had spent time living on the streets and in mental asylums. This produced an automatic reconfiguration of gears in my mental processes and several trains of thought emerged.

His back-story is one of mental turmoil, do I need to re-evaluate the work? It is like being shown a painting and then being asked to express an opinion of it. You say you don’t like it, it’s childish. You are then told, it was created by a tortured genius, do you still think it is childish? Rationally, it is still the same artefact that you professed to dislike. Psychologically however, your perception has changed, which begs the question, “Is it the thing itself which is art or is it the myth surrounding the thing, that is the art?”

Well, even with that insight I was unable to find any additional dimension to his work. It did perhaps explain to some extent though, the introductory video. If I had come from such a difficult background and discovered a trick that got me a lot of attention, I too would be proudly telling anyone who cared to listen, to see how media worthy I am! As a self publicist, he is excellent.

Infuriatingly, the very last thing that he commented on, produced the greatest insight. He said, people had pointed out that a lot of his work was ’shame’ based. And indeed, a lot of the video clips showed him crawling on his hands and knees performing acts of humility and supplication. Considering his early history, this was a fascinating area for discussion but tragically, it ended where it should have started.

From what I learned that evening, this Banksy of the performance world, is a comedian. This is not to denigrate comedy, one of the sharpest tools of social commentary that we have, but it only cuts so deep. It stimulates the intellectual part of our brains. Great art goes much deeper and penetrates the hidden, silent world of our souls, and moves us.

The future lies not in the minefield of competition but in the garden of collaboration

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

Bettakultcha logo

The fascinating thing about democracy is that it has to carry the seeds of its own destruction. In theory, it has to allow anyone to compete for power. This makes for an interesting ride. Add creativity into the mix however, and you can expect the unexpected.

As I write this, I am waiting to hear if Bettakultcha can be pitched at a Creative Networks event. Creative Networks is a sponsored event held at the Leeds College of Art which lays on free food and drink and a guest speaker for the evening. The idea is to encourage networking among the creative people of Leeds in the hope that something good will emerge through collaboration. All very laudable. But with creatives, you should expect that all sorts of exotic flora can germinate from the seeds of destruction.

Before the guest speaker is announced at one of their events, Creative Networks allows businesses in the creative industries to pitch their product or idea to the audience. The pitches are generally from printers and the like. It occurred to me that the audience attending these Creative Networks events would be exactly the sort of people that would be interested in Bettakultcha. Our pitch could be presented in an interesting and fun way, to demonstrate its entertaining format. I contacted Leeds College of Art about the idea and they unhesitatingly gave us a slot. They asked for some basic information about our product, and when we sent them it, that’s when the unexpected began to happen.

I got a voice message from one of the organisers, expressing their concern that there was a ‘conflict of interest’ in our pitch. Intrigued, I telephoned them and asked them which interests were being conflicted? Because as far as I was aware, Creative Networks is a sponsored event whose aim is to encourage creative enterprises in the Yorkshire region. The response was that, because we were promoting a similar event to Creative Networks, we were, um, competition.

Competition? Oh my, the lessons to be learned here…

Bettakultcha is an event that includes several presentations, not just one. It is run by volunteers. It is usually held on a different night to Creative Networks. It is a fun evening encouraging creativity which also happens to encourage networking. And it was the networking that the organisers objected to. The irony of this objection seemed too big for them to appreciate. Any rational interpretation of their concern comes out something like this, “although our remit is to encourage creativity and networking, we want to hold the monopoly on creative networking.”

Believe me, I can understand this thinking. The capitalist ideology we are so thoroughly indoctrinated with, demands it. We are trained to think competitively, even when competition is the very worst option in a given circumstance.

My disappointment in this matter however, arises not from this realisation, but from the fact that even the creative sector has become so dangerously infected by this old world disease, that it cannot think for itself anymore. The planet is desperate for innovative thinking and creative solutions to problems brought about by such outdated ideas. Where are these innovative ideas going to come from when the very people we look to for creativity, insist on shackling themselves with outdated practices? Where are the radical thinkers with the bold ideas supposed to come from? If the artists and poets start squabbling amongst themselves about who is allowed to practice art and who is not, we’re fucked.

Bettakultcha does not conflict with Creative Networks, it shares with Creative Networks. Our pitch does not say, let Creative Networks die and come to Bettakultcha instead, it says, come to Creative Networks and also enjoy Bettakultcha, one of the many events to be found in the flourishing community of Leeds.

Bettakultcha was born out of a Creative Networks event. It seems the father is now hunting down its progeny in an attempt to strangle it, so that any imagined threat to his own existence is removed.

The future lies not in the minefield of competition but in the garden of collaboration. The seeds of destruction therefore, are in fact, the flowers of creation.

“Eighty percent of success is showing up”

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Crucial five
This Woody Allen quote is funny because it is true.

Bettakultcha came about because Richard Michie and myself showed up to an unrelated event at Creative Networks and got chatting.  I’m not sure how Imran Ali got involved with Ignite, nor how Jon Eland put together Exposure Leeds, or even how Phil Kirby got into bed with Temple Works, but one thing you can be sure of is that they all showed up someplace to talk to someone else about their idea.

You start with a vision, then you convince people that this vision is worth pursuing.

The photograph above, depicts the shaping of a vision.

Currently, Leeds, has several events which involve short presentations using digital slides. Presenters volunteer their services on the night. as do the organisers. They have proven to be highly popular with the animated audiences.

So, an opportunity presented itself. It could all be so much bigger, so much more involving. If we pooled all the available talent and expertise into organising and delivering a glittering evening of ideas and entertainment, a lot of fun could be had by a lot of people. It could even repay some of the volunteer work.

And so, one night this week, Richard Michie, Phil Kirby, Jon Eland, Imran Ali and myself, showed up to discuss the vision.

We’re eighty percent there.

Sheep at a fence

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Once, on a countryside ramble, I passed a flock of sheep grazing in a field. They got spooked by my presence and decided to run through a big hole in a wire fence which divided the field. One, however had become separated from the main flock and tried to join the rest of them by taking the shortest possible route, which meant going through the unbroken part of the fence. I stood and watched the sheep for a few minutes as it head butted away at the wire fence getting more and more desperate. The big hole was only a few feet away from it but it failed to step back and see the bigger picture.

How stupid I thought.

Recently, I bought a presentation remote and to trial the device I connected my laptop to a bigger monitor. At one stage, as I moved elements in the program I was using on the laptop, the pointer disappeared off the laptop screen and suddenly appeared on the larger monitor. Try as I might, I couldn’t now operate the program on the laptop because the pointer had moved to the large monitor and I didn’t know how it had got there. Getting more and more desperate I swore at the computer for getting a glitch and shut it down.

After restarting, an untitled folder I had accidentally managed to place on the desktop of the large monitor with my wild, blind keystrokes of frustration, was still there and I wanted to get rid of it. In an attempt to see if the folder was hiding behind an open panel on the desktop of the laptop I moved the panel to one side instead of closing it. Imagine my astonishment when the disappearing  part of the panel slid out of view on the laptop but then appeared on the large monitor. Suddenly, it all made sense. The mouse was not flicking from one monitor to the other, it was simply travelling across the virtual space of the two combined monitors.

It had taken a lot of head-butting at that virtual fence to realise that a few feet further along was a big hole I could have walked through to find my pointer. I imagined the sheep in my earlier story watching me and muttering to herself, ‘Huh, these humans are just like us – stupid animals.’

A few days in Berlin

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

Olympic Stadium 2
Having my genitals gently patted whilst standing barefoot in the crucifix position similar to the one made famous in an Abu Ghraib photograph, I realised how close I was to crossing the line of never subjecting myself to the indignities of airport security again. I was that close.

Globalisation has been a friend to terror. But then, globalisation is a capricious beast. The very things that would benefit the most from it – transport, law, regulation – do not, and the things that least need its assistance – fast food, formulaic television shows, pointy ends on toilet rolls in hotel bathrooms – do. For a nation that prides itself on efficiency and rationality, I would have expected Germany to embrace the very best of transport methodology. It does not.

Navigating Berlin’s underground system is a task more fiendish than solving the BP oil-spill. In London, every underground platform has a diagram showing you where you are and where the the train is going to go. It is idiot proof. So why doesn’t Berlin adopt such a system? Maybe their administrators can’t escape the maze of their own underground to travel to London and see a better system.

At least when you are on a Berlin train, they have the line diagram with all the stations listed stuck to the carriage wall, as in London trains, but even here, the diagram is so small you need hawk eyes to figure out where you are. How hard can it be to make a system user friendly?

My complaining gets worse though. For such a powerful new tool of the 21st century, why is the internet so hopelessly unreliable? Before we arrived, my wife carried out meticulous research on the web looking for the best travel deals in Berlin and all she could find was conflicting information. For anyone thinking of travelling to Berlin, here are some useful facts which apply at the time of writing. Children under the age of fifteen travel for free on public transport. A Berlin Pass allows you to travel on the express train from the airport to the city and most of the timetables on the web are inaccurate.

Anyway, by dead reckoning and dumb luck, we managed to find our way to the Reichstag. As it was the 1st of June in Europe, it was obviously overcoat weather. As we approached the Reichstag’s main entrance, we observed a long queue snaking out of it, exposed to the fine drizzle and keen wind. Adjacent to this queue was another, much shorter one. We went to investigate the possibilities of joining this queue when a young male guide accosted us and, in German, asked us (we surmised) if he could help. I used the word that would later become a standard response to any German spoken at us and which doubled as an explanation and apology, “English.” I proffered.

Without hesitation, the guide switched into perfect English (I am forever grateful and slightly ashamed that English is the Lingua Franca of the world. If only there was an English equivalent for Lingua Franca).

“Can I help you at all?”

We asked about the shorter queue and he explained that it was for organised tours. We would have to join the longer queue which would take at least an hour to reach the cupola. He then looked down at our underdeveloped daughter and asked how old she was.

“Eight.” I said.

“Oh,” he responded disappointedly, “if she had been seven you could have used the side entrance for less able people.”

“No, wait,” I said. “Did I say eight? I mean, nearly eight.”

The guide looked at me with a wry sense of humour and played along.

“In that case then, you can use the side entrance which is just round the corner, out of sight.”

We thanked him for this information and made our way to the ‘less able’ entrance where the young, old and infirm are given preferential treatment.

Ten minutes later we were in the Norman Foster designed cupola of the Reichstag, admiring the cloud shrouded views of Berlin. Even in such weather conditions, it was still impressive.


A visit to the Alte Nationalgalerie revealed some treasures. Most of the artists in here are German and there must be something about the German psyche that drives it towards militarism, perfection, arrogance, and its expression through sculpture produces some remarkable results. All the pieces I admired were sculptures and my favourite by far was this exquisite work by Adolf Hildebrand, Young Man Standing. It does what art is supposed to do, create a space in the imagination for contemplative reflection. It is perfect. An apotheosis of that German psyche.

Young Man Standing

Adolf Hildebrand, Young Man Standing.

What works well with a definite edge however becomes almost comedic in paint. Paint requires a certain looseness, a creative shorthand, which no amount of strident perfectionism can make up for. None of the German artists in the gallery could paint, in my estimation, apart from Adolph Menzel.

Menzel foot

A painting by Menzel
The brutal, representational style of the German psyche  translates into cartoony, ham fisted paintings that pastiche real paintings by such artists as Canaletto and Atkinson Grimshaw. Germany has its ardent copyists but no one with originality and flair. The other European artists they have on show in the gallery blazed out in their brilliance when compared with the talentless native artists.

We also visited the Pergamonmuseum as it was highly rated in our guide books, and indeed, upon entering the first room it has a wow factor. If you are going to loot the treasures of another country you might as well do it wholesale and take the whole freaking town. Despite the dubious morals, it is an impressive piece of theatre.

Perhammon museum

Berlin is flatter than Portsmouth so it is bike city. I even saw fully suited businessmen climb onto mountain bikes and ride to their offices. Cyclists even have their own traffic light system controlling dedicated cycle lanes. We, however, were determined to master the buses and underground system.

In the busier intersections of the underground I did see some idiot proof diagrams on the walls opposite the platform but why weren’t they on every platform? The average German traveller must also be impeccably trained in their behaviour as we encountered no barriers in the underground and we were never challenged for our tickets. It got to the point where I didn’t bother to show my pass to the driver of any bus we boarded. This saved a lot of time.

The Gemaldegalerie has more space than it knows what to do with. It also has a collection of Rembrandt’s, a couple of which I was familiar with and many I was not. I was not familiar with them because, as they were largely incompetent, they were not reproduced as much. The proportions of, Joseph wird von Potiphars Weib beschuldigt, for example, are obviously wrong. How could Rembrandt not see that? Was it a commission he was trying to spoil because he didn’t like the patron, and how come his stature as a painter is not diminished by these second rate pieces? Did he just ‘get lucky’ with his famous pictures?

Rembrandt painting

The gallery also has a collection of Canaletto’s. I’ve never seen a bad Canaletto and I know I have seen some stupendous one’s. These other pictures of his confirmed his deserved status for me. The main reason we visited the gallery however was to worship at the alter of Jan Vermeer’s, The Glass of Wine.

Side room in the Natural History Museum

The Natural History museum was a dark and Dickensian affair. I kept waiting for Miss Haversham to leap out from one of the side rooms in her yellowed wedding dress and harangue us in German about the dinosaurs which is its main claim to fame. It has the biggest complete skeleton of a dinosaur anywhere in the world. Any photograph does not do it justice, you have to stand underneath it to get a sense of the monstrous scale. It also has some of the best taxidermy I have ever seen.

The next days weather was the exact opposite of what we had experienced so far. Unbroken, leaden skies and chilly temperatures were replaced with unremitting sunshine and a doubling of the air temperature.

At breakfast, it was decided an outdoor pursuit was called for. As we ate our sumptuous frühstück, a group of business men sat at the next table. One of them was highly vocal and had command of several languages. His native tongue however, was clearly French. As he spoke to his colleagues, I listened to him switching languages and I had to admit to myself that the German language is a most unfortunate sounding one. Compared to French or Italian, it is vulgar. It made me wonder what the English language must sound like to other nations. Does it also sound vulgar or is it so universal now that it is like wallpaper, a kind of MacDonalds in Babylon?

Germany used to be (and probably still is) one of the biggest economies in the world and in the Berlin zoo, it showed. It is allegedly one of the biggest in the world and everything about the place is immaculate. The hippo lagoon has a thirty metre long glass wall, 2.4 metres tall that holds back a lake who’s surface reaches 1.5 metres up the wall. Just beyond the glass wall is a drop of about a metre to the bottom of the lake. This means any hippo walking fully submerged along the bottom of the lake and near enough to the glass wall can be seen by the visitor . It is an incredible piece of engineering. Not a drop of water was weeping from its seals. Everything about the zoo was pristine, manicured, controlled.

The aquarium inside the zoo, continued this high standard. It is easily the best I have ever visited. The glass tanks were the cleanest I have ever seen and thus, the fish, the most colourful I have ever seen. They were also the best behaved fish I have… no, I’m probably imagining that.

For visitors with young children, it is advisable to hire sturdy, fat wheeled carts to ferry your progeny and baggage around the labyrinthine complex of the zoo grounds. You can easily spend a full day here and young children start to wilt.

Just before lunch I realised we should have hired one of these carts. I asked a young German family we saw pulling a cart, if they spoke any English. Again, flawless English was spoken. I was told they cost 4 euros to hire along with a 10 euro deposit but it was unlikely that they would have any left at the specific entrance. Undaunted, I went looking for a cart and at one of the entrances I saw a cart lying empty and abandoned near the pay desk. I immediately laid claim to it and looked for the place to pay. I hovered about the pay booth for a while but it was continually busy with people coming into the zoo. Eventually, an ageing employee of the zoo gesticulated where I had to take the cart (at last, someone who didn’t speak English). I followed his directions but could not find a pay booth. In the end, I simply commandeered the cart and towed it back to my inert children lying on the ground.

All the while I pulled the cart along I worried over the fact that I might have been mistaken that the cart was abandoned and was in fact simply parked, while the trusting Germans went for lunch or visited the toilet. The Berlin code of obedience was starting to affect me. To ease my conscience, at the end of the day I simply left the cart where I had found it (clearly not an official place according to some of the looks I received from the staff) and refused to profit from the deposit.

To get back to the hotel we took the underground. At one stop, a couple of ageing, hard right bovver boys came on board. I didn’t think much of it and looked away. A minute later, my wife poked me in the ribs with her elbow and with a force that alerted me something required my immediate attention. I looked round and took in the scene. The bovver boys had started to accost the passengers in the carriage and were working down the carriage in a practice I had read about called ’steaming’. Before I could think about what I was going to do, the two crew cut gangsters approached me as it was now apparently my turn. I quickly assessed their threat. It was then that I noticed what they were packing. Carefully hidden from anyone not looking directly at them, each of them had hanging from their necks a thin lanyard. At the end of these swung an official looking identification card.

“Tickets, please.” they demanded firmly.

Just as I had surmised, the Berlin transport system was policed by spot checks. The inspectors had to look as unlikely as possible and yet have the muscle to detain and fine any strapping youth bent on breaking rules.

The German philosophy or recycling is admirable. It extends beyond the official requirements of the authorities and into the free market. As we trundled our bags along the long pavement from the train station to the airport departures, a young man accosted me with a confident and practised sales pitch.

“English.” I explained and apologised.

Without missing a beat, the man redelivered his confident pitch in perfect English.

“Can I have your ticket please?”

This took me by surprise. My Berlin Pass had several hours left to run. I was on my way to the airport and had no further need of it (as the man knew). I briefly considered his request before deciding to give him my ticket. He asked me for it, so why shouldn’t I give it to him?

Immediately afterwards, my daughter suggested that he might try to sell the ticket. I was surprised that she had picked up the workings of the world so quickly. I imagined that the young man worked at the airport and never had to pay for his journey home as someone always gave him a ticket.

“That’s what entrepreneurship is all about.” I explained to her. “He’s spotted an opportunity. Good luck to him.”

Inside the airport, the recycling continued. As we were queuing to go through security my wife finished one of the plastic bottle of water we had been filling up with tap water during the holiday. No sooner had the last mouthful disappeared down her throat when a slightly grubby woman approached her with a confident and practised sales pitch.

“English.” she explained and apologised.

Some confusion then ensued as this lady had no English. She gesticulated towards the empty bottle. Several large bags that she was carrying contained empty plastic water bottles. My wife twigged she wanted the bottle. They must reward collectors of certain ‘rubbish’ in Germany. I saw the same in New York, years ago, where homeless people collected tin cans.

I quickly finished my bottle and handed it to her.

“Good luck to her,” I thought.

Would I visit Berlin again? Not before I visited Paris again.

Berlin Olympic Stadium 1

The Olympic Stadium in Berlin. Well worth a visit.