Friday, 31 May 2013

Istanbul: A park, a shopping centre and a government

If you’ve ever flown in or out of Istanbul by day, and happened to look down, you won’t have seen much more than a sprawling expanse of white. With few green interruptions, the city stretches into a concrete mass about thirty miles deep, and the best part of two hundred miles from it’s eastern to western extremities. Due to the heat-absorbent qualities of concrete, and Turkey’s hot climate, the city becomes largely unliveable for about two months of the year.

In this urban setting, Turkey’s ruling AK Party (AKP) government are pressing ahead with plans to demolish one of central Istanbul’s last remaining green spaces, Gezi Park, removing trees, grass and a children’s park to make way for one more installation of that essential urban space… the shopping mall. The city this week witnessed bloody clashes between the police and protesters defending the park.

Turkey is a country familiar with protests against the socially conservative AKP government, and policies ranging from abortion rights to Turkey’s world-leading record on incarcerated journalists, but the popular and growing resistance to the destruction of Istanbul’s trees has taken politicians by surprise. Thousands of protesters are staging an occupation of the park (on the hashtag #OccupyGezi), and have been visited with messages of support from celebrities and members of opposition political parties. The breadth of the resistance has been matched only by the excessive use of force by the police, rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon have all been used with a brutality condemned by Amnesty International as “excessive”. A woman being tear gassed at close-range was made an editor’s choice photograph at Reuters, but the response of international news agencies has been slow, even as dawn raids by the police left scores of injured protesters admitted to Istanbul hospitals.

Behind the environmental politics, however, murkier forces are at work. First of all, Turks have witnessed Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, responding to protests with an assurance that the mall would be built anyway, a clear instance of the anti-democratic philosophy at the heart of his government. Erdoğan and the AKP have slowly adopted a form of rule that participates in democracy at election time, but disregards it flatly during the interim periods. Second of all, central government commitment to a shopping mall project might seem surprising to a western audience, yet the involvement is a clear illustration of the cosiness that now exists between government and Turkey’s largest construction companies. As was feted by former-IMF economist, Jeffrey Sachs, in a recent, rose-tinted visit to Turkey, the country’s construction firms have expanded into central Asia and north Africa, yet the Istanbul property market – by no means immune to bubbles - has provided a solid bedrock to these foreign ventures. The construction contract for a new development of luxury flats was recently awarded to GAP Inşaat, the CEO of which is a son-in-law of Prime Minister Erdoğan.

Lastly, the protests have shown the outside world the brutality of the Turkish police. International commentators have championed the AKP’s dismantling of the Turkish army’s political apparatus, citing it a victory for democracy, while at the same time ignoring the rise and rise of the Turkish police as a force in national politics. Whereas the Turkish military have always been staunch defenders of the country’s secular republic, and thus offered some balancing of power, the police have proved to be a much more pliant custodian of power, and the upper echelons of the force contain individuals known to be close to the AKP. The enthusiastic fashion in which officers have used force against the Gezi Park protesters betrays not only Turkish culture’s traditional indulgence for the culture of the strongman, it also demonstrates the confidence by which the Turkish police can act without fear of accountability or reprimand.

The Gezi Park protests have prompted demonstrations across Europe, with events organised in Rome, Paris, Athens and London’s Hyde Park. As organisers in Istanbul have highlighted, government-backed construction of a shopping centre in Hyde Park, Central Park, or Berlin’s Tiergarten would all be inconceivable. Support has also been forthcoming from inside Turkey's corporate sector, and some of Turkey’s leading fashion brands, in a move of solidarity, have released statements saying they oppose a development so clearly at-odds with popular sentiment, and that they would not wish to participate in any prospective mall on the site of Gezi Park. If the development can be halted, or if the brutality with which the protest is suppressed can help draw a light on some of Turkey’s gravest and most entrenched problems, some good may yet come of the ongoing violence.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Spirit of '45

This weekend, watching Ken Loach’s Spirit of ’45, amongst the documentary footage I noticed a number of things that gave a strong impression of how life has changed since the years after the Second World War. There is a shot of a woman beating out a rug, doing the very laborious work of hitting the thing hard against a wall. There are quite a lot of bicycles, be they in footage of men wheeling them alongside themselves at protests, or simply of people getting around a city. In scenes inside the home, people are reading or writing, and while I’m not about to mourn the loss of a fictitious golden age when people read books and weren’t lazy, the images all illustrated how society has been automated, and how we can now passively consume processes – be it of transport, entertainment or domestic living - that we once had to provide for ourselves. While I think this extremely significant, Ken Loach evidently didn’t, and so the Spirit of ’45 remains eminently dogmatic and one-dimensional, it’s greatest service is as a master class in how not to go about making a documentary or communicating a political message.

Propaganda is a word I’ve seen written a couple of times in reviews of the Spirit of ’45, nostalgia is the other word that seems similarly useful, and I don’t share the feelings of those left-leaning commentators who seem to feel these sins can be forgiven in what is – broadly – an important and valuable film. A film such as Spirit of ’45 cannot be judged by an ability to motivate those on the left who would agree with its basic principles anyway, its success would have been measured in whether it could make a dent in the views of those who value free-market fundamentalism and myths of Exceptionalism and the self-made man. In my mind, it wouldn’t, the film simply takes up a wandering journey through the simple idea that the world was once better and it’d be nice if it could be again.

One very obvious example of this tendency is coal, encapsulating the problem by which those on the left must reconcile affection for the salt-of-the-earth coal miner with the concern that coal is bad for the environment. At one point, Loach laments the mass closure of coal mines as crucial in the destruction of society, without touching on the fact that coal mining isn’t the most pleasant activity for those mining it, nor for anyone who wants to breathe the air it's burnt in. In the hour and a half documentary, the word “green” is shoehorned clumsily in by a single interviewee, a solitary acknowledgment of the fact that our world and our understanding of it has maybe changed a little across the last seven decades. The interviewees, moreover, give the impression that everyone in Britain is from the north of England, and white, so that whatever the increase of different ethnic groups in public life since 1945, the documentary shows a Britain that few might now feel part of, leading one to question the relevance of what Loach was trying to make. Although some aging interviewees do speak with deep emotion, and no doubt from grave personal experience, the feel of the film becomes little more than old, white people talking of how life was better. True or otherwise, Spirit of ‘45 offers very little constructive for how that ‘better’ might be regained.

There are other inconsistencies too, and even before Loach closes out with black-white footage that turns colour as happy people inexplicably start putting up bunting and throwing streamers, the film is painfully simplistic. Nye Bevan is championed for riding roughshod over the British Media Association when he nationalised healthcare, Loach disregards that the exact disregard for expert opinion and the BMA is now invoked as one of the most heinous crimes in Tory plans for the NHS; Spirit of ’45 only briefly touches on the idea that Labour’s welfare state was imposed by decree as much as consensus. One interview raises the valuable point that the idea of capitalism remains incredibly strong in the UK, despite the failure of its institutions. Another urges pensioners to turn off their televisions and reach out to young people so as to communicate the ideas that gave rise the welfare state, and footage shows one man questioning the psychology and chain of command that leads a police officer to beat a man with a stick. These are all incredibly important questions that Loach gives all but no attention, and nor does the documentary confront the peculiarity that no political party has a promise to renationalise the railways, despite the fact that the majority of the country – even without seeing Loach’s film – are strongly in favour of such a policy.

For those who value the idea of a stronger, fairer and more humane society, I’d just about advise going to watch the film. After it finishes, go home and start the harder task of how to make that vision a reality, a question Loach seems to have afforded precious little time.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The 'hauntingly beautiful' death... of someone else

I haven't read much about the collapsed Bangladeshi factory where (to the relief of the world media) the significant milestone of 800 deaths was reached this afternoon. I haven't read much about it because the disaster is not exactly a surprising feature in a notoriously cruel world economy, the unfairness of which is a very poorly kept secret. When disaster strikes, media and society rush to pay brief attention to the need for some public soul-searching and profundity, thereafter returning to business-as-usual, convinced of our own goodness on account of the very public and very sentimental display of grief we've shown ourselves capable of. Well done us.

I'm only writing now because of this article, and the image that secured it. Most unsettling of all is the journalist who thought two dead human beings (and they suffered and died less than three weeks ago) looked "hauntingly beautiful" in their death position, which - conveniently enough - happens to look like an embrace. I find it even more unsettling that X number of editors left in the words "hauntingly beautiful" to describe a photo of the bodies of two recently dead human beings. "Hauntingly" and "beautiful" are two words that should never be used together in good writing, because they are frequently used together in bad writing. "Hauntingly beautiful" should never be used to describe the picture of two recently dead humans, because that gives the impression that dead humans can at least provide an aesthetically valuable commodity. The fact is that, beautiful or otherwise, nobody in their right mind gives a shit if a photo of recently dead people has a"haunting" effect on a journalist or audience, because people have died, and that ought be so much more significant that we shouldn't care how the photo of their death makes us living people feel for a little while.

I also think it's significant that these are two Bangladeshi bodies we are seeing buried beneath the rubble. In as much as this, it has all the hallmarks of the disaster photography genre, something that - either due to sensitivity or a lesser supply of disasters - is not peddled so enthusiastically where documenting western (read: white) victims of catastrophe. In this photo essay from the Haiti earthquake, we have the privilege of white doctors helping the helpless Haitians, who in other shots are hard at work with some pistol-toting looting. It likewise seems significant that the Bangladeshi photo has been taken and described by a Bangladeshi journalist, in the abstract, emotional but apolitical terms by which it is most easily digestible to the western audience.

The issue also makes me think of the New York Post front page, where the photograph of a man about to be hit by a train prompted a public debate on the sanctity of life and death, and the invasiveness of photography and media. Of course each case has its differences, significantly that the man on the New York subway was in America (although of Korean origin) and the dead man and woman in Bangladesh are Bangladeshi, one of the many darker-skinned and economically disadvantaged people who - in the world of a Time editor - swarm vaguely over most of the earth's surface. These people are required to sew our endless new clothes, or to assemble the increasing variety of computer devices our apparently growing sophistication seems to require. Occasionally, misfortune dictates that these people will die in photogenic disasters such as the one at the Bangladesh factory. "Hauntingly beautiful" as they are, these opportunities reliably prompt an outpouring of goldfish sadness, all the more worrying because people believe it to be sincere. The apparent grief and soul-searching is made sufficiently colossal that once again we can feel better about ourselves as a conscientious society, thereby recovering from the cause of the injustice without changing a thing.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Mayday with the Spacehijackers

At 17:45 the answer phone message changes to reveal the address, “emergent service workers of the world unite…” is the command. I am told to make my way to the party, at the garish coloured buildings on Saint Giles High Street, and wished a happy May Day.

The setting is the new London headquarters of Google, who occupy five floors of the Central Saint Giles redevelopment, a place where residential and retail possibilities combine to make “more than an office building”. The premises are managed by Stanhope PLC, and are the sort of location preferred by the party organisers, who call themselves Space Hijackers. Self-identifying “middle class art school wankers”, the group peddle a playfully subversive politics; they daubed black paint across a dozen BP billboards prior to the Olympics, they have organised games of cricket in private developments of public space.

The crowd is clean-cut, some partygoers have arrived with their families, children are dressed in fencing masks and are using keyboards as foils. A keyboard maypole is wheeled in on a cargo bicycle, and May Day observers in white jumpsuits begin to dance around it with computer cables. A small-time drug dealer shuffles through the crowd trying to sell wraps of cannabis, off to one side, a familiar-looking band of freelance photographers have made the short journey from where I’m used to seeing them, waiting for celebrities at the BBC studios on Great Portland Street. They stand about in utility waistcoats and hooded sweaters, looking altogether disappointed with the small turnout. One by one, they take it in turns to visit a nearby café.

I arrive with the fundamental misgiving of whether a modern May Day is a cause for celebration or commiseration. The organisers refer to the event as an “after party”, their flier a wandering but lyrical complaint against workfare and overtime, they joke that the campaign for an end to the wage economy has been left half-finished, with the economy still intact and only the wages removed. In Turkey, I hear 27,000 police had been deployed that morning on the streets of Istanbul. Tear gas was fired, authorities suppressed turnout by cancelling public transport to the area. In Central Saint Giles, the Worker’s Day protest is suffering a distinct lack of workers.

The altogether strange environment is leant a final eeriness by the empty buildings, the bare concrete without interior. Most of St Giles’ ground floor premises have been filled with a pastiche of Latin or Mediterranean dining culture, but overhead and all around, quite clearly there are vacant lots. In Ground Control, her chronicle of the privatisation of public space, Anna Minton opens with the admission that the manuscript had been conceived of in a boom and written in a bust. She talks of how investors jumped at the promises of new developments, only to dry-up as the financial crisis came about. A party organiser passes me by, clutching an armful of beer cans, and I watch the Space Hijackers as they dance around their maypole, in the shadow of what looks like a development failure. From a corner, a unified screech rises momentarily above the volume of the sound system… “We love Google!”… from a group of women sitting outside a franchise Italian restaurant. The head of building security marches into the huddle of partygoers, he shouts orders into a phone, reprimands the masked children for fencing with keyboards.

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