The Null Device
Yesterday, Australia awoke to the news of what appeared to be a terrorist siege in the heart of Sydney. ISIS terrorists had, it seemed, seized the Lindt Café, a retail outlet of the Swiss confectioner and popular tourist destination, and were holding a few dozen terrified hostages, some of them forced to hold up a black flag with Arabic writing in the window. International terror had struck home, and the Lucky Country's innocence was shattered forever, the hard dawn of the Long Siege breaking with the pitiless intensity of the Arabian desert sun. Rumours abounded: of sweeping police raids across Lakemba, a desperate hunt for the unspoken nightmare scenario this could be merely a distraction for, the diabolical plans of an invisible enemy who is everywhere, his dagger at our throats like Hassan ibn Sabbah's fabled Assassins. Awful videos of beheadings, lit by familiar Australian sunlight, were sure to follow.
But then the fog cleared and it turned out to be somewhat less than that. Far from an organised, tightly disciplined cell of fanatical death cultists, it turned out to be a lone individual with a gun and possibly an (actual or fake) bomb. The fearsome ISIS flag, that latterday skull and crossbones breathlessly reported by the Murdoch tabloids, turned out to be just a piece of black cloth with the fundamental tenet of Islam, the statement “there is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet”, written on it, much as it is on the Saudi Arabian flag; superficially scarily terroristic-looking, though on deeper inspection, more like lazy set decoration than anything else. The siege dragged on through the day and well into the night; neither the gunman nor his accomplices managing to get their message into the media, partly because he didn't actually have any accomplices. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, the police stormed the building; at the end, three people were dead; two hostages and the gunman.
Details soon emerged of the gunman; it turned out that he had been a somewhat odd character, to say the least. An Iranian refugee who had sought asylum in 1996 from the country's Islamist dictatorship, who had imprisoned his family. At various times, he had styled himself as an Islamic cleric, peace activist and spiritual healer. It is in the course of the last vocation that he seems to have incurred several dozen charges of sexual and indecent assault. Whilst doing this, he was apparently also writing harrassing letters to the relatives of Australian troops killed in Afghanistan. Furthermore, last year, he had been charged as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife. As he awaited trial for this, he maintained his calling as an Islamic cleric, despite finding little support in the actual Islamic community, and seemingly came to the conclusion that the community was wrong, corrupted by the “new religion” of moderate Islam. His one-man ministry became increasingly radical; a week before his last stand, he posted to his website, pledging his allegiance to ISIS, the aforementioned mob of bloodthirsty attention-seekers in Syria. It is not clear whether anybody in this group acknowledged his pledge.
There's a lot in that profile, and it's not flattering; it's like he's one part Martin Bryant (the mass murderer from Hobart) to one part Fred Phelps (also a self-proclaimed religious leader whose currency was hate); a deeply unpleasant troll and attention-seeking psychopath who escalated into possible murder. (It is not clear whether he killed either his ex-wife or any of the hostages, though it doesn't look good in either case.) Of course, a key difference between him and Bryant, Phelps, and indeed, any of the high school shooters of the past few decades, is that he was not “white”.
Much has been said about white privilege recently, especially in the wake of the killings of black youths in the US whose only crime was that it could not be exhaustively proven that they weren't about to pull a gun. White privilege, it seems, can involve being able to behave normally, rather than erring on the side of proving one's unthreateningness, or avoiding situations where a jury might rule that Whitey could have reasonably considered one to have been a clear and present danger. And now, it seems, it can also involve being judged on one's individual circumstances, rather than as an exemplar of a homogeneous, pathological Other, should one flip out and kill some people.
One can imagine how this would have been reported had someone from a white, Anglo-Celtic background been the perpetrator: a bingo-card of adverse circumstances (“broken home”, “failed marriage“, perhaps substance abuse and several possible types of mental illness); in and out of trouble with the law, the antihero turns to religion in an attempt to get his shit together, going from church to megachurch, but finding them all to be shallow phonies and leaving them behind, treading his own lonely, uncompromising, and increasingly narrow path. Then, one day, he snaps, and—surprise, surprise—nobody blames Hillsong.
The hostage taker was clearly an unstable individual. He was also an unstable individual from an Islamic cultural background, and his pathology was coloured by Islam, by the currents of extremism on the fringe of Islam and the perception of the Islamic Jihadist as the bête noire of our age. However, it looks like that was all he was; there seems to be no evidence of him having been part of a larger terrorist conspiracy, or even having had much of a plan. Some are referring to him as “self-radicalised”, which is another word only used for the scary Other; one is less likely to see this word attached to, say, the failed pick-up artist in California who decided to shoot some women to avenge having been repeatedly rejected, despite the fact that, in both cases, we are witnessing a similar phenomenon: toxic resentment buttressed by ideology. It's just that, in one case, the ideology is not from here.
Fortunately, with the exception of Murdoch's Daily Telegraph screaming terrorism, Australia has mostly kept its head on. Mindful of the posibility of a Cronulla-style backlash against conspicuously Muslim-looking bystanders, offered their solidarity on Twitter, with the #illridewithyou hashtag soon trending worldwide. Meanwhile, civic leaders have rejected the Murdochs' claim that everything had changed forever, framing the siege as an isolated incident. One does wonder how long this will hold; whether this will be used as justification to pass a new tranche of sweeping police powers or restrictions on civil liberties. (The government's planned mandatory data retention regime is coming up for debate soon, and could be rubber-stamped through parliament, even though it would have had no effect on this case, with the perpetrator having been very well known to police.)
More despatches from the London property boom: The transformation of the London borough of Hackney from a byword for crime, squalor and perhaps an edgy bohemianism to high social status proceeds apace; the ultra-fashionable borough is now the most unaffordable place to rent in the UK, with the average Hackney resident's rent being 59.9% of their income. Meanwhile, the values of houses in Hackney have risen just under £100,000 in the past year, meaning that the average house in Hackney earns considerably more than the average resident.
The same publication, Dalstonist (a journal for the residents of the eponymous hip'n'happening playground of moneyed, well-connected twentysomethings) also has an editorial arguing that it makes no sense to blame the hipsters for rising rents, the main gist being that the typical “hipster” is a young web designer/barista/media worker/miscellaneous “creative” renting a sharehouse and on the cusp of being evicted to Walthamstow or Tottenham or somewhere to make room for finance professionals whose musical and sartorial tastes are more Patrick Bateman than Nathan Barley. Oh, and that there is no such thing as a hipster.
The people who get priced out are those who rent their homes on the private market – who have to shell out more than half their salaries just for somewhere to live. That might be people who’ve lived in Hackney for decades, like the residents of the New Era estate. Or it could be those who moved here more recently. The people who earn too much to qualify for social housing but not enough to buy a house. You know; graphic designers, jewellery makers, photographers, baristas. Hipsters, basically.Of course, that is assuming without question that the typical “hipster” is renting, rather than having bought a flat just off London Fields with the help of their parents, or been given one for their 18th birthday. This is a somewhat questionable assumption, partly because the contemporary hipster lifestyle (itself gentrified from the days of math-rock nerds and fashion refuseniks dressed in cheaply acquired, ironically repurposed thrift-shop clothes) is not a cheap one to maintain; if one really is paying 60% of their rent to a landlord, how much does that leave for the vintage trainers, imported Japanese denim, meticulously crafted hairstyles and other sartorial items that are de rigeur to be seen in?
This malaise is not confined to the hipsterised East; everywhere across London, the city is being reorganised for (often absentee) investors over residents; a case in point is the demolition of the historic Earl's Court exhibition centre, and its replacement with expensive luxury apartments:
The new apartments will – like those in the big new developments and Nine Elms – be aimed at the pockets of investors and speculators, people with deep pockets who have taken advantage of stagnant interest rates to buy up property and then charge eye-watering rents for them. It’s hard to blame them, as economic policy seems designed purely to over inflate London’s property market, but the damage is considerable. Because not only are they building identikit apartments in areas nobody that actually needs housing can afford, they are in the process annihilating anything that could be seen as fun – pub, music venues, sports grounds as well as historic structures like Earls Court. It’s a depressing, dismal outcome that offers the worst of all possible worlds.
It’s also entirely typical of the current state of London: could you possibly imagine a scheme as imaginative and as exciting and beneficial for the public as the conversion of Tate Modern happening today? Not a chance. It would be flattened and replaced by luxury glass apartments. What do we get instead? A bloody Garden Bridge, stupid cable car and shopping centres.One could perhaps blame Boris Johnson for that; or possibly the Tories' (and to a lesser extent, neo-Blairite Labour's) faith in trickle-down economics, to the extent that it's seen as an unquestionable credo that, if one serves those at the top (wealthy investors, property speculators, developers), overall prosperity will rise, and the little people will be served, as amply as they deserve, by the shower of crumbs from the high tables. The corollary to this is, of course, that anybody who questions it is really advocating a return to the Leninist five-year plan and the kolkhoz, the legacy of blood-stained failure and collective misery that bears the name “socialism”.
Also, new statistics reveal that people in their thirties are leaving London in droves, moving instead to regional cities where they can afford to do things other than pay a landlord for the privilege of having an address in a prestigious city; Birmingham seems to be the main recipient of disaffected ex-Londoners, followed by places like Manchester and Bristol. (Presumably Brighton counts as part of greater London.) There is still a net influx of twentysomethings; presumably, while one has youthful vigour, relatively few bulky physical possessions and no dependent family (or, indeed, not yet a long-term relationship), the benefits of living within staggering distance of the venues of a social life outweighs the costs of funnelling 60% of one's pay into a speculator's pocket for a shoebox-sized room. The attrition rate seems to be high, with few holding on into their 30s; presumably once they've got a partner, enough stuff to make sharehousing impractical, an aversion to working long hours and/or a tolerance to mephedrone, London no longer holds its charms, and they drop out, making room for more fresh meat, possibly of a more affluent nature. Meanwhile, the precincts associated with the young and with-it move further out (keep an eye on Newham/Waltham Forest/Barking being dubbed the “New Hackney” in media puff-pieces any day now), being pushed out by the centrifugal forces of hypergentrification. It may be that, in the fullness of time, they will be expelled beyond the M25, and London will, as prophesied by Alex Proud, become a city of rich old people, like Paris or Zurich. (But that can't happen, you say, because London is intrinsically, timelessly cool, before citing Britpop/Carnaby Street/Shoreditch or similar? Zurich, one must remember, was vibrant and edgy once; the Dadaist Cabaret Voltaire (the establishment after which the Sheffield electro-industrial band named themselves) was there in 1919.)
This past weekend, I finally managed to make my way down to Blenheim Palace to see the Ai Weiwei exhibition; it was well worth going.
Ai Weiwei is best known these days as a thorn in the side of the Chinese government; having used his artistic practice to critique everything from China's territorial claims to corrupt officials' complicity in shoddy building practices (which claimed the lives of dozens of pupils when a school collapsed in an earthquake), and other provocations (such as the destruction of Ming vases in the name of questioning the nature of authenticity) have not won him any sympathy among China's more conservative politicians. For this reason, he remains under house arrest. Nonetheless, although he has not been allowed to travel abroad, he has managed to be intimately involved in the planning of his exhibitions outside China, working with the curators over the internet.
Ai's artistic practice as we know it took form in New York, where he lived for a decade from 1983. His earlier works were in the readymade tradition pioneered by Marcel Duchamp; found or mass-manufactured objects repurposed into statements (such as two raincoats buttoned together on a coat rack, a statement on the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s). His move back to China in 1993, and engagement with the rapidly changing society in the age of Deng Xiaoping's market reforms, provided a cornucopia of new subjects for his work.
Ai's conceptual tactics have often been subtly mischievous; he might take an object and transform it (such as glazing a Ming vase in automotive lacquer, destroying its value as an antiquity but transforming it into a statement about modernisation), or replicate it from an incongruous material (replicas of surveillance cameras and gas masks, carved out of expensive marble), or, occasionally, relying on the sorts of subversive wordplay the Chinese government's not too fond of these days (He Xie, a collection of hundreds of porcelain crabs, alludes to the Chinese term for “river crab” being homophonous with “harmony”, the standard government euphemism for censorship and suppression of dissent).
In the Blenheim Palace show, the subtlety is taken to a new level. Whereas in an ordinary exhibition, one might expect the exhibits to be arrayed in a well-defined space, its boundaries defining what is and isn't in the exhibition, this exhibition does us no such favours; instead, Ai's works are placed in various locations in the palace, juxtaposed with the rich assortment of its existing contents. In the bedchamber where Winston Churchill was born, a pair of handcuffs carved out of wood lies, perhaps suggestively, on the quilt; on the ornately papered wall behind the bed, a simple wooden frame containing a human profile made from a bent coathanger takes its place next to landscapes painted in oils. Two Ming vases emblazoned with the word “Caonima”, in the style of the Coca-Cola logo, stand on an antique marble table. A rug in a drawing room is covered with the aforementioned ceramic river crabs, and in an adjacent room stands a cluster of traditional Chinese stools, taken from peasant houses, and stuck together into a shape not unlike a large chestnut. Under the oil paintings in a state room, two chairs carved of uncomfortable-looking marble stand opposite from two antique seats, and in the Long Library, the walls are hung with photographs from Ai's Study of Perspective series, of the artist's hand making a rude gesture at various world landmarks; at the other end, a blind marble security camera watches the scene. (During the day, adding to the incongruity, a small orchestra was playing Christmas carols in the middle of the scene.) The palace's chapel is home to a large cube, made as if of steel pipes replicated in traditionally patterned porcelain. More subtle interlopers are stowed in various places: traditionally patterned porcelain owl houses (an absurd, yet almost plausible, object) stnd in the Great Hall, and a porcelain watermelon beside a seat almost blends into the rich ostentation of the palace's contents. Outside are yet more objects, from ceramic spheres in a park to fake oil slicks, made from porcelain, under a tree in the Secret Garden. The overall effect is to make one suspicious of everything around one: is this one of the Duke of Marlborough's heirlooms or a subtle subversion deftly inserted by a mischievous artist half a world away?
Alas, this exhibition closes this coming Saturday, so those wishing to see it must hurry. However, it should be worth it.
Recently, I was in Sweden and Finland, catching up with some friends and seeing Loney Dear playing with the Norrbotens Kammarorkester in Lapland (which was amazingly good). At one point, I got invited to a party in the north of Sweden, with the advice that I may want to bring my own beer. Which is what found me in the aisles of the Systembolaget in Luleå.
The Systembolaget, for those unfamiliar with this word, is the state-run liquor shop chain in Sweden. The government there has a monopoly on the sale of strong beer and all kinds of spirits, and does so through a chain of shops throughout the country. Only those shops may sell any beer stronger than about
2.5% 3.5% or spirits. This is a cast-in-iron law, with no exceptions, which has some peculiar consequences; for example, air passengers flying from Sweden to anywhere in the EU are unable to buy spirits at the airport shops because tax must be levied on spirits not being exported from the EU, and only the state can do that.
Anyway, when I went to buy some beer, I was expecting the experience to have a sort of bland paternalism to it, deliberately avoiding any attempt to encourage people to actually drink. Having read about changes in Sweden between the 1970s and now in Andrew Brown's Fishing In Utopia, I understood that the Systembolaget used to look somewhere between a bookmaker's shop and the waiting room of a methadone clinic, being essentially a paternalistic harm-minimisation programme for those who, for whatever reason, insist on drinking, allowing—but never encouraging—them to do so, but had evolved into more of a standard consumer experience. Nonetheless, I was expecting it to look a bit more minimal and, well, institutional; perhaps like a Lidl or Costco for alcohol, with dim fluorescent lighting and pallets of bottles labelled with only their name and alcohol content in a monospaced laser-printed typeface. Instead, I found something that would put a North London Waitrose to shame; a brightly lit space with huge selection of beers, ales, craft beers and microbrews; each one had, on its shelf, a label enumerating food combinations it goes well with. (The only section where it lagged behind was the gin section, which was somewhat small and mostly limited to mainstream British gins; I suspect Sweden isn't really a gin-drinking country.)
Later, when I recounted my Systembolaget experience, and the way it differed from my expectations, to a friend, they mentioned that the staff are also experts in beer and spirits, and able to make knowledgeable recommendations. The implication of this was that, if you live in Sweden and know your way around beer, the government will want to employ you to recommend ales and pilsners to consumers. Now I'm far from a hard Thatcherite or a believer in the Libertarian ideal of the minimal “nightwatchman state”, though, having grown up in an English-speaking world, in which the free-market principles articulated by Milton Friedman are as accepted as Copernican astronomy (even by those who regard themselves as being on The Left; while there, for example, are calls for the renationalisation of Britain's railways, for example, few would call for the Upper Crust franchises to be kicked out of stations and replaced with the return of the much-maligned British Rail sandwich), this strikes me as rather exotic and a little weird. Beer-recommending civil servants? A state liquor monopoly simultaneously discouraging and encouraging drinking? The State not as Orwellian Big Brother but as the older brother you go to to ask about how to enjoy vodka? We truly are no longer in the neoliberal Anglosphere.
Almost all the Nordic countries have state liquor monopolies. The exception is Denmark, but the other Scandinavians regard the Danes, with one foot on the mainland, to be halfway towards being the wild, laissez-faire Germans (and yes, that is a stereotype in Scandinavia; while in the English-speaking world, the Germans may be stereotyped (at best) as precise, humorless BMW engineers and/or Kraftwerkian Mensch-Maschinen, in Scandinavia, they're an unruly people who drink in the street and don't tax their beer.) In Iceland, the equivalent monopoly chain is known as Vinbuð, though there was talk a while ago about rolling back or eliminating its monopoly. The Finns are slightly more liberal, in that one can buy beer from ordinary supermarkets, where (as in Australia) it's stored in a segregated section which (as I discovered shortly after disembarking from a Helsinki-bound train at 8:30) is physically closed off at 9pm. For stronger spirits, one has to go to the state liquor shop, which is called, with characteristic Finnish lack of euphemism, Alko. And it's not only the quasi-socialist Jante Law societies of the Nordic world that do this; in the US, the conservatively Mormon, and staunchly Republican, state of Utah also has a state liquor monopoly. I imagine that their shop shelves probably look less enticing than those at the Systembolaget.