Archive for November, 2011

The technological arms race intensifies on our roads

Monday, November 28th, 2011

Driving home from a caricature gig recently, the matrix signs on the motorway informed me that the road would be shut up ahead. As it was still early in the evening I knew it couldn’t be scheduled road works that was causing the road closure, as these generally happen at night, so it had to be an accident of some kind. This meant that it was unlikely that any diversion signs were in place to guide the hapless motorist. As I had SatNav capability, I wasn’t too worried, as I could calculate an alternative route quite easily when I was forced to leave the motorway.

As the traffic approached a junction, the drivers could see that the road up ahead had become a car park and many of them decided to turn off the motorway at the junction, rather than get caught in the queue. I did the same.

When it was safe to do so, I tapped into the SatNav and asked it to find an alternative route. This it did, although it turned out that it wasn’t really necessary to have the SatNav as all the other cars that had turned off the motorway were taking exactly the same route.

I realised, too late, that nearly everyone has SatNav these days and all the devices were going to find the same alternative route to rejoin the motorway at another junction after so many miles of a detour. It was as if the highways agency had actually put diversion signs in place and everyone was slavishly following them.

As we crawled down an A road that was heading into a large town and which was lined with shops I asked my SatNav to find yet another alternative route. Immediately it told me to turn left into a side street then turn right into another side street. This turned out to be a parallel road to the main A road that everyone was queuing in, but was deserted as it was a suburban street and wasn’t even a B road.

I quickly made my way into the town centre down this road that proved quite narrow in places due to the parked cars, but as it was free of moving traffic, I had no problem at all in getting past. Eventually I navigated through the town centre via a different A road, thereby missing all the motorway traffic jamming the obvious A road, and saving myself maybe thirty minutes on my journey time.

So the irony is this; many years ago, when I was one of the few people to have SatNav capability, I could easily escape a motorway queue and rejoin the motorway further along where there was no queue. Now that everyone has SatNav capability, this is no longer possible as everyone escapes the motorway queue, and merely forms another queue on a smaller A road. But I can still easily escape the traffic queue by deploying the technology yet again to second guess where everyone else will be going and asking it to find an alternative route to that route.

How long, I wonder, before others figure this out and create another problem for me to overcome? Will route programers add another option to the menu—’alternative route using the least likely alternative route used by other SatNav owners’?

Northern Art Prize preview, Leeds Art Gallery

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011
James Hugonin, Binary Rhythm (detail)

James Hugonin, Binary Rhythm (detail)

Leo Fitzmaurice has done something really clever. He has taken old, rarely seen landscape paintings from the archives of the gallery and put them together in such a way as to create an extended horizon line out of them all. It’s a mash-up of representational art, initially put together using digital software, then by physically hanging the paintings. He’s produced a new work out of old works, but what I really like is the fact that all the paintings used are beautiful works in themselves; traditional painting still has a formidable power to move.

James Hugonin is a painter but a non-representational one. His meticulous blocks of colour remind me of those once popular abstract pictures where you had to de-focus your eyes to see a 3D representational image hidden in the colours. No amount of de-focusing on my part was going to reveal any more insight into his works however. I was impressed with the prodigious amount of work needed to create these works. I could almost imagine James feeling the need to do these paintings in a 90 degree heat so that he physically has to sweat as he applies the colours, such is his commitment to his work. I couldn’t make sense of why he has put certain colours where he has though—I felt I was looking at some epidemiological chart that wanted to tell me something if only I could divine the causes for the results. It’s as if he were studying the very DNA of painting itself and he was mapping its genome in a painstaking and methodical process.

Richard Rigg’s work did very little for me. On one wall of the gallery is a negative cast of a coat hook, so the space of the hook is inside the wall. I marvelled at the size of the plaster slab that contained the piece and that formed part of the wall but unfortunate comparisons with Rachel Whiteread and her ‘inside out’ house were inevitable. His craftsmanship however, as evidenced by his chairs, is undeniable.

At the preview it was explained to us that Liadin Cooke suffers from synesthesia, a condition which confuses stimuli in the brain, so sound appears as an image etc. This means that Liadin must inhabit a world that is completely alien to most people and I must confess, her work left me cold (or possibly blue). It’s as if she has made visual art for blind people. The collected oil scrapings from an artists palette, cast in bronze but painted to look like putty, is an artwork. Maybe to someone who has synesthesia, this is sensational. Alas, I don’t, so it isn’t.

A few days in Barcelona

Friday, November 4th, 2011

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When we told people that we were going to spend a few days in Barcelona the most common response was, “Watch out for pickpockets.” We didn’t realise at the time just how important this piece of advice was. We should have paid more attention, in the same way that if we’d said; “We’re going to be sailing the coast of Somalia,” and people replied with,” Watch out for pirates!” or “We’re going to Mexico. To buy drugs,” and people replied with, “Watch out for gang wars!” Because, as it happened we fell victim to the Barcelona thieves on no less than three occasions in the space of four days.

The first attempt was after a visit to Park Güell, a Gaudi inspired wonderland. We were walking down the narrow street that leads from the park to the bus stop a few hundred metres below the park. This is a happy hunting ground for pickpockets because of the density of tourists. It was my wife who felt the zip on her rucksack being pulled. She turned around to face the despicable culprit only to find a young woman, white, middle class, accompanied by a middle aged woman, white, middle class, both well dressed. After challenging them about their activities, their response was to adopt the expressions of shop mannequins. My wife then looked for confirmation of their activities by asking the people immediately adjacent to the thieves if they had seen anything. More shop mannequin expressions followed and my wife then realised that they were all in it together and worked as a gang. After threatening them with the police, two of them peeled off into a shop and the others continued on, mute and expressionless, as if nothing had happened.

It’s a good job my wife did pre-empty the attempt because god knows what we would have done if the thieves had gotten hold of those half eaten bread rolls, spare tampons, sticky fast food toys and salivated water bottles…

Bikes are a good way to get around. Notice the different sized wheels on the bikes to deter thieves.

Bikes are a good way to get around. Notice the different sized wheels on the bikes to deter thieves.

As the city is so compact we bought a tourist bus ticket. These are normally so overpriced in the tourist cities that we avoid them but in this instance we thought we could get a feel for the city and its geography by taking a tour. Don’t be tempted to buy a second day’s pass for a discounted rate as they encourage you to do and as we did, to use as city transport, —it’s a false economy, you spend an hour on a bus to go a few miles to a particular tourist attraction. Otherwise, the Metro is pretty much idiot proof and quite cheap if you buy a t-10 ticket which gives you 10 rides for a discounted price.

A typical balcony in Barcelona

A typical balcony in Barcelona

In the supermarket I was mistaken for a local and asked something in Spanish. I shrugged and said “English” and he apologised for his stupid mistake (it was his eyes rolling that gave me that impression). But what does it mean when you are mistaken for a local, am I badly dressed, in the wrong place… what?

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Barcelona is synonymous with Gaudi and going by the huge crowds flocking round the La Sagrada Familia, I think it is safe to say that Gaudi must have started the whole, ‘architecture as spectacle’ phenomenon that is spreading through the world like a contagion. Gaudi was clearly unique in his vision. He was probably straddling the line between genius and madman more than most artists. Fortunately for him he was able to convince enough monied persons that he was more genius than madman for him to realise his grand visions.

But today he is responsible for a pernicious craze. Tourists travel the globe to see his creation and spend a lot of money doing it. If I were the mayor of a large city I would commission the building of a crazy structure on a monumental scale in the heart of the city. The craziness of the structure would become a tourist attraction and make money even if the rent from the building didn’t. And this is exactly what is happening around the world. The problem is, of course, that the ante is continually being raised and last years crazy is simply not crazy enough to compete with the current crop of crazies. In the meantime, someone has to work in these buildings…

A 'human statue' taking a break outside the La Sagrada Familia

A 'human statue' taking a break outside the La Sagrada Familia

The second pickpocket strike was after a visit to Las Ramblas, which is the most popular street in Barcelona for tourists and has all the street artists. It was late in the evening and we had settled down at a table in a fast food outlet (we have kids). I had put my rucksack onto the seat next to me and one of its carry strap was just resting over the back of the chair. As you would expect, the restaurant was very busy and as I was leaning across the table and talking with my son, out of the corner of my eye I saw my rucksack slowly float upwards and away from me like a naughty helium balloon trying to hide under someone’s coat. In a mild state of disbelief I grabbed my rucksack from underneath the coat and looked at the unfortunate owner of the coat who had ‘accidentally’ got tangled with my rucksack. He was a middle aged white man dressed in a slightly odd tourist attire with a black leather belt on the outside of his jumper. He gave me a slightly surprised expression of, ‘Oh, is this yours?’ then casually walked out of the restaurant.

Being inexperienced in confronting a thief caught in the act, I was still trying to decide whether it could be a genuine mistake or not whilst he made his getaway. But then when I comprehended the incident for what it was—a blatant attempt at bag snatching— I wondered what I would have done with that knowledge at the moment of catching him? Would I tackle him? Shout ’stop thief’? Knee him in the groin? Unlikely. So it is no wonder that the thieves have developed such brazen tactics. Later, I noticed a smartly dressed employee of the restaurant who just hung around in the dining area. At first we surmised he was there to stop people who weren’t customers from using the toilets but then I guessed he was also there to deter the thieves as he must eventually get to recognise the more prolific ones. Anyway, it’s a good job I prevented the theft because god knows what I would have done if the thief had taken my rucksack and robbed me of that half eaten packet of  cashew nuts, tatty fleece and salivated water bottle…

There are lots of cowboys on Las Ramblas but at least this one is honest about it.

There are lots of cowboys on Las Ramblas but at least this one is honest about it.

The beach is a rare and welcome alternative to a city visit. The officials seem to take great care of them and regularly sweep them for rubbish.  All along the beach they have these speech bubble signs which remind people to take their trash with them when they leave along with other health messages.  When we were there, the sea was warmer than the air temperature! In the summer, I’ll bet that they are heaving with locals and tourists (and thieves).

Yep, this is a real sign on the beach.

Yep, this is a real sign on the beach.

The National art gallery in the city (MNAC) is housed up a hill, in a spectacular building which has a spectacular view of the city all the way to the coast. The artworks inside are of a good standard but I couldn’t find anything that stood out as remarkable or particularly moving.

Some gorgeous painting in this picture

Some gorgeous painting in this picture

We also visited the contemporary art gallery (MACBA) which is in the old Gothic part of the city, and were hugely disappointed by its content. I could only find this piece which made me stop and look closely.

The one terrific painting I could find in MACBA

The one terrific painting I could find in MACBA

My son is underwhelmed by MACBA

My son is underwhelmed by MACBA

The third attempt by the Barcelona thieves to divest us of our possessions  occurred when we visited Parc de la Ciutadella, which also houses the local zoo, and we went up this monument.

Site of the third attempt to rob us.

Site of the third attempt to rob us.

At the top, we were approached by a gang of teenage girls, seemingly patrolling the monument. One of them, armed with a clipboard and a pen approached me and in reasonable English told me about the petition they were trying to raise. They were aiming to get a lift built onto the monument to allow disabled access. To emphasise her words she pointed to a ‘disabled’ logo printed at the top of the lined sheet of paper on her clipboard. It was then that I noticed the appalling quality of the photocopied sheet she proffered me. But hey, how could I not agree with such a noble cause? I signed the sheet with my name and wrote ‘London’ as my place of origin as I figured Wakefield would be meaningless to a civic member of Barcelona. No other details were asked for. I can only imagine that the girls had read and understood the book, Influence by Robert Cialdini because they then moved on from a small request to a much bigger one and asked for a donation. The main protagonist in all this was then joined by several of her helpers who all looked at me with expectant faces. As someone who was a tourist who was unlikely to visit the city again, let alone this particular spot, I couldn’t see why a donation from me was even being asked for and besides, what has a petition got to do with donations?

I said, “Whoa, you’ve just lost me at this point. I’m not donating anything.”

The main protagonist understood this which immediately made her change tack and she then asked for some form of identification—such as a business card— from which she could verify the signature. Her supporting cast then behaved like a Greek chorus and all the girls shouted in unison, “No money! No money!”

Unfortunately for them, they had hit upon the very path which was guaranteed to terminate my interest, the beaurocratic administrative one, and I told them in no uncertain terms that my co-operation had ceased. I made to move on which prompted another invocation of “No money! No money!” from the impassioned chorus. Their insistence merely increased my discourtesy and we eventually blanked them like shop mannequins (where had we seen that tactic before?) Five minutes later, as we were walking away from the structure, we heard the shout of a young woman quickly followed by the sight of two of the teenage girls vaulting over a fence and haring across the park like a couple of feral bitches. The young woman, who’s shout we had heard, then appeared at the fence along with a park attendant. Their conversation established that the young woman had retrieved her money. The teenage girls’ strategy then became clear; all their exhortations for donations and identification was simply for them to get sight of a purse or wallet (where else would you keep a business card?), which they would then make a grab for and once acquired, run off. As I had neither wallet nor business card, this strategy was doomed to failure from the start with me but clearly had some success with the young woman tourist who must have been behind us in the tourist line.

Don’t go to the Aquarium, it’s overpriced and underwhelming. The only ‘novelty’ it has is a a travellator along a section of glass wall (yawn).  When you’ve been to one Aquarium, you’ve been to them all. We went on a Friday which is some kind of holiday in Barcelona; everyone dresses down and the school kids seem to be on holiday and form giant queues to such tourist attractions as the, um, Aquarium.

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On the plane home I was reminded just how little flying has to do with travelling than it has to do with escapology; “On this journey, I will be placed in a box constructed on all sides with metal and plastic. I will be without oxygen for the duration that I am in it and be forced to breathe only stale air composed entirely of bad breathe and various body odours. At the same time I will be deafened by a constant barrage of white noise. Despite all this I will emerge relatively unscathed, in two hours time in a location many miles from here.”

My overall impression of Barcelona is one of, ‘it’s all right.’ There is nothing spectacular about the place and nothing especially uninviting (apart from the mosquito like attendance of pick pockets). Overall, we preferred Berlin and Rome.