Thursday, March 26, 2015

H&M and all the stars that never were

When I was about 13 or 14 I was in a band. We were called Yeux Bleus and we had a really great logo, with a pair of elegant, feminine eyes peering out from beneath the brows formed by the initial ‘Y’. We also had some lyrics, which were basically the poems I was already writing about nuclear war and beret-wearing girls who didn’t fancy me, with some bits repeated so we could have choruses. No recordings exist, sadly, because we never made any, because we never actually played any music, because we couldn’t. But I suspect we would have ended up doing vaguely synthy, new romantic stuff, like Visage or Depeche Mode, because they had French names too. 

I only mention this because it appears that the clothing brand H&M, following on from the craze of adorning t-shirts with the names of punk and metal bands of which the wearer has never heard, has taken things to the next level, using the names of bands that somebody in the marketing department has just made up. To be fair, they’ve put more effort into this than we ever did, retrospectively creating band histories, album artwork and even some suitably gruesome music for these non-existent combos.

But here’s the thing. There must be hundreds of thousands of bands that never happened, just like ours. And probability states that at least some of those band names will coincidentally pop up again on an H&M garment — there are only 26 letters in the alphabet after all, although this is metal, so we have to take umlauts into account. Just imagine what it might be like to be walking down the street and be confronted by some kid whose fashion choice pledges allegiance to a band that you never quite got started more than three decades ago. The feeling would surely be something like stepping into a parallel world where all those primal adolescent dreams of power chords and groupies and difficult third albums and woooh, hello Leipzig had come to fruition and you hadn’t ended up selling patio heaters in Shropshire after all. And if you do see some kid whose t-shirt announces slavish devotion to the back catalogue of Yeux Bleus, please let me know, because we were bloody brilliant.

PS: Turns out it’s not that straightforward. The t-shirts were real but the back stories (including the dodgy neo-Nazi connections of some of the bands) and the music were conjured up as a subversive prank by a production company that was fed up with the high-street commodification of metal. One unreality on top of another. I can’t keep up.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Unsafe space: a message to students

It’s a very, very long time since I was a student in the conventional sense. I did have a sort of extended virtual postgraduate moment in the mid-1990s, when I was working on a guidebook for prospective university entrants, but that’s about it. So I’m a bit late in the day when it comes to the concept of safe space and my response to it may be old hat but I’m so astounded by some of the things I’m reading, however belatedly, I’ve just got to respond.

When I first heard the phrase “safe space”, I assumed it was some sort of policy to ensure students didn’t come to physical harm; possibly akin to the reclaim the night protests against sexual violence that I remember from my own university days. Apparently not, though. It isn’t physical harm that safe space seeks to prevent; it’s the emotional harm of that might occur if you happen to hear someone say something you don’t think is very nice. A recent high-profile example came last month when a show at Goldsmiths College by comedian Kate Smurthwaite was cancelled because some people didn’t like her opinions about sex work. As one protestor complained, “They want really controversial speakers to come to campuses, over the heads of students who are hurt by that or disagree with their politics.”

Now, just let that sink in for a few minutes. This person thinks that university students – for the most part, young, intelligent adults, or that’s what we hope they are — need to be protected from controversial opinions with which they disagree because they might get hurt. Fortunately I’m not at Goldsmiths, because I rather suspect its safe space policy would prevent me from explaining what a colossal sack of horse shit such an attitude represents and that that the person expressing it is evidently barely bright enough to be in kindergarten, let alone at an institution of higher learning.

Listen, hurty person. Listen, even if it bruises your flabby, blancmange-like brain. University should not, must not, be a safe space. In fact, quite the opposite. It. Should. Hurt. In your three or four years at university, you should expect to have your political opinions and religious beliefs completely upended at least once a term. You should question your sexual orientation, your gender identity, your musical tastes and your preferred hairstyle. You should have your heart broken, crushed, pulverised, ripped into tiny pieces and blown forcefully into your tearstained face, five times, minimum. You or a person close to you should undergo a pregnancy scare, a bout of food poisoning and a trip to the casualty department. You should go vegan for at least a week. Overdoses are not compulsory but you should go through several ghastly mornings after, vowing never to drink again. If you don’t regularly find yourself staring at the ceiling at 3 am wondering what the hell it’s all about, you’re doing it wrong. It’s quite possible that you’ll come out at the close of your university career with the same politics, religion and liver as when you arrived, and that’s OK; the point is the experiences you have on the journey, even if you end up in the same place. And if such a prospect is so terrifying that it puts you off the notion of applying to university, well perhaps you’re not quite ready, emotionally, socially or intellectually, to make that leap just yet and perhaps you never will be. And if you insist on going to university but don’t wish to avail yourself of these productive traumas, then don’t you dare, don’t you fucking dare try to stop other people experiencing them.

This is me, at university, with unsafe hair. Photo by Susannah Davis

PS: Via Clair Woodward, by Judith Shulevitz in the New York Times. Play-Doh? Really?

PPS: And now this, also from Clair:

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

A Turkish Ruskin

I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the more obscure avenues of the Turkish art scene, beyond a passing observation that Turks seem unusually fond of tortoises. Indeed, recent events have persuaded me to go no further in my studies, after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was fined 10,000 lira (about 2,500 pounds) for inflicting “psychological damage” on a sculptor by saying that his Monument to Humanity was a bit rubbish.

Apparently it’s not a straightforward case of a highly-strung artist finally losing his rag with critical snark and attempting to restage Whistler v Ruskin in the back end of Anatolia. The piece in question was intended to symbolise friendship between Turkey and Armenia, just the sort of political statement that’s going to wind someone up somehow; indeed, it’s still an offence under Turkish law to claim that the horrors inflicted upon the Armenian people 100 years ago might be described as genocide. (Meanwhile, in some other countries it’s illegal to say that it isn’t genocide, which strikes me as equally daft.) It’s tempting to revel in Erdogan’s current predicament, since he’s a supporter of the not-a-genocide protocol, committed to the notion that what happened in 1915 is a bit of unpleasantness best left to historians, but preferably not for a while yet. And yet, as is so often the case when a law is passed to stop people saying a particular thing, the effect is considerably more far- reaching, as it contributes to a general discouragement against talking, or indeed thinking, about anything of any significance. Which is presumably what those in power ultimately want.

But if it’s any comfort to the beleaguered Prez, he was entirely right. The sculpture, which has since been removed, was bloody horrible, resembling at best a bad waxwork rendition of the robot mummies from Pyramids of Mars. I wouldn’t presume to comment on his political credentials but I’d give him a job as an art critic.