Friday, April 29, 2005

Free Flickr

Does anyone want a free Flickr Pro account? Hurry, while stocks last! Email me if you're interested.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Lolling around

A couple of evenings just lolling around.

Last night, browsing through magazines (Scientific American, Utne, Burn and Heat) and people-watching in Borders; wondering why all the Liverpool fans were chanting in Trafalgar Square at 6:30pm ("Have they lost their way?"); demolishing a hot Peri-Peri roast chicken and lemon cheesecake at Nandos; watching the last few minutes of the Chelsea v. Liverpool game on the street through a pub window; wandering past Buckingham Palace and down along Millbank wondering why St James' Park stays open all night ("Do they all stay open in central London?", and ahem hoping to catch a bit of action watching two guys walking through the park in the pitch dark) and which building is which (MI5, MI6?); flicking through Wired and Time Out magazines, curled up on the bed, sipping wild berry tea.

Tonight, savouring a juicy fruit salad (courtesy of M&S) for dinner; enjoying Rhys Ifans' creepy performance in Enduring Love on DVD; finally booking the Caravaggio show online; sinking into a rose-scented bubble bath, surrounded by candles; and now, after writing this, taking a novel to bed to fill my head with other worlds, other lives as I fall asleep...

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Operation Pandora's Box

On 22 February 1974, paranoid and embittered office supply salesman Sam Byck shot and killed an airport security guard at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, stormed onto Delta Airlines Flight 523 and attempted to hijack and fly the DC-9 into the White House. When the pilots told him they could not take off until the wheel brakes had been removed, he shot them both, grabbed a woman passenger and demanded that she fly the plane. Of course, he was thwarted in his ambition to kill President Richard Nixon, and shot himself fatally in the head whilst still on the plane. Six months after the bungled assault -- codenamed Operation Pandora's Box by Byck himself -- Nixon resigned from office.

Director Niels Mueller has revived this footnote in history, and in The Assassination of Richard Nixon has produced a character study with a tightly-wound Sean Penn terrifically evoking the role of an alienated and socially-inept divorcee with a rigid notion of right and wrong and a life that is falling apart.

The would-be assassin's job is failing, his marriage is over, his children are sullen, he can't get a loan to start a tire business, his country is fighting in Vietnam, his President lies from every TV screen, and even his dog doesn't seem to care whether he is dead or alive. Penn's character blames all his problems on Richard Nixon's presidency, and becomes so frustrated with the little Dick -- "He made us a promise, he didn't deliver, then he sold us on the exact same promise and he got elected again" -- that he visits his local Black Panther office and tries to persuade them to rename themselves the Zebras and admit white members.

Penn's character will never be as bleak, compelling or provocative as that other obsessive loner De Niro's Travis Bickle, but the escapism this movie afforded me was just what the doctor ordered last night to help me through a particularly stressful couple of days. Of course, the peach bellinis we quaffed and salmon fishcakes we wolfed down afterwards at Galileo's helped lots too!


+ "Overheated and overacted, but very watchable for all that." Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian.

+ "There's no discernible point to 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon', no sense of larger purpose, the film has only craft and technique to recommend it." The New York Times (reg. req.)

Other links today:

+ On cruise control: How to get out of a life rut. "As human beings, we made it through the process of evolution because we're flexible and adaptable, so we are wired for change. When we're in a rut, it's another way of saying that we're not experiencing enough change or variety. It can be easier to stay with what feels familiar, rather than take the initiative to make adjustments. However, if you face your fears, experiment with new approaches, and then take consistent action, no matter how small the steps, you will feel a sense of empowerment and increase your confidence."

+ iPod killers? "Mobile phones that rock, jam, thunder, and swing are on the way. Wireless operators around the globe are working with music studios, phone makers, and artists in a sweeping effort to turn the mobile phone into a go-anywhere digital jukebox."

+ Knowing when to log off: Wired campuses may be causing information overload. "There's the real danger that one is absorbing and responding to bursts of information, rather than having time to think. What's only gradually becoming clear is not just a pragmatic drawback but an intellectual drawback to having so many trees that there's no possibility of seeing the forest." Surely this should be the point of Adbusters' Turn Off TV Week?

+ Why literature matters. "The percentage of Americans reading literature is declining. The decline in reading has consequences that go beyond literature. The significance of reading has become a persistent theme in the business world. The February issue of Wired magazine, for example, sketches a new set of mental skills and habits proper to the 21st century, aptitudes decidedly literary in character: not linear, logical, analytical talents, but the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative. When asked what kind of talents they like to see in management positions, business leaders consistently set imagination, creativity, and higher-order thinking at the top."

+ The holy war: Mac vs Dos by Umberto Eco:

"I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant.

"The Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach -- if not the kingdom of Heaven -- the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

"DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment."

Tuesday, April 26, 2005


After a full English breakfast at Brixton's The Lounge on Sunday, we headed off in the glorious sunshine to the Tate Modern, where the fascinating story of the treatment of modern art in Nazi Germany is being displayed.
"Our patience with all those who have not been able to fall in line is at an end. What you are seeing here are the crippled products of madness, impertinence, and lack of talent. I would need several freight trains to clear our galleries of this rubbish. This will happen soon."

Thus spake Adolf Zieglar, president of the Reich Culture Chamber, in 1937 at the beginning of the Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich, during which some 650 paintings, sculptures, prints and books from the collections of 32 German museums were displayed by the Nazis as examples of "degenerate art".

Artists included Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Max Ernst, George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Emil Nolde (ironically a Nazi), Franz Marc and Pablo Picasso (a major opponent of Fascism). Artistic movements included Dadaism, Cubism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Impressionism and Surrealism. Eventually, the concept of degeneracy led to the confiscation of over 20,000 works of art by over 200 artists.

German artists were branded enemies of the state and many were forced into exile, for example Beckmann to Amsterdam, Ernst to the US, Klee to Switzerland. In 1938, Kirchner committed suicide in Switzerland. Those who remained in Germany had to endure a ban on producing work or working in universities. Many of Jewish descent, of course, eventually ended up in concentration camps.

"Degeneracy" had its roots in the views of such pseudoscientific theorists as Max Nordau, whose 1892 book, Entartung (Degeneration), proclaimed that artists suffered from decayed brains, and that modern art -- from paintings to poetry -- was the product of mental pathology. Impressionism's "painterliness", for example, was the product of a diseased visual cortex.

These writings became the rallying point for the Nazi's theories on the racial purity of art. For the Nazis, only racially "pure" artists could produce racially "pure" art such as Romantic realism. Modern art, with its primitivism and abstractness, was all the more abhorrent because of its racially "impure" creators, and such impure work apparently had a decadent, destablising influence on German society.

At the Entartete Kunst exhibition, examples of degenerate art were crammed onto the walls and surrounded by emblazoned slogans such as "Insolent mockery of the Divine under Centrist rule", "Revelation of the Jewish racial soul", "The ideal - cretin and whore" and "Even museum bigwigs called this the 'art of the German people'".

The show is considered to be the twentieth century's first blockbuster art exhibit, with an estimated attendance of 3 million visitors. It ironically exposed many people to their first viewing of prime examples of modern art.

This tiny exhibition at the Tate is well worth a visit. Afterwards, we relaxed in the member's lounge upstairs and tried to read the Sunday papers in the midst of bickering couples and playful children, before taking a boat back along the choppy Thames to Pimlico.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

"Coincidence?" *

First picture, Lucio Fontana's "Waiting" at the Tate Modern today. Second picture, one of cigarette company Silk Cut's famous adverts. Unfortunately, the first reminded me of the second, rather than the other way around, and I didn't hesitate to let everyone around me know it: "Oh, it looks like the Silk Cut ad!"

* An in-joke -- at my expense. Please excuse me.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Down and out in suburbia

The bleak and brooding side of American suburbia was explored today in 14 panoramic, über-theatrical and colour-drenched photographs by Gregory Crewdson at the White Cube gallery:

Take one: A scratched and sodden woman with knees encrusted with mud sits alone on the bed with the remains of a rose bush in her hands. Behind her lies the long trail of thorns, petals, roots and dirt on the carpet.

Take two: A man and woman lay post-coitally naked on a dirty mattress in a squalid garden littered with debris, oblivious to both their immediate surroundings and the windows of the house overlooking them next door.

Take three: A mother and son sit inert at a table, not looking at one another. Their untouched dinner includes a half-cooked roast leaking blood. There are upturned bottles of pills on the dresser and an undrunk glass of liquour and ice on the kitchen counter.

Take four: A woman sits on the passenger side of a car that is idling at the traffic lights of a deserted crossroads, gazing absently at the empty driver's seat beside her.

Crewdson's work presents a very different portrait from the pared-down and spare vernacular America of Diane Arbus, Edward Hopper or Stephen Shore. Crewdson's photos are intensely theatrical, technicolour dramas encrusted with finely-delineated detail.

We can only speculate what went on in each of his photos, for it is as if the camera lens has caught the action mid-scene. You would not be mistaken for wondering if these are staged film sets: each has been produced on a soundstage and Crewdson collaborates with a roster of actors, lighting crews, art directors, set dressers, grips, gaffers, and hair and makeup artists.

If the scenes are short on context and plot, they are long on cinematic atmosphere: deserted main streets, damp forests, overgrown railroad tracks, misty skies, shabby carpets, dripping blood, vacant faces, dimly-lit motel rooms.

Most of the scenes suffer from such an overload of detail that at times my imagination disengaged. Was it really necessary, for example, to scatter lots of props to convince us that the bleeding, hunched, glum woman in front of us is truly unhappy: an over-flowing ashtray, a discarded pair of stockings, tranquillisers and slimming pills strewn across a table?

Moreover, the dark side of American suburbia is a tediously over-worked concept these days. From Twin Peaks through American Beauty to Desperate Housewives, murder-madness-sex-and-death-in-the-'burbs is familiar cultural territory for most of us.

Despite these misgivings, I found the overall effect to be unsettling, intriguing, and technically mesmerising.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


After a disastrous dinner of aubergine and sweet potato curry (when will I remember that aubergines will release much of the oil they absorb once they are cooked, so I needn't add so much at the start), we settled down to watch the enigmatic, opaque and utterly disturbing All About Lily Chou-Chou on DVD.

Lily Chou-Chou is a popular Japanese pop star who may or may not be real. Her legions of alienated teenage fans seem able to find solace and meaning in their lives only via an internet site devoted to her. One of these fans is Hayato, a high school student living in the provinces, who has a crush on music prodigy Ayumi. Online, Hayato expresses his devotion to Lily with passion and verve. Offline, like Ayumi, he is painfully shy, unassuming and lonely. He and others like him are easy prey for extreme forms of bullying -- which include public masturbation, rape and prostitution -- at the hands of a group of boys whose ringmaster is bored classmate, Shugo.

Shugo and Hayato were once friends, joining the kendo club together, discussing astronomy and engaging in a little petty crime. But Shugo began to change after a trip to Okinawa ended fatally. On his return to school, he defeated the reigning school bully and unleashed his own violent and arbitrary brand of humiliation that left few -- including his friend Hayato -- untouched.

An extremely painful and graphic story of wanton teenage cruelty, made all the more haunting and bleak by the beautifully kinetic digital cinematography.

Related link:

+ "I started out wanting to depict a youth who lives in a state of confusion between daily life and virtual reality, someone for whom the virtual reality is totally confused with real life. But as I developed the story and worked on the film, I realised that most people are living that way." Director Shunji Iwai.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Bebo and Diego

Last night, we witnessed the magic of Spanish Gitano (gypsy) cantaor Diego el Cigala and Afro-Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés at the Royal Festival Hall. This ended up being a real treat for me as my knowledge of flamenco -- indeed, most Latin -- music is very poor.

El Cigala was born in 1968 and began singing on the streets of Madrid before accompanying flamenco dancers on stage. The strength and passion of his voice soon distinguished him as a solo artist. Valdés was born in 1918 and has been playing the piano in Cuba and in Europe for more than 60 years. He is considered a pioneer of Afro-Cuban music. Last year, the two artists released the heartfelt Lágrimas Negras (Black Tears) -- an album that fused rumbas, guajira, sons and boleros, and won the two stars a Grammy.

Flamenco has always been a mélange of musical traditions, from the gypsies who brought their music perhaps from northern India, through Spanish, Jewish, Arabic and Berber influences, to blending with the blues, jazz, hip hop and rock. El Cigala's blend of flamenco and blues is produced by a voice that is hoarse and soulful: the voice of a man who drinks too many whiskys, smokes too many cigars and has had his heart broken one too many times. And yet this is a man who is in such command of his voice that what fills the hall is mellow, smooth and heart-stoppingly beautiful.

I'm not a fan of Latin jazz (much contemporary jazz at all, in fact), but Valdés plays with such virtuosity and flourish that I was captivated by the melodies spinning out of his fingers as they danced across the piano keys.

The band also included a mournful double-bass, skittish percussion and shuffling cajon. The musicians faced each other in a circle and played to each other in a call-and-response style that was so intimate, our presence as an audience felt like an intrusion.

Yes, I was utterly seduced.

Related links:

+ "I began to discover similarities between Cuban and Spanish music. For example, there's a malagueña cadence which is exactly the same as our guaguancó. As in many other cases, there are similar rhythms and harmonies thanks to African and Indian influences." Interview with Bebo Valdés.

+ "In flamenco there's more and more desire to learn all the time, people are dying to create." Interview with Diego el Cigala.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Masala night

Spent a chilled evening catching up with friends after work. We met in Soho's Alphabet Bar for mohitos and caipirinhas, then walked round the corner for an Indian (as opposed to a Bangladeshi) at the modern, open-plan and split-level Masala Zone.

Masala Zone serves tasty, earthy Indian street food such as dahi puris (bowl-shaped, feather-light wafers filled with spiced chickpea and potato) and chana dabalroti (chickpeas, lotus root and toasted bread); thalis (including ayurvedic), noodles and curries; nimbu pani (salt water lemonade), sweet and salty yoghurt lassis, beer and wine.

Indian street food is comfort eating of the highest order in my thoroughly biased opinion, and my fondest memories of India are of eating deep-fried puffy vegetable samosas or lamb cutlets with tamarind sauce and drinking freshly-squeezed sugarcane or sweetened lime juice from a steel beaker, whilst perched on rickety metal benches, in makeshift tin huts, as cars and lorries hurtle by.

Tonight, we had mixed starters, including minced lamb patties and chickpea samosas, and then substantial lamb thalis -- metal platters with timbales of rice, poppadoms, chapatis, dhal, gobi (cauliflower) bhaji, coriander and mango chutnies, and tender curried lamb stew.

We were too stuffed to even finish our plates, let alone have one of their delicious desserts -- such as creamy srikhand (strained yoghurt with saffron), sticky gulab jamun, and mango kulfi (dense Indian icecream).

Oh well, there's always next time.

Related links:

+ Up Bombay. "Long before it appears on the world's hippest menus, India's most authentic cuisine - the street food of Mumbai - can be sampled for a few rupees from the city's myriad and varied stalls. 'Western people do not understand street food. It is all about someone doing one brilliant dish for years, passing the spice mix and secret ingredients down through the family and everyone in the city knowing the best stalls.' " The Observer Food Monthly on Mumbai's street food.

+ It's curry, but not as we know it. "New wave Indian restaurateurs are eschewing the traditional image of chicken tikka, lager and flock wallpaper in favour of stylish interiors and posh cuisine. But one thing never changes - wherever you eat your curry, you can be sure they've got nothing like it in downtown Bombay." The Observer Food Monthly on the "new wave" of Indian cooking in Britain.

Other link today:

+ Navigating open source licensing. "The decision to use an open source license can plunge Web professionals into a mire of patent, trademark and copyright law. In this expose, Sitepoint speaks with Eric Raymond, cofounder of the Open Source Initiative, in an effort to untangle the complexities of open source licensing."

Sunday, April 17, 2005


Today at the Whitechapel Gallery, we viewed the satirical comic strips of Robert Crumb -- sometimes described as the godfather of the underground comics movement. I rarely read comic books or graphic novels, bar the odd Sandman or Akira, but I enjoy Crumb's irreverent and sardonic take on his own and American life, and his dense, black and white graphics packed with action.

Robert Crumb in The Guardian:

+ G2 in Crumbland
+ "America has become this soulless suburban culture"
+ "I'd rather be dead than mediocre"

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Twists and turns

We spent the afternoon in Soho, eating a scrumptious falafel sandwich in wholemeal pitta bread, with salad and chips at the Maoz cafe on Old Compton Street. Then we wandered over to the heavenly-aromatic Algerian Coffee Store across the road to buy some coffee and violet-flavoured candy. This store has a long presence in Soho -- opened in 1887 by one Mr Hassan. It now sells over 60 different types of coffee beans -- raw and roasted. The scent from my bag followed us all over Soho for the rest of the afternoon.

After mojitos at the Alphabet Bar, we crossed the river to the Purcel Room to watch the dazzling young dancer Akram Khan perform a series of epic Hindu mythologies to Kathak -- an ancient Indian classical dance form. Stories included that of the reluctant warrior Arjuna -- so powerful a marksman that he can hit the eye of a revolving fish -- who is persuaded into battle by Lord Krishna; and Arjuna's son Abhimanya, who learned the ways of war inside the womb.

Khan dances with such exhilerating fluency. Tonight, his mercurial body spun across the stage and his quicksilver arms shattered the air into a thousand shards. There were moments when his body practically levitated with an intense series of vibrations that went from his head to his toes. Yet Kathak is a very linear, precise, methodical dance form and at no point did Kahn lose control. His agility was taut and composed.

I've only ever seen Khan as part of a larger ensemble, when he performed Ma here last year. So I was unsure whether he alone would be able to command all my attention. I needn't have worried. Khan has enough physical magnetism to fill a stage several times over. The Independent once summed up Khan's appeal perfectly: "Khan has more charisma than a fistful of veteran star performers. When he transfixes you with his kohl-rimmed eyes, you feel he could charm a whole pitful of snakes."

And actually, he wasn't alone. His live band included sitar, tabla, mridanga and cello as well as the haunting and sublime Sufi vocals of Faheem Mazhar, who once performed suspended upside down on stage for Khan. Their musicianship was so spectacular that they frequently stole the show.

Related links:

+ "Everything in Indian music works mathematically and is very logical. Once that's understood, the music can be appreciated in a different way, and you can start playing around with the rules. There's a lot of improvisation, and the complex patterns we work from are more simple than they look." Akram Khan speaking to Culture Kiosque (Reg. req.)

+ The mathematical precision of Kathak

Friday, April 15, 2005

"When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook"

On Wednesday, we went to hear Barbara Kruger and William Gibson discuss Contested Territories: Conversations in Practice at the Tate Britain.

When artist Barbara Kruger's red and white slogans in bold Futura typeface appeared in the store windows of Selfridges last year, it was impossible not to spot the irony of using anti-consumerist messaging to promote a summer sale.

Kruger's slogans appropriate public spaces that would otherwise be given over to advertising. Her slogans appear on book covers, posters, billboards, t-shirts, matchbooks, buses, bus shelters; in galleries, subway stations, newspapers, magazines:

  • "I shop therefore I am"
  • "Buy me, I'll change your life"
  • "We are slaves to the commodities around us"
  • "When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook"
  • "You want it, you buy it, you forget it"

When a woman in the audience accused the artist of selling out to Selfridges, Kruger replied, "There is no space outside the global market economy, so I try to work within it." Kruger did not comment on the irony of the audience member discovering Kruger's window dressings whilst shopping in the Selfridges sale!

Author William Gibson also spoke of mediating the constant flux of information we find ourselves a part of. He said his work is an attempt to model the constant flow of information of modern life; an attempt to achieve parity between it and his "authorial membrane". The aim of all his writing has been, he said, to pass the Turing Test: can you put a machine behind a curtain and have it pass for human?

An audience member asked him about his research techniques. He replied that he doesn't "do research" as such, that his mode of being in the world is as an "automated magpie": everything he sees, hears and experiences goes into the "giant skip" of his mind where it vanishes and takes on a life of its own. "Later, when I reach back in, it comes out as if the elves created it." Often, the thing comes back as banal and peculiar.

Both artists ruminated on the effects of living in an ever-connected -- a cyber -- world. Kruger wondered what it would be like to live life not viewed though a lens, and celebrated the fact that we can use the media rather than have it use us: "We can use a camera and not call ourselves photographers; we can write but not be writers." We use these things as tools, as pleasure, she asserted, to process and shape information rather than be defined by it.

Gibson claimed, "One day our grandchildren will look at us, as a species, as 'not fully human' because we are constantly connected. The nature of human experience is being altered by this stuff." And yet, he too was not casting a negative judgement on this condition, situating it within a wider, longer, historical context that includes the connective technologies of cave paintings, the printing press, telephones and TV. As such, he said, he feels a part of a long human project that predates religion.

An interesting night, for which my summary here does no justice.

Related links:

+ Webcast of the discussion. Not yet online, it seems.

+ "The Billboard Liberation Front states emphatically and for all time herein that to Advertise is to Exist. To Exist is to Advertise. Our ultimate goal is nothing short of a personal and singular Billboard for each citizen. Until that glorious day for global communications when every man, woman and child can scream at or sing to the world in 100Pt. type from their very own rooftop; until that day we will continue to do all in our power to encourage the masses to use any means possible to commandeer the existing media and to alter it to their own design."

Other links today:

+ Life lessons in virtual adultery. "If you walked into a room and found your partner in a passionate clinch with someone else you'd probably have good cause to worry. But would you worry if those doing the kissing were characters in a game being controlled by your partner and someone else?"

+ Playlist anxiety. "Sharing playlists on an office network turns out to be something like a peacock spreading his feathers for display. People actively work to create an image of themselves through the music they make available to others, just as they might by buying a new car or showing off a cell phone. Public embarrassment may now be the routine lot of the unhappy freshman who gets caught with a collection too heavily weighted toward the collected works of Weird Al Yankovic."

+ Foiling spies at the Vatican. "Computer hackers, electronic bugs and supersensitive microphones threaten to pierce the Vatican's thick walls next week when cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel to name a papal successor. Spying has gotten a lot more sophisticated since John Paul II was elected in 1978."

+ What does Dubya listen to on his iPod? "George W Bush is a fan of country music and classic rock, but he also likes 'a little bit of hard core and honky tonk', his iPod playlist suggests."

+ The annotated New York Times. The NYT complete with blogging citations. Fantastic!

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Island living

The latest Dubai man-made island project consists of some 300 islands grouped together into the continents of the world.

Other links today:

+ Nehanda Abiodun. Fascinating story of a black activist's exile from the US to Cuba and how she got her moniker of "godmother of hip hop cubano".

+ Cuban hip hop reaches crossroads. The politicisation of Cuban hip hop.

+ What do you call two straight men having dinner face-to-face without the aid of a television or the crutch of sports? A Man Date. (Reg. req. Via randomWalks)

+ "Star Wars fans have started queuing seven weeks early for the opening of the final movie - but appear to have camped outside the wrong cinema." Silly link of the day!

Monday, April 11, 2005

Saturday on my mind

On Saturday, we also visited The Photographers' Gallery to see work by the four artists shortlisted for this year's £30,000 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. These included Luc Delahaye's monumental panoramas from war-torn frontlines, Jörg Sasse's manipulations of "found" photographs, JH Engström's magically tense portraits and interiors (below) and Stephen Shore's colour-saturated slices of American life (above).

The latter two were my favourite, and although both photographers share a fondness for capturing abandoned meals on tables and unmade beds in motel rooms, their photographs are quite different.

Engstrom's are ethereal, nervy, twitchy, tense photos of subjects and objects caught trying to escape the lens. His people and interiors are lonely and forlorn.

I've written before about my fondness for Shore. His photos of Americana are rooted, grounded, solid, posed, composed -- objects and subjects presenting themselves to the lens. His is a crisper, brighter world.

Of course, we then ended up in the wonderful cafe, perusing the papers, drinking tea and eating chocolate cake.

Afterwards, we made the grave mistake of watching Sahara, featuring actors who are as monumentally monotonous as the plot. I'll leave it to The Guardian's wonderful Mr Bradshaw to sum up the acting in a way no one else can:

"Once again, Matthew McConaughey proves that he is modern cinema's Mr Zero Charisma. He is the celluloid equivalent of Rohypnol: a deadening whiff of pure boredom that deprives you of the power to think, speak or move your limbs. It wears off after a few hours, leaving you face-down in a stagnant pool of vanilla Diet Coke."

Saturday, April 09, 2005


After a sunny full English breakfast, coffee and iced cranberry juice at Brixton's The Lounge, we headed to Küba -- the art installation of Turner prize nominee Kutlug Ataman, at the derelict Sorting Office on London's New Oxford Street. Ataman interviewed forty residents of Istanbul ghetto Küba and we viewed their stories on battered analogue televisions from an array of frayed and shabby armchairs that could have come straight from any of their own homes.

The residents were largely Kurdish and -- as the name may suggest -- Küba was originally set up in the 1960s by hard-left Kurdish nonconformists looking for a place to hide. Now the shanty town is a refuge for all kinds of people who have slipped through the social net, who are marginalised and disenfranchised. Hardly the kind of place you'd see featured in a guide book or the travel pages of a Sunday newspaper.

A girl tells of her beatings at the hands of her stepmother, a father hopes his son will use education as a means to escape poverty, an elderly woman bristles with pride at the closeness and unity of the Küba residents, a young boy giggles as he breakdances on the floor for the camera, a woman describes the torture she endured for putting up an anti-government wreath, another woman cries because her family cannot afford a car to drive her child to hospital each day, a movie buff talks at length about his favourite movie Notting Hill.

A complex, diverse, and intricately-knit community of outcasts emerges from the cacophonic narratives and makes this installation utterly compelling. It demands repeated visits.

A grittier, more politicised Kurdish counterpoint to the Royal Academy's lustrous Turks exhibition.

The Post Office Sorting Office itself is an extraordinarily dingy, cavernous, labyrinthine shell of a building, full of concrete and graffitti, industrial chutes and nailed planks -- a place from where, up until 1995, almost two million parcels and letters were delivered each week. The site was a refuge for squatters and pigeons before Artangel used it to house Küba.

The Sorting Office (photos)

Küba installation (photos)

Related link:

+ Kutlug Ataman introduces some of Küba's characters to The Guardian:

"Erol has a coop full of special pigeons. His hobby is quite a financial burden, so, to sustain it, he steals money from people at knifepoint, or puts his life in danger by robbing other pigeon coops. ... Nejmi is a complete dyke, but she doesn't realise it. Even her mother says: 'What kind of a girl are you? You have girlfriends!' Nejla says she is in love with the neighbour's daughter. 'I am the boyfriend,' is how she puts it. ... Guler was in love with someone else, but she had had to marry her husband because he had raped her - she married her own rapist because he was her aunt's son."

Friday, April 08, 2005

Hip hop con Cubanismo

First we grabbed a quick bite to eat at Pizza Express -- delicious Giardiniera pizza with leeks, petit pois, peperonata, mushrooms, olives and tomatoes; and spicy American pizza with lots of pepperoni -- then we walked to the Festival Hall for a scorching night of Cuban hip hop, courtesy of Orishas.

My knowledge of Cuban music is lamentably weak -- believing that it has fossilised during the economic blockade into endless varieties of easy-listening Buena Vista Social Clubs. But thankfully Orishas have not been strangulated by poverty or tradition: they draw on traditional Latin sounds such as son, rumba and guaguanco, to add piquancy to their distinctly urban hip hop beats. The result is a dynamite sound assessible to both the Buena Vista "oldies" and the hip hop "headz". They obviously live up to the meaning of their name: Orishas are Yoruban guardian spirits who traverse two worlds.

Tonight, Orishas' explosive music combined with an electrifying performance to produce an exhilerating evening and a desperate desire to hear and see more.

Related links:

+ Orishas: Gods in two worlds. "Still many people say, 'Yeah, Orishas is great but it's not real Cuban music'. We say it's normal, Orishas is Cuban music - but it's evolution. Cuban music isn't only Compay Segundo, no. It's the roots for my country, the roots for my music, but many many people like us are coming to fuse ragga with traditional music, ska with traditional music you know. And it's still Cuban."

+ The elements of revolution: The spirit of hip hop thrives in Cuba. "A lack of access to equipment combined with a disorganised market for the music has stumped many Cuban artists. Although strides have been made, there is only so much that can be done while living under a 40-year-old economic blockade. Graffiti artists live without spray cans. Breakers live without sneakers. MCs don't have notebooks and DJs have only one turntable and barely any vinyl. Yet no matter how sparse these tools might be, hip-hop is alive inside of them. Their expression won't be slowed down by want."

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Latin mix

Last night we spent several gluttonous hours luxuriating in Sabor, a Colombian-owned Latin American restaurant with a menu fusing Colombian, Brazilian, Peruvian and Argentinian cuisines.

Sabor is a small and modern jewel on the dingy Essex Road in Islington. It's artfully-lit in ever-changing washes of bright colour, and has only the odd piece of brightly-painted wooden folk art on the walls. The food was fabulous: it was well-presented and all the flavours were well-balanced, despite practically every dish featuring tropical fruit.

We started with a platter of empanadas mixtas -- three traditional, deep-fried savoury pastries made from cornmeal dough and filled each with minced lamb, crab and plantain, and mushrooms, all served with fresh mint salsa.

One of our main dishes was pato con maracuya -- a deliciously juicy pan-roasted breast of duck with plantain/sweet potato/pecan nut mash and a sweet and tart passion fruit sauce. Another was a meaty coffee- and chilli-glazed red snapper with a sweet and sour tomato sauce and gallo pinto (black beans and brown rice) mash.

Somehow we found space for dessert: a moorish platter of mature manchego cheese, gorgonzola and guava jelly; and a heavenly-light papaya and whipped cream cheese terrine with mango sauce.

All this washed down with a pisco sour and a margarita de maracuya - Sabor's house cocktail of fresh passion fruit and lime juice blended with a white tequila, triple sec and passion fruit liqueur.

My only knowledge of Latin American food is of comfortingly stodgy stews and lots of meat, so the subtleties of the cuisine at Sabor was a very pleasant surprise.

We were so stuffed afterwards, we couldn't do anything else but go home. Which was lucky for me because I was just in time for Desperate Housewives!

Other links today:

+ How to get the perfect shave. For men.

+ Get slick. MeFi's comments on How to get the perfect shave

+ Utne online. Recent articles: a feminist Koran, the religious right, and a breast-feeding protest in Starbucks. Always thoughtful.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Growing up black and white

I returned to the Royal Festival Hall again tonight for the Africa Remix literature series, in which authors Delia Jarrett-Macauley and David Nwokedi discussed how they negotiate their ethnicity in England and in Africa.

Humour framed the entire evening. Nwokedi's novel describes a Nigerian-born, English-raised boy's life in England with a Nigerian father and white English mother. The mother valiantly struggles to remind her children of their Nigerian heritage through food: most of the week she feeds them typical English fare of bubble and squeak, fish fingers and frozen peas, fish and chips... Then one day she decides to try her hand at fried plantains and jollof rice, but replaces the traditionally-African chicken with the traditionally-English corned beef.

The Nigerian father repeatedly reminds his son to "be proud -- you are part African" and yet the boy ends up scrutinising his reflection in the mirror, wondering which part exactly of himself is African and how on earth he could be proud of it.

Nwokedi grew up in New Haven in southern England. In his school of 1500, there were only ever 3 other black students, and he and his two siblings thought they were "the black community". He first came to London in his late teens when his mother took her children to see The Black and White Minstrel Show. It was the first time he saw so many "black" people in one place.

Jarrett-Macauley is of Sierra Leone origin and she remembers visiting Africa for the first time at 7. She rushed off the plane in excitement and then promptly ran back in. "Mummy, mummy, everybody's black!" Her mother replied, "Yes dear, this is Africa." "So this is where they all are!" Jarrett-Macauley grew up in England on jollof rice and pigs' feet, but still thought "lunch was a sandwich".

A really entertaining night that made me think of my own experiences as the child of Indian parents, growing up in an all-white community in middle England, moving to multi-ethnic London, visiting India, and living on a Native American reservation as "a real Indian". But I'll save those reflections for another time.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Maria full of cocaine

Last night, we saw Maria Full Of Grace, a movie about Colombian cocaine mules -- those people (usually women) who transport cocaine from Colombia to the US using their stomachs as cargo bays.

The BBC and The Guardian have both criticised the film for its lack of macro-political context, but this is the very reason I enjoyed it so much. The story does not feature hyberbolic, machinegun-toting drug men chasing one another through mountains and cities. Instead, it eschews violence and melodrama in favour of the more human and subtle story, the kind of which we rarely see in films about drug trafficking.

Moreover, the mules have resorted to drug smuggling through economic pressures and yet they are not here portrayed as obvious victims: the lead character, Maria, for example, does not think like a victim; she is forthright, intelligent and clear-headed, turning to drug smuggling as a way to support herself during pregnancy after having refused the suggestion from her slacker boyfriend that he do the right thing and marry her.

The attention to detail is phenomenal and the camera never flinches as it shows Maria taking medicine that slows the digestive system before swallowing 500g of cocaine -- divided between 62 latex-wrapped pellets the size of large grapes -- in Colombia, and then washing them in toothpaste after she excretes a few in the airplane toilet and re-ingesting them. It also does not shy away from showing the fatal effects on another mule of a pellet bursting in her stomach and her stomach being cut open to retrieve the rest of the drugs.

A calm, clear-sighted and compelling drama that I would like to see again.

Related link:

+ 'Everyone deserves a decent burial'. "Orlando Tobon has a mission: to identify the bodies of drug mules - and return them to their families. As a film about his work opens, The Independent meets a Colombian hero."

Other links today:

+ Why can't you pay attention anymore? "It may be the greatest irony of the information age: All of that data flying at you by e-mail, instant message, cell phone, voice mail and BlackBerry--it could actually be making you dumber. No one really multitasks. You just spend less time on any one thing."

+ A big breakfast at Burger King. Chain debuts Enormous Omelet Sandwich with more calories, fat than a Whopper.

+ Is the surfeit of culture dulling our senses? "Our home, our city, our world, our life is now a supermarket for the satisfaction of the senses. We could binge on Peking Opera if we wished, or read nothing but Uruguayan poets, or fill up our Netflix queues with films from Japan and Japan alone. I can think of some serious downsides to this wealth..."

+ is the cheeky new social bookmarking tool on the scene to compete with

+ MacDonalds to pay rappers up to $5 every time a song name-checking the Big Mac is played

+ Watch manufacturers nervous as people use their cellphones to tell the time

Sunday, April 03, 2005


My weekend began on Friday with a comfortingly wholesome dinner of black bean and smoked chorizo stew with rice served in a heavy earthenware bowl, washed down with a sweet and tart freshly-squeezed passionfruit juice at Canela, a fabulous and tiny Brazilian-Portuguese cafe tucked behind the Seven Dials of Covent Garden.

Then we strolled in the evening warmth across Hungerford Bridge to the Royal Festival Hall to experience the northern Senegalise singer Baaba Maal in concert with his band of -- it seemed -- one hundred. The spectacle was exhilerating: from Maal's spiraling and twisting wail, the dancers' flailing limbs and multiple colourful costume changes; to the spontaneous breakdancing, manic drumming and screeching saxophones. All performed to a projected backdrop of the art of the Africa Remix exhibition.

Saturday was another sunny day, so a return to Covent Garden was due and my first ever wander around the London Transport Museum, before a simple sushi lunch -- mackeral, salmon, prawn and octopus -- at the small and spartan Kulu Kulu. My craving for some American candy brought us to the very cute Cybercandy store, crammed wall-to-wall with candy from the US and Japan, where we bought jelly beans (garlic was the featured flavour but we weren't brave enough to try, let alone buy), vanilla cream soda, Reese's Pieces (peanut butter chocolate smarties) and Red Hots (cinnamon flavoured hard candy). We window-shopped our way down Floral Street to the Photographer's Gallery, where we scoffed chocolate and carrot cakes with tea at the cafe's wooden benches and tables, and caught up with the Saturday papers.

Still invigorated from our Baaba Maal experience, we returned to the Africa Remix exhibition today at the Hayward as it's the last week, before ending the day by watching the very excellent Maria Full of Grace -- a movie about Colombian drug mules. But more of that tomorrow.

Related links:

+ "A musician in Africa should be someone who educates. You can educate people and tell them their history and share information with people with your songs. When anything happens, people want to know your reaction, your advice, and what they should do. And not just to do with culture. It can be anything, from politics to religion." Baaba Maal speaks to The Guardian.

Friday, April 01, 2005

The island of San Serriffe

One of my favourite April Fools pranks is this one from The Guardian in 1977:
"In 1977, The Guardian published a special seven-page supplement in honor of the tenth anniversary of San Serriffe, a small republic located in the Indian Ocean consisting of several semi-colon-shaped islands. A series of articles affectionately described the geography and culture of this obscure nation. Its two main islands were named Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse. Its capital was Bodoni, and its leader was General Pica. Articles described the eccentric culture of the island. One strange island custom was the Festival of the Well Made Play. Authentic advertisements also accompanied the articles. For instance, Texaco offered a contest for which the first prize was a two-week trip to Cocobanana Beach in San Serriffe.

"The Guardian's phones rang all day as readers sought more information about the idyllic holiday spot.

"Few noticed that everything about the island was named after printer's terminology."

As a "leftie" myself, I can't resist The Left-Handed Whopper either:

"In 1998, Burger King published a full page advertisement in USA Today announcing the introduction of a new item to their menu: a Left-Handed Whopper specially designed for the 32 million left-handed Americans. According to the advertisement, the new Whopper included the same ingredients as the original Whopper (lettuce, tomato, hamburger patty, etc.), but all the condiments were rotated 180 degrees for the benefit of their left-handed customers. The following day Burger King issued a follow-up release revealing that thousands of customers had gone into restaurants to request the new sandwich. Simultaneously, according to the press release, many others requested their own 'right-handed' version."

98 more great pranks

Other links today:

+ Nine Inch Nails are back! New album out in May. On tour now. Great Reznor interview in current Kerrang magazine. Time to start visiting my favourite NIN site again.

+ Eboy's London. Tokyotastic! (Large image file)

+ Why cyclists wear black shorts. ROTFL!

+ English accents and dialects. A collection of audio samples at the British Library.

+ Brian Eno in Index magazine, 2002. "Musician, producer, and artist Brian Eno would much rather talk about urbanism, new computer applications, or emergence theory than something as pedestrian as EQ levels or his own brilliant musical history."

+ Eskimos actually have few words for snow, says linguist Steven Pinker. "Contrary to popular belief, the Eskimos do not have more words for snow than do speakers of English. They do not have four hundred words for snow, as it has been claimed in print, or two hundred, or one hundred, or forty-eight, or even nine. One dictionary puts the figure at two. Counting generously, experts can come up with about a dozen, but by such standards English would not be far behind with snow, sleet, slush, blizzard, avalanche, hail, hardpack, powder, flurry and dusting."

+ The way we live now: Bad connections. More on ego-casting. (Reg. req.)

+ Are socialites still networking? "More than a year after social networking became the leading buzzword in internet startup circles, companies in the sector haven't gained the traction early enthusiasts predicted. Still, many of the bigger networking services say the number of users is growing steadily, and if they're not profitable already, they soon will be."

+ Contact lenses react to blood-sugar levels. "Contact lenses that change their appearance according to the wearer's blood-sugar level could one day help people with diabetes keep track of their levels non-invasively, new research suggests."

+ Western states offer the most coffee shops."Coffee drinkers in the Western United States have the most stores from which to snag a cup of Joe, according to a new survey. Anchorage scores highest with the most coffee outlets per capita."