Chateau International: Récit


The ‘dancing’ fountain was first described by Hero of Alexandria, a mathematician and engineer from Roman Egypt: “A bird made to whistle by flowing water. A trumpet sounded by flowing water. Birds made to sing and be silent alternately by flowing water.”

“There’s something extraordinarily emotional about that fountain… The water is so alive—it is life. And people get very emotional around it. You see people crying—just overwhelmed by the spectacle.”

Transparent medusas rose to the sea’s surface, throbbed there a moment, then flew off, swaying toward the Moon. Harmonising with the medusas, the sea itself would rise too, far beyond the summit of the mountain’s peak, attracted by the heavenly stars. In each display the water would narrowly avoid skimming the edge of the Earth’s plate – countering the effects of gravity in its daily show of flair and finesse.

The ‘dancing’ fountain was first described by Hero of Alexandria, a mathematician and engineer from Roman Egypt: “A bird made to whistle by flowing water. A trumpet sounded by flowing water. Birds made to sing and be silent alternately by flowing water.” From here, through recollections of the fountain at the centre of the garden of Eden, the parting seas and Aphrodite’s Botticellian scallop-shell debut; alien mechanisms, the Pillars of Hercules and Louis XIV’s will to demonstrate his power over nature, we eventually meet in Los Angeles, at the headquarters of WET – or, Water Entertainment Technologies – the firm behind the world’s largest, most dynamic and hi-tech water features. Experience Passion. Experience WET.

WET, founded by former Disney Imagineers Mark Fuller, Melanie Simon and Alan Robinson in 1983, has designed hundreds of fountains and water features around the world, using water, fire, ice, fog and lights, alongside music. Perhaps its most renowned work is the Fountains of the Bellagio, which front Steve Wynn’s Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, and are considered by Steven Spielberg to be, “the greatest single piece of public entertainment on planet Earth”. In terms of physical scale, WET’s most impressive creation is the Dubai Fountain, the world’s largest choreographed fountain system set on a 30-acre manmade lake at the centre of Downtown Dubai.

In the ‘Finale’ to Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates describes Tartarus, the deep abyss, a chasm bored right through the earth – quite the opposite to a shallow manmade lake in Dubai, but with a similar effect – where all rivers flow together: “This fluid has no bottom or resting place: it simply pulsates upwards and downwards, and the air and the wind round about it does the same… as the breath that men breathe is always exhaled and inhaled in succession, so the wind pulsates in unison with the fluid, creating terrible, unimaginable blasts as it enters and as it comes out.”

Tartarus evokes the drama of the contemporary fountain, but the opposite expression. Being caught among its waters would only be in punishment, the axis of its abyss covering the axis of the *only recently identified!* spherical Earth. Swayed by his study of Pythagorean mathematics, Plato declared the world was declared “round as from a lathe” –although at the time, the word ‘world’ commonly referred to the heavens: Tarturus’ “unimaginable blasts” took in all the ‘world’s’ horrors.

As the contemporary fountain reaches its peak in the desert of the United Arab Emirates, it also returns to its source, the desert – although over a couple of thousand years the fountain has shifted a couple of thousand kilometres east, from Roman Egypt to the Arabian Gulf. While what might be considered the main source of desert water is a mirage, or a contradiction in terms, underground springs, rivers and lakes aren’t uncommon, and wells and oases – either dug or naturally formed – can support plant and animal life. Lakes occasionally form above ground in desert basins, from the precipitation or meltwater of glaciers above. They tend to be shallow, and consequently strong winds cause them to glide – like a stone skimming water – across low-lying land. When they evaporate off, the clay, salt or sand left behind forms in shallow plates, known as playa; and in North America many of the playa are relics of Lake Bonneville, which covered much of Utah, Nevada and Idaho during the last ice age. In 1912, an area of the Bonneville Salt Flats was marked out for motor sports – the Bonneville Speedway – and since then it has been the location for a number of land speed records. The first was Sir Malcom Campbell’s 1935 record of 301.129mph in the “Blue Bird”, and most recently Roger Schroer’s 2016 record of 341.264mph, in the Venturi Buckeye Bullet 3, an electric car specifically designed to break the land speed record on the Bonneville Speedway.

Although the playa continue to erode, the various muscle cars, modified aircraft belly tanks and Harley Davidson Road Glides are having considerably less impact than climate change on the shifts in surface. In The Endless Summer –  the 1964 surf movie where narrator Bruce Brown follows two surfers as they circumnavigate the globe, following the summer, and searching out “the perfect wave” – the trio ride the desert dunes on their route towards the water off South Africa’s Cape St. Francis. Shifting the sands of time, they worked with the rhythm of the folds in the same way that they’d later ride the curl of each wave. Brown, describes the sensations the camera couldn’t record:

“The thing you can’t show is the fantastic speed and the feeling you get in the pit of your stomach. It’s the kind of a wave that makes you talk to yourself. I couldn’t help but think of the hundreds of years these waves must have been breaking here, but until this day no one had ever ridden one.”

Both the drivers pursuing land speed records, and the surfers seeking out the perfect wave, are attempting to defy the laws of physics. They are also, to differing extents, working with nature, letting it hold power over them, and define the terms. Neither are working against the laws of gravity.

In the Idea Playground, WET’s R&D lab, their equivalent of Imagineers work to make water do the seemingly impossible, or at least the improbable. In “Water Music”, published in a 2010 edition of The New Yorker, writer John Seabrook considered the roots of the work of WET’s innovators, and what came before their compressed-air cannons, which conquer the problem of gravity:

“Water is heavy, and fountain designers through the ages have been preoccupied with finding ways to counter the effects of gravity. The ancient Romans figured out how to use gravity to their advantage, by forcing water into fountains from high aqueducts; the weight of the down-rushing water created the head. During the Renaissance, the ancients’ hydraulic innovations were rediscovered, and the Popes restored and embellished the fountains of Rome, commissioning the great sculptors of the day, who used water to give their figures the liquid glue of life. In the nineteenth century, mechanical water pumps began to be used in fountains, which made fountaineering easier, and today anyone with an electrical outlet can run one in his back yard.”

As well as being heavy, water is unruly. While surfers work with the wave, and submit to the unknown, the fountaineer works against it, asserting their power over nature. A fountain can ‘dignify the water’ and as Seabrook wrote, give stone sculpture “the liquid glue of life”; fountains patiently give lessons in transience, and choreographed drama, in a way that is diametrically opposed to the true nature of cascading, or undulating water. They symbolise both the emergence and disappearance of fresh, or chlorinated water, and mark the jubilant entry of water into a city. Mimicking the nature of a spring, the fountains and wells of ancient Rome would have been the primary source of fresh water in the city, before the advent of modern plumbing. Having figured out aqueducts, they channelled water towards the city for the sake of supply rather than performance, and the gleaming, often decorated stone wellsprings would form the centre of social life.

The channeling of water, via aqueducts, hydraulics or pumps, contains the ungraspable rush, while maintaining the wonder in its lively, life-giving swirl. As the moon invented natural rhythm, civilisation uninvented it, and in its place built altars to Man’s influence. A prime example is Louis XIV’s commissioning of Les Grandes Eaux Musicales at the Château de Versailles. In doing so he invented the modern musical fountain, which synchronised the dancing water with music and fireworks. Sculpture formed the principal element, the water jets animating and enlivening the stone and lead forms, caught in the midst of victory or loss. There are fountains dedicated to: the four seasons, animal fights, dragons, the story of Latona, Apollo and Neptune; each representing Louis XIV’s vision of his own confidence and power.

The jets d’eau, berceaux, nappes, cascades, grottes, bassins, gerbes, armes d’eau, grilles, champignons, buffets, fontaines and théâtres, wreaked havoc with the château’s water supply. Initially, water had to be pumped from ponds and reservoirs close to the château; and in 1671, when the Grand Canal was completed, a system of windmills pumped water back into the garden, but never enough to keep the fountains in full-play. The king nevertheless demanded that every fountain be frolicking at all times, and those in view of the château danced with the dedication of Fred Astaire. Further along the garden, fountaineers would signal each other with whistles to switch fountains on and off as the king paraded through his grounds – giving the impression of life everlasting. The fountains would later be supplied by water lifted from the Seine, by the Machine de Marly, and even with the château’s equivalent of austerity measures, the gardens consumed more water per day than the entire city of Paris.

When hotelier Steve Wynn opened the Fountains of Bellagio in 1998, he described being hit by the tricksy water’s spray as akin to “being baptised”; as the jets, pumps and music dignified the water – which was Louis XIV’s belief – the water dignified its people. For the king and his swanky contemporaries, fountains call to mind something altogether larger, something Nicola Salvi, architect of Rome’s Trevi fountain, articulated as: “the only everlasting source of continuous being”. But as much as water can be coaxed, shaped and transformed, what makes it a (not actually everlasting) source of (comparatively short-lived) being is really the fact that it can’t be stilled. It inspires and dissolves, it’s life-giving and purifying, it spoils and drowns; its uncanny movement ungraspable and uncontainable.

Published in 2018 by Chateau International, with contributions from Soft Baroque and Bryony Quinn.

Schloss Hollenegg for Design

Walden: The Will to Bloom

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately”, wrote Henry David Thoreau in his 1854 book, Walden. His life at the cabin by Walden Pond is often romanticised and celebrated as a thoughtful, honourable choice. He abandoned the stresses of productivity, social pressures and the shallow obsession with the accumulation of stuff

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately”, wrote Henry David Thoreau in his 1854 book, Walden. His life at the cabin by Walden Pond is often romanticised and celebrated as a thoughtful, honourable choice. He abandoned the stresses of productivity, social pressures and the shallow obsession with the accumulation of stuff; hoping to gain a better understanding of society through a process of introspection, and by immersing himself in nature.

This reverence for nature and will for simplicity can also be seen in the rules and practices of Modernist design, but these are ultimately still rules imposed by singular figures who had the freedom to choose which objects had value and which ways of living were worthwhile. Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium, built in 1929, embraced both the rules of the International Style and the practicalities of the needs of Tuberculosis patients. Aalto intended to build “a cathedral to health and an instrument for healing”, an environment that could provide the literal breathing space thought to help rehabilitate patients. Everything was designed with the wellbeing of patients — and the relationship to the surrounding forest — in mind. Aalto understood that nothing exists in a vacuum, his practice was Modernist, but it took in Finnish traditions, the practices of ancient cultures, the influence of Japanese spatial design, and the complexity of designing for unknown groups of people. He was by no means the only Modernist designer who drew inspiration from Japanese, or more broadly both East and South Asian practices. Le Corbusier was known to be an architectural “purist”, his work was led by strict tenets that he drew from both his own research and writing, and travel. His outlook has palpable crossovers with Thoreau’s view — and his perspective — which is one from a position of privilege, bound integrally with the history of colonialism.

Thoreau built his woodland home on land owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, with material from a cabin he’d bought from an Irish railroad worker. He wanted to embrace a Spartan way of living — “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity” — and in order to achieve his vision, Thoreau demolished the cabin, bleached the wood, and rebuilt it. Although he sought to live among nature rather than counter to it, amidst Thoreau’s will for connection, there was a lot of disconnection — between him and his community, between reality and fantasy and between different parts of the story. The woodlands surrounding the pond had been inhabited for years before Thoreau arrived, by people who had been freed from slavery and ghettoised immigrants who had been forced to live there, having been barred from cities and their wealthy suburbs. When Thoreau arrived in 1845, most had been forced to abandon their homes, and the land was being sold for cheap. His life there did overlap with other people, with those living close-by or passing through; but in the same way that Thoreau’s philosophy had only shallow roots, his impressions of those living in the woodlands were based in his limited perspective: “Farmers are respectable and interesting to me in proportion as they are poor”, he wrote. His life at Walden Pond had remarkably low stakes, the cabin was walking distance to his home in Concord — where he visited his mother and friends several times a week — and his life in general was incredibly privileged. He was Harvard-educated, had means, no dependents, the security of living on land owned by a friend and his mother and sisters bringing him food on a weekly basis.

Like Thoreau, William Morris — one of the practitioners who defined the Arts and Crafts movement which was a catalyst for European Modernism — struggled to resolve the relationship between his ideals and his reality. His work as a designer, craftsman, social reformer and businessman was defined by his loathing for the Industrial Revolution, and the impact it had on the quality of work being produced, the environment and working conditions. In being defined more by a set of principles than an aesthetic, the ideas of Arts and Crafts could be applied in a variety of ways. In Germany — after the First World War, when the country was newly unified — the application of Arts and Crafts thinking helped to develop a national economy and opened the path towards the Bauhaus. The two practices crossed over in their emphasis on “truth to materials”, “unity in design” and the idea of design having a social responsibility. They also aligned in their uncomfortable relationship with industry and privilege — as much as Arts and Crafts and the Bauhaus sought to serve the masses, their work remained mostly in the realms of the bourgeoise.

Walden, too, is full of contradictions and the convenient use of or disregard for the truth, or what Thoreau saw to be true, and as Kathryn Schulz wrote in The New Yorker: “The hypocrisy is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one. Worse, he preached at others to live as he did not, while berating them for their own compromises and complexities”. He had a much more harmonious relationship to nature, and a great ability in describing and advocating for wildness (his writing on preservation helped save the Maine woods, Cape Cod, Yosemite and was an inspiration for America’s National Parks system). “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander”, he wrote, in a notable admission to human fallibility.

A common flaw in utopian stories is that they rely on being singular. Morris, like Thoreau, ultimately fell into the trap of seeking a purity of thinking and practice that didn’t allow for complexity, or the kind of connection they so enthusiastically espoused. There is undeniable romance in stories of freedom, self-sufficiency and rebellion — and we can’t help but love the idea of being the protagonist — but nature, and particularly wilderness, is anything but singular. In order to flourish, it relies on a complex ecosystem. If we are to live more closely with the patterns and rhythms of nature, if we are to take them on, there’s nothing refined, stoic or distant about it. It requires connection, resilience, the ability to hold multiple truths at once and the will to bloom.

From the catalogue for Walden, an exhibition at Schloss Hollenegg for Design.


Thriving, Puckering, Adoring, Warping, Glowing, Scorching: Soft Baroque’s Sun City

Tanning salons — Eternal Summer, Brazil Bronze, Healthy Glow, Sun City — and their offerings — sprays and sun-bed sessions in shades of ‘Exotic Dancer’, ‘WASP Housewife’, ‘Skinny Tan’, or ‘Chocolate Brown’ (“great for body builders and ballroom dancers!”) — rose in popularity through the 1970s and 80s

Tanning salons — Eternal Summer, Brazil Bronze, Healthy Glow, Sun City — and their offerings — sprays and sun-bed sessions in shades of ‘Exotic Dancer’, ‘WASP Housewife’, ‘Skinny Tan’, or ‘Chocolate Brown’ (“great for body builders and ballroom dancers!”) — rose in popularity through the 1970s and 80s; the experience being likened to going into orbit, and sun-beds hailed as the healthy alternative to sunbathing, as the UV light “only let the good rays in”. Any fears relating to indoor tanning had less to do with the potential of leathery skin, malignant melanomas, and death (“What’s a little skin cancer, anyway, when you’ve smoked four packs a day for most of your life?”), which could be abated in the interests of ‘sexy good health’, and more to do with the potential of what had been a slow, communal, outdoor pursuit becoming private, optimised, and feeding into a growing culture of instant gratification and disconnection.

Apollo, the Greek god of seemingly everything, including the sun (after Helios’ legacy was cruelly and lazily sidelined) inspired Louis XIV to appoint himself as “the Sun King”, and commission the Fountain of Apollo at Versailles. The fountain, and nomenclature, symbolised the sun’s power over nature, as a life-giving force, a potentially destructive element, and as a site of worship — all qualities that Louis XIV humbly saw as being reflected in his own sphere of influence. But defining your status and identity according to your proximity to the sun isn’t exclusive to self-satisfied royals; actors, musicians, stars of reality TV and politicians (and those who move between the two), still seek to envelop themselves in a golden glow. Jersey Shore’s Snooki, who is Chilean-American, describes tan as her “race”, a Donatella-Versace-level tan communicates camp pomp and circumstance; tanning is associated with a dated expression of hotness, but it also has something of an an enviable laissez-faire vibe. It’s hard to deny the draw of reclining on a lounger, facing straight into the sun.

In Marsèll’s limonaia, the Italian term for a conservatory where lemon trees are grown, Soft Baroque have installed a sun lounger, which sits on a plush carpet, as if in a suburban salon, surrounded by a bright, yellow glow. Made from a wooden body covered in patches of polyurethane rubber, which were poured at pressure points corresponding with a relaxed body — where wet swimwear hits the surface, or sweat trickles down from our supine bodies — the lounger is covered in Marsèll’s classic yellow calfskin leather, which acts as an ersatz for human skin, puckering as it’s pulled tight over rubber patches, reflecting the possible, probable future of our skin.

The UV rays that emanate from the sun, and sun-beds, stimulate growth, can be used as a treatment for disease, and sustains all forms of life. Grow lights imitate the life-giving potential of the sun, installed in domestic grow cabinets and ‘stealth grow boxes’, which take the form of wardrobes, elaborate desk set-ups, and chests of drawers, emitting a Repo Man glow. The UV-A and UV-B light improve THC and CBD production in cannabis, and encourages plants to produce their own protective ‘sunscreen’. The artificial blue or toxic magenta glow associated with grow-ops reinforces chlorophyll production, strong, healthy stems and leaves. This relationship between nature and technology, DIY solutions and design, is reflected in the materiality of the pieces that furnish the basement of the Marcèll space. A hybrid of an homage to grow cabinets, Donald Judd’s panelled furniture, and the idea of taking a big Exacto Knife to IKEA’s single-sheet products, Soft Baroque’s bamboo wardrobe, acrylic and stone plinths, and aluminium table are sliced wth drastic cuts, plants growing out from gaps that emanate an artificial glow.

The baby blue log chair is the exception to the rule, a reflection of their affection for log furniture, which is seen as dorky, but is an economical and environmentally friendly approach to making furniture with wood. Log furniture makes use of the shoots and branches that grow quickly from tree stumps, which are often used in developing thicker brush in a forest, or cultivating hedgerows, but aren’t used for timber because of their unpredictable scale and form. It has a strong connection to its raw material form, and is a symbol of growth — of the branches, and understanding how to work productively with your environment.

The potential of sun-dappled, perfect weather is sold to us via films, tv, literature, billboards, perfume ads and promotional videos encouraging us to move to California — where reinvention, prosperity and fulfilment are only a hike away, and wildfires burn through forests, towns and across highways every year. SAD lamps, introduced as a light therapy to help ease Seasonal Affective Disorder, mimic the bright morning sunlight that’s lacking in winter, or the year-round sun of CA. Thought to encourage our brains to produce less melatonin and more serotonin, they improve moods and boost energy levels; but like the sun, staring directly at them is a bad idea. As it creates and sustains life, the sun holds an equal potential to be destructive. Droughts and wildfires, escalating with the climate crisis, decimate land and destabilise communities; melting, bubbling, bleaching, and scorching materials, leaving behind dry earth. Soft Baroque’s installation of stacked loungers atop a coir carpet (like the material of a doormat) with patches painted in chroma green (the shade used in digital cleaning out, substitution, and generic ‘green screen’ backgrounds) faces up to a balloon light — like those used to flood construction sites — in an homage to the sun’s ability to warp, blister, and dissolve. A formal acknowledgement of the force of the sun, stacked pyramid-like, the Tan structure evokes pre-Christian sites of worship; setting up sunbathers as reclining, vulnerable offerings, lovingly facing towards the object of their affection, sweating like pigs. Meanwhile, a TV plays a 7-second video on loop. A close-up of the surface of the sun, which bubbles and writhes for its audience, transfixed, as they sit back in the aluminium lounge chair — folded from a single sheet, its form slumped as if it’s melting before the screen.

Light lends drama to what we see. A defining feature of architecture — from Stonehenge and the pyramids, to Modernist villas and the accidental ‘Manhattanhenge’ — the sun casts shade, shadows and spotlights, emphasises features, structures and corners, it can create a steamy mirage, and a transfixing glow. An understanding of the arc of the sun was critical for ancient cultures, who depended on that knowledge for successful harvests, and it defined the form and orientation of buildings and ceremonial structures. Summer solstice — when the sun reaches its highest point, and, in the pagan religion, the summer king gives way to the winter king — is a turning point that’s significant across time and religious beliefs. The ‘standing still’ of the sun is thought to open doors between worlds, release magic, and allow the barriers between humans and spirits to fall. People gather in forests, on mountains, or among ancient structures, they draw protective rings around cattle and crops, engage in communal worship and public theatre. Like sunflowers, crowds engage in their own romance with the sun.

At the highest point of Sun City, where light dapples the room, Soft Baroque’s dancing armchair faces the alter, a throne performing a trance-like wiggle at its central sacred brass object. Playing on the tradition, and interior architecture of sites of worship, Soft Baroque set up a space for relaxation, where wheat grows inside lipos wood chests and carbon fibre hi-performance vases; brass, cut with a chainsaw-like motion from sheets, is bent into soft, graphic curves, formed into a bookstand, coat hook and candlestick, a series of disturbed religious objects. Referencing Quaker and Shaker traditions — the Tufnol Shaker chair made from carved plastic, with layers of compressed material revealed like woodgrain — known (and fetishised) for their egalitarianism and belief in simplicity, conservatism and puritanical nature, combining of principles of design and religion. The furniture in the space takes on some of their ideals of form, and exaggerates them to symbolic breaking point; taking high-minded ideas of function and turning them into inflated decoration, taking materials associated with decorating suped-up cars, and turning them into functional objects. While the furniture in Sun City is animated in narrative and form/structure, engaging in a sort-of theatre, it’s fundamentally rooted in an empathic relationship to material. Responding to the needs, reality and magic of how metal bends and leather curves, how wood, stone or plastic can be carved, Soft Baroque give in to their material, as if laying back in the sun.

Published on the occasion of Soft Baroque’s solo show, SUN CITY, at Marsèll, Milan, curated by PIN UP magazine.

Chateau International

Dope and Diamonds: A Lana Del Rey Reader

Lana is variously lethargic and confrontational, vulgar yet deeply sensitive. Her contradictions are rehearsed and precise. She also represents a nuanced, vulnerable and flawed femininity rarely explored in contemporary pop, exposing the emptiness and hypocrisy of sloganistic corporate feminism…


“What if her pussy tastes like Pepsi cola? And if all she wants it dope and diamonds, so what? What if the most radical – fuck it, feminist – thing you can do is believe everything a girl says about her life, whether or not you like it?”

In her essay “The Fake As More”, reproduced here from a supplement in The New Inquiry, July 2014, Sarah Nicole Prickett asks us to consider the idea that, despite endless accusations of affectation and fakery, Lana Del Rey might be extremely real indeed. This bootleg collection pursues that premise.

Lana Del Rey embodies many things that women are not supposed to be. Like Ottessa Moshfegh’s unnamed protagonist in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, she’s tragic and banal. As Ariel Levy describes, “Moshfegh’s characters tend to be amoral, frank, bleakly funny, very smart, and perverse in their motivations, in ways that destabilise the reader’s assumptions about what is ugly, what is desirable, what is permissible, and what is real”. Lana is ugly and desirable. In her lyrics and self-conceived music videos, she reinforces a range of problematic, outmoded and damaging female stereotypes. Her narratives glamourise objectification and the accumulation of wealth, alongside female financial disempowerment, assault and abuse. She prioritises boys on bikes and ignores her friends, if she even has any: while she might, in Video Games, describe “watching all our friends fall in and out of Old Paul’s”, she definitely means “his” friends. Her protagonists don’t run the world, they are not independent women and they are not doing it for themselves. Instead they defer to a selection of fathers and boyfriends, drug addicts and pimps, priests and police officers; being held down is a turn on.

Lana is variously lethargic and confrontational, vulgar yet deeply sensitive. Her contradictions are rehearsed and precise. She also represents a nuanced, vulnerable and flawed femininity rarely explored in contemporary pop, exposing the emptiness and hypocrisy of sloganistic corporate feminism, of the arbitrary codes of sisterhood, and the regime of empowerment and keeping it real. She’s both obvious and ambiguous, campy and earnest; her metaphors are as grandiose and predictable as a self-conscious freshman. She constructs a visual language of images that have been sold to us for decades, twists them round her little finger and throws them back at us, with a wink reflected in the wing mirror of her boyfriend’s truck. Maybe we’re giving her too much credit, but maybe we’re not giving her enough?

As “empowerment” and “authenticity” have become the default message of the female pop star—from the Spice Girls’ Girl Power, to Beyonce’s, well, everything, through to Pink, Ke$ha, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift—instead Lana’s plaintive “God knows I tried” somehow feels less barren than the promise that “We run this motherfucking world”. Lana exemplifies the contrariness of empowerment under capitalism. In Pretty When You Cry, Lindsay Zoladz writes of Katy Perry’s Roar: “I like the song, but I also sort of feel like a Pavlovian dog for liking it… [it] feels like it was drawn up from focus groups and genetically engineered in a laboratory for the sole purpose of EMPOWERING ME.” She argues that Ultraviolence provides a sort-of antidote, “a fantasy of leisure” that explicitly rejects wellness and self-betterment: “The people in Del Rey’s musical universe do not strive or believe that things will get better, they lounge around all day manicuring their nails and then drink and smoke themselves into a glamorously inert stupor by night.” Lana doesn’t offer a solution, but she does offer an alternative that involves getting high. She’s not unlike one of the other great female misanthropes, Jackie Brown’s Melanie:

Ordell: I’m serious, you smoke too much of that shit. That shit robs you of your ambition.
Melanie: Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV.

Of course, misanthropy and morbidity have long been the preserve of white, male authors and white, male characters – flawed and dissociated, reprehensible and adored. In J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield hopes to hell “that when I die somebody has the sense to just dump me in the river or something”. In The People look like Flowers at Last, Charles Bukowski claims that “You have to die a few times before you can really live”. In On the Road, Kerouac describes how “My whole wretched life swam before my weary eyes, and I realised no matter what you do it’s bound to be a waste of time in the end so you might as well go mad”. It’s a wonder Lana del Rey has never sung “I’m not brave any more darling. I’m all broken. They’ve broken me.”

It’s Lana’s dream logic that provides the closest thing to clarity; her use of repetition, of tired cliches, disordered timelines and mixed messages is consistent, and reminiscent of the confused narratives we construct in our subconscious and retell with the static fuzz of days-old news. Her vision of California, of glamour and love, fame and anguish—like her use of clumsily try-hard references, to Vladimir Nabakov and David Bowie—is evocative of Cher-Horowitz-dumb: “Duh, it’s like a famous quote!” But Clueless, too, was written and directed by a woman, and Horowitz, like Lana, is self-satisfied and clever. Sex preoccupies both, yet feminism is arrived at almost accidentally.

When Lana was accused of only getting successful because of an industry boyfriend, she doubled down and wrote Fucked My Way Up To The Top. While pushing sexuality through a range of passé stereotypes, she ended up presenting as more empowered than ostensibly feminist pop stars proclaiming full emancipation over an off-the-shelf backing track. Sure, she’s a mess of smokescreens, but tell us what isn’t? Lana’s feedback loop of lacklustre imagery—taking her red dress off, putting her little red dress on, wishing she was dead, wishing she was dead already—adds up to a sort of refreshing shamelessness: fresh out of fucks forever.

Written with Lillian Wilkie, 2019

Originally published in Dope and Diamonds: A Lana Del Rey Reader, Chateau International

Occasional Table: Distributed

Life is Good and Good For You in New York

It’s dry with a dash of satire – knowing and sarcastic, without losing the magic of the unreal. Gossip Girl embraced the truth of our never really leaving high school, and festooned it with the perks of adulthood…

As Rufus Humphrey prepares for the opening of the latest exhibition at his eponymous gallery, for which no one has RSVP’d, Lily van der Woodsen-Bass – née Rhodes, and formerly Humphrey and Bass – is arranging the final details for her Sotheby’s auction, to benefit the Art Production Fund. Scandal ensues.

Gossip Girl was broadcast from 2007 ’til 2012, and produced by Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz – of The OC – for the television network, The CW. The ruling passion is power. It’s dry with a dash of satire – knowing and sarcastic, without losing the magic of the unreal. Gossip Girl embraced the truth of our never really leaving high school, and festooned it with the perks of adulthood.

The teen drama focused on exactly that: the trials and tribulations of insufferable, privileged teenagers as they navigate addiction, affairs, murder and property empires, and dip in and out of being related to each other. Rampantly jealous and wildly loyal, the central characters – Serena van der Woodsen, Blair Waldorf, Nate Archibald, Chuck Bass, and Dan Humphrey – oscillate around each other, twisting and turning between love and hate. The story goes that an anonymous blogger, Gossip Girl, is tracking the every move of the senior class at a prep school on New York’s Upper East Side; and the show opens with the mysterious return of former ‘Queen Bee’ Serena, who disappeared to a Connecticut boarding school after sleeping with the boyfriend of Blair (her BFF), among other dramas.

Gossip Girl may be one of the first programmes to engage so enthusiastically with the inanimate as character. The disembodied voice of Gossip Girl – who turns out to be a man – is a woman, who plays what may be considered the central role, and is not ‘seen’ or ‘known’ until the final episode. She/he/it lives in the mobile phones and on the screens of the characters, and directs their lives. Arguably, the animated inanimate precedes the animate.

Through each season the characters speed through relationships, surnames, jobs, colleges, and principalities, and although the teen amateur oligarchs are certainly busy, the central characters populating Gossip Girl’s New York aren’t always the teen idols. First, there’s the aforementioned disembodied narrative voice of Gossip Girl and second the artwork – closely followed by the borderline hysterical product placement.

In 2007, the executive producers behind Gossip Girl worked with the Art Production Fund – a non-profit organisation which produces public art projects – on one of the first instances of a collaboration between a TV series and contemporary artists. In consultation with the Gossip Girl team, APF chose works by artists such as Kiki Smith, Marilyn Minter, Ryan McGinley and Richard Phillips, which were hung in the penthouse apartments and hotel suites populated by the key screen families.

The main location was Lily van der Woodsen’s apartment, and her ‘collection’ was unveiled in the fifth episode of Season 2. She enters the apartment already in conversation with her art consultant, Bex, who, on exiting the lift, introduces Lily to her newly adorned surroundings:

Bex: Kiki Smith greeting you in the foyer, Elm & Drag pulling you into the main room…
Lily: Oh, I love that…
Bex: And making a statement on the stairwell, Richard Phillips.
Lily: … isn’t it just breathtaking?
Bex: Any museum would be thrilled.

Richard Phillips’ Spectrum is the star piece. Hung at the centre of the space, above the glass stairwell, it features not only in conversation but also as a central character. Known by the core gang as ‘the rainbow woman’, in the final season the painting is embroiled in an elaborate scheme.

It’s the sixth episode of Season 6, otherwise known as ‘Where the Vile Things Are’, and Spectrum is at centre stage. Nate, the local all-American, dead-behind-the-eyes good guy, has a rare brainwave and steals the phone of the financial advisor to Bart Bass (the formerly dead, hotelier father of Chuck, Nate’s best friend), in the hope of unearthing the secret of where Bart has hidden a suspicious envelope – the records of an illegal oil deal with a Sudanese sheikh. (Really.)

Nate and Chuck trawl the phone for clues and find one in its calendar: ‘Bass, Traffic’. It turns out that the advisor records each of his money-saving plots with the name of a film, and in this case it’s Traffic, a film in which, as Chuck kindly explains, ‘the head of the drug cartel stored his illegal account information in the back of a painting’. But Chuck has been banned from his sort-of familial home – his mother may or may not have died soon after giving birth to him, and his father had been long dead before he unceremoniously reappeared in the back room of a brothel in upstate New York, only to commandeer his real estate empire from Chuck who, at 19 and in the midst of grief, had continued his father’s legacy – so Nate takes on the responsibility of “paying them a visit”.

On entering the apartment, Nate realises that “The rainbow woman is gone!” It is in fact at Lily van der Woodsen’s Sotheby’s art auction for the APF, where Rufus Humphrey is wreaking havoc with his current spouse, and former step-daughter (scandal), Ivy Dickens. Ivy inherited half of Lily van der Woodsen’s mother’s estate, having been employed by Lily’s sister to impersonate her daughter, with the aim of commandeering her trust fund. She is now masquerading as Rufus’s girlfriend, but is actually in cahoots with Lily’s ex-husband, William van der Woodsen, to destroy Lily – or so she thinks…

Back at the auction, in an effort to resolve the gallery panic, Ivy has bought every painting, and made a deal with Sotheby’s to display the work from Rufus’s gallery. Lily panics at the thought of sharing the spotlight with both Ivy and her ex-husband, and so enters Spectrum for auction. The painting – behind which Bart Bass has hidden the aforementioned microfilm – stars in a live auction, a battle between Lily, Ivy, and Chuck, which ends at a crescendo of one million dollars. From here, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump through promises of ruin and sex games before the evidence goes up in flames. It’s really very straightforward.

Snobbery is looked down upon.

The distinction, or lack thereof, between the animate and inanimate in Gossip Girl, is the only aspect of the series in which the hierarchy is flat, if not non-existent. The characters’ clothes speak with more clarity and purpose than the characters can seem to portray; they trade each other as often as they sell stories or hotels (and occasionally for hotels), and the art that surrounds them has a life of its own – in and out of the show.

After the collaboration between Gossip Girl and the APF came to fruition, a series of prints went into production, selling at 250 dollars apiece, and APF co-founder Doreen Remen – who also guest-starred in ‘Where the Vile Things Are’ – waxed lyrical about the impact of displaying work on screen: “Exhibiting artworks in this context is a way to engage people in their daily lives; a chance to generate a spark of interest that may grow into something thought-provoking and mind-opening”. In the episode, Remen reflected this statement, and Richard Phillips went along with Humphrey’s questionable interpretation of art history:

Doreen Remen: I like that your art is reflecting the same socially relevant projects we commission at the Art Production Fund.
Rufus Humphrey: And I like that you can see the street art influence. I’m not talking about the ’80s, but the ’40s. Dubuffet, Pollock, Ray Johnson.
Richard Phillips: When artists were the stars of New York, instead of celebutantes.

In this star turn, Gossip Girl did what it did best, layering references upon references. Phillips’ comment makes a joke of the show, and somewhat of himself. By having artworks ‘starring’ in a network show, and guest-starring in the show himself, he reaches the apex of Pop, and somehow brings Gossip Girl into its history. In an interview with The New York Times, Phillips said: “It’s so wonderful how my work has been able to reach out, Warhol would never have been able to dream of such a thing”.

Not unlike Andy Warhol’s Factory, Gossip Girl attracted a wild mix of personalities while it mass-produced images – of artworks, of themselves, of New York – and moving images. The show regularly spliced the realms of fact and fiction, the plausible with the implausible, and was somehow just dry enough to convince established artists and organisations to go along with its high jinks. Politicians, ballet dancers, designers, and musicians both star and are referenced, and real-world scandals are accounted for. New York plays itself. Mayor Bloomberg plays himself. Sonic Youth play a special set for Rufus and Lily’s wedding.

The inner circle’s relationships crossed over in reality and on the show, and gossip about the actors was as popular as gossip about and between the characters. Real-life columnists reviewing Gossip Girl appeared as characters, and character arcs appeared in real-world expressions. Serena and Dan dated on the New York set while Blake Lively and Penn Badgley, who played the aforementioned characters, dated on the New York streets.

Every episode would reach a crescendo at a high-production gala, auction, or masked ball, with the characters walking the red carpet, being chased by paparazzi and featured on Page Six. Every week would close with a mirroring reality for Gossip Girl’s stars, often in the same elaborate outfits, on the same marble steps. In a conversation with New York magazine, Penn Badgley (Dan Humphrey) said: “Look, the show that we’re on, it wants us to be celebrities, it’s trying to launch us into the media like a project. You know. Like a social experiment”.

Gossip Girl was distributed internationally and spawned a number of spin-offs, but it was the way that it permeated and was scattered across New York that was most remarkable. In a bizarre, regurgitating food chain, Gossip Girl would be consumed by New York, and New York would be consumed by Gossip Girl. Like pigs in shit. The show went high and low, far and wide, extolling the virtues of VitaminWater, Windows phones, and Chanel make-up, with the regularity and fervour of an underfunded lifestyle magazine. In addition to featuring figures such as publisher Jonathan Cape, critic Charles Isherwood, novelist Jay McInerney, and journalist Hamish Bowles, the show also coupled up n+1’s former editor Keith Gessen with Elizabeth Hurley, when she was moonlighting as a newspaper editor at The New York Spectator, sleeping with Nate and pretending to be Chuck’s mother.

Elmgreen & Dragset’s Prada Marfa sign, which holds a prime spot in Lily van der Woodsen’s apartment, was made especially for the show – as a precursor to the permanent Prada Marfa sculpture in Texas, which was made in partnership with the Art Production Fund. The print, known on APF’s site as ‘Elmgreen & Dragset – Prada Marfa Sign (Prop Art)’ can be bought for as little as $149.99 on It has also spawned countless imitations, including images of signs pointing to Paris, New York, and London, and a variety of ‘PRADA’ signs in a mix of typefaces, printed in gold, on marble and in millennial pink.

In 1977, Printed Matter was founded in Tribeca, New York, by Sol LeWitt and Lucy Lippard, with the intention of disseminating artists’ books. To quote from details of the organisation’s history on Printed Matter’s website:

Large-edition and economically produced publications allowed for experimentation with artworks that were democratically accessible, affordable, collaborative, and could circulate outside of the mainstream gallery system. Printed Matter provided a space that championed artists’ books as complex and meaningful artworks, helping bring broader visibility to a medium that was not widely embraced at the time.

Why shouldn’t the next logical step be dissemination in the background – and foreground – of teen drama?

There were few – if any – redeeming features of the characters who made up Gossip Girl’s New York – and that was their best quality. If anyone had a virtue, it was in their total, uncompromising embrace of viciousness and vacuity. This doomed bourgeoisie, in ‘love’, addressed culture and politics with the same confident lack of care they inflicted upon each other. If an art of and for the people is what we want and need, here’s a playbook. To quote Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal: “To achieve harmony in bad taste is the height of elegance”.

XOXO, Gossip Girl


Originally published by Open Editions, in the anthology Occasional Table: Distributed

This is Badland

In an elegant beach-front setting

BODRUM – An archaeology of street media; signage, translation and interpretation; architectural simulation; design vernaculars and improvisations.

BODRUM – An archaeology of street media; signage, translation and interpretation; architectural simulation; design vernaculars and improvisations.

If you take a Joker boat from Bodrum’s waterside Starbucks, you reach the island that carries the Castle of St. Peter, built by the Knights Hospitaller — a mediaeval and early modern Catholic military order — in the late 15th Century. It was constructed in part from the ruins of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, which had been erected in 350 BC and destroyed by a series of earthquakes over the following centuries. The Mausoleum, or Tomb of Mausolus, had been built for the ruler of Caria and his sister-wife Artemisia II of Caria, when Bodrum was the ancient Greek city of Halicarnassus. 

Soon after its completion, the castle was attacked by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and the Knights surrendered it to the Ottoman Empire. It became a mosque, then a military base, a hamam, a prison, a garrison, and finally, in the 1960s, a museum of underwater archaeology. In recent years, the Halikarnas nightclub — which sits on the outer edge of the Bodrum strip — has projected enticing messages in neon green light onto the castle walls: **LADIES NIGHT**, **FREE DRINKS**, **IMPORTED DRINKS**. 

The high columns that frame Halikarnas date back to 1979, but since its closure was announced by founder Suleyman Demir at the close of the last decade, its mock historic architecture is now destined to become a ruin. A temple of entertainment, the Halikarnas website boasts visits from: “Bette Midler, Dustin Hoffman, Princess Margaret, the Rockefellers, Valentino, Sting, Richard Branson, Phil Collins, Michael Caine, the Blues Brothers, Ronald McDonald, Pamela Anderson, Kid Rock and Naomi Campbell”. There was a restaurant designed by Jade Jagger, and an Arabesque Lounge, which encouraged its guests to “indulge [their] taste for the Oriental”: “Enter a world of relaxing water pipes, indulgent divans and special cocktails with a touch of ‘Eastern Promise’.” Bodrum, or Halicarnassus (or Halikarnas), having criss-crossed between empires, religions and nations since early civilisation, now stands as an example of how histories can layer up, change direction, be built over and projected on. Ancient ruins sit beside moulded replica statues (“Perfect for your garden!”), the ANCIENT RUIN estate agent sells holiday villas on spec, and imported camels sit on the side of the road, ready to indulge tourist ignorance. 

On the north side of the highway running from Bodrum Airport to the city, which cuts through pine forests and gourd-laden villages, past cut-outs of police cars and stacks of honey on the side of the road, is the Sedative Boutique Hotel and Spa: “In a world of its own, both intimate and stylish, offering very high class service with the added qualities of personalised attention in an elegant beach front setting.” Self-identifying as “understated”, its roadside signage is gilded in gold leaf, S-e-d-a-t-i-v-e spelt out proudly in Baroque serif, promoting calm, in a sparkling, high gloss example of how easily things can be lost in translation. Or was it all on purpose? 

Literal translation, or straight-forward readings of places, people and practices, leads to a flattening out (or exaggeration) that obscures history, but that instinct can also, at times, be optimised — the importing of camels being a case in point. Often, it’s places that contain and sit at the junction of complex histories that are most capable of playing a little fast and loose with assurances of authenticity. 

Growing up, I visited the Bodrum peninsula every summer with my family. My Dad was born in Istanbul, to Turkish-Jewish parents, who’d emigrated from Bulgaria and Spain on one side, Russia and Greece on the other. My brother and I were born in the UK, as was my Mum, to British-Irish parents, and we’d meet with my extended Turk-ish family — who lived in Istanbul, Sydney, Tel Aviv and Paris, further elaborating on our already “soupy” sense of identity — grounding ourselves in the inconsistencies and contradictions of the landscape. 

The sound of cicadas, the call to prayer, the call for “ALGIDA”; the sight of bougainvillea, white houses, geckos; the smell of mandarin, sweetcorn, pine forests, cumin, dill or pul biber, all feel like home. A sense of home that’s both strange and familiar, foreign and integral, to which I’m connected by a sort-of muscle memory, but disconnected from. Embracing that means collapsing assurances about identity and connection; allowing disconnections, misunderstandings, and a lack of clarity to be precisely what binds you. It’s home always accessed from a distance. 

The drive along the coastal road from Bodrum-Milas airport (if you turn right towards Torba, just beyond the Sedative Hotel) takes you through the fishing and hillside farming villages that surround Bodrum (as well as past countless golden mega hotels and cités), and along the hillside cliffs that drop into the Aegean Sea. Along it, like the highway, are streams of billboards, and roadside attractions. 

Round the blind corners and along the sheer drops, past the busy roadsides and on the chaotic roads, you eventually reach a particular village that’s built around Hellenic ruins — 
the sunken walls of the ancient city providing a route across the sea to a small island inhabited by rabbits. Myndos, now Gümüslük, was an ancient Dorian colony — one of the four major ethnic groups among the Hellenes of Classical Greece —of Troezen; it’s thought that an unrecorded earthquake caused the seafront sections of the ancient town to be submerged. It was designed, like Halicarnassus, with the intention of accessing and controlling the surrounding seas – particularly the straits between the Anatolian mainland and the adjacent islands of Kos and Kalymnos – a principle that features in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, who set Brutus and Cassius’ fleet base at Myndos during the battle of Philippi, which followed Caesar’s assassination. 

Myndos, or Gümüslük, is protected by a bay that juts out to the south and curves round the town’s beachfront from the north-side. No longer a working harbour, fishing boats still moor there, and yachts and gulets drop their anchors further out in the bay, taking advantage of the protection it provides from the weather of the open water. Beyond the hill that faces the town, the sun performs its daily ritual of dropping from the sky into the sea, lending the sea a silver glow; giving it a sense of unfamiliar magic for those who find a sense of home in the blue of the water.

Spring, 2020

Originally published by This is Badland.

Eye on Design

What Does #MeToo Gain by Winning “Brand of the Year?”

Do we risk over-simplifying complex social + political movements or do awards like these keep the activist spirit alive?

The Suffragettes have gone down in history for a list of reasons that is as long as it is obvious by now, but there is one lesser known fact that might surprise even the most ardent activist: it was one the very first political movements to create a visual identity. The color scheme (purple, white, and green to represent loyalty, dignity, purity, and hope) was devised in 1908 by Votes for Women co-editor Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, and the identity was designed by Sylvia Pankhurst, who trained at the Royal College of Art. The colors, sashes, badges, and ribbons marked a sense of camaraderie and a desire to be recognized both within the group and by the general public as a collective entity.

It also acted as a fundraising exercise, with The Suffragettes marketing products featuring the color scheme, including a game called Suffragetto, “An Original and Interesting Game of Skill between Suffragettes and Policemen,” that allowed them to continue their work without accepting donations that may have compromised the integrity of the cause. In many ways, it’s a prime example of turn-of-the-century branding—defining a strong visual identity, and using product sales to sustain and grow—but to suggest that The Suffragettes are a brand would be reductive.

The term “brand” originates from the branding of livestock in Ancient Egypt, to mark ownership and denote quality, and with the first Industrial Revolution it extended to become a practice of imbuing marketable products with character and recognizable personality traits. Now, the marketable products often seem secondary, or they’ve all but disappeared, and the definition of a brand has stretched so far it seems to be swallowing everything up in its path. Individuals work on their “personal brand”; countries employ designers to brand their capital; political movements are described as brands. Maybe it’s just semantics, but to me, defining an individual, a movement, a city, or a nation as a brand feels like a bleakly dystopian act of “tidying up,” flattening complex people, ideas, and places into neat, universally accessible forms. It also ties our sense of self ever more tightly to a capitalist infrastructure.

Today, the School of Visual Art’s Masters in Branding Program announces its second annual “Brand of the Year:” the #MeToo movement, founded by Tarana Burke in 2006 (last year the honor went to the “pussyhat”). The press release regarding the announcement states that “#MeToo, which began as a grassroots movement, has now circled the globe to unite people behind one cry and cause. This is the highest calling of branding: to bring people together for the benefit of humanity.”

It’s a big statement, with a fundamental sticking point in the relationship between brands and the market, and how that can help to strengthen (or often, to undermine) their ability to bring people together for the benefit of humanity. It also comes unstuck when you consider Burke’s relationship to the movement, and her publicly appointed position as figurehead. She maintains a consistent focus on highlighting the complexity and wide spectrum of harassment and sexual violence, rather than allowing it to be simplified into something with a singular definition. She’s also stepped away from opportunities to monetize the movement, and still gives away the same T-shirts she’s been handing out since she started leading workshops and visiting rape crisis centers; she intrinsically doesn’t seek the spotlight, but rather, legitimate structural change.

Tarana Burke hasn’t claimed ownership of the #MeToo movement or sought to define or classify it. Rather, she’s allowed it to grow and change shape along with the nuances and intersections of the experiences attributed to it. For something to function as a brand, it requires the kind of tangible clarity that’s in opposition to the messy nature of life, let alone lives impacted by trauma. Brands iron out or make statements apologizing for inconsistencies that contradict or fall outside of their “ethos,” and while I’m more than happy for brands to influence my choice of shampoo, chair, shirt, butter, and mascara, I’d rather they lay off our socio-political movements.

In a later release from SVA’s Masters in Branding program, they announced that in light of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel’s memo concerning Michael T. Flynn and their investigation into Russia’s election interference, the OSC would be announced as “Brand to Watch.” Referring to an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency as a “brand” is even more of a stretch than the #MeToo movement. Brands rely on a veneer of accountability to draw us further into their narrative, and while there can be crossovers in the way public outcry is aimed at all kinds of collective entities, to collapse institutions and companies into “brands” could have the effect of normalizing shallow responses and a transactional relationship with our public representatives.

If by naming #MeToo “Brand of the Year” and the OSC as “Brand to Watch,” Debbie Millman and the SVA department she chairs is suggesting that the definition of brands is evolving to encompass more than just profit-centered companies, I’m eager to learn more about that line of thinking (at the time of publication, Millman had not responded to our interview requests). Otherwise, I worry that acknowledging a movement that has set the world on fire, or an independent federal agency investigating paradigm shifting interference and manipulation as examples of savvy branding, undermines the significance and impact of individual trauma and collective reckonings.

December, 2018

Originally published by Eye on Design.

Royal College of Art

Head, Heart & Hand: The Greenhouse

The Greenhouse was closed in the early 1990s following the end of the Environmental course a few years prior. It had been built in 1961 according to the intention of then Rector Robin Darwin, whose studio sat at the back of the ‘house amongst the canopies John Norris Wood had been appointed tutor of Natural History and Ecological Studies in 1971, caring for the plants…

The Greenhouse, courtesy of the RCA Archive
“At the top of the Darwin Building, high above the concrete jungle of London, the Greenhouse is situated as if in a glass cloud almost oblivious to the industrial city outside…

Sir Robin Darwin had the place built as an integral part of the college, consider[ing] it important as a reminder of the natural world beyond the city limits.

The plants and animal life are now well established with mature trees up to the roof, many sub-tropical birds, fish and some reptiles. The large amount of leaf canopy and vegetation enable the birds to co-exist together, forming their own territories and social pecking orders.’

The light filters through the leaves with a glow of colour and dappled tones.

After watering, the humid air is heavily scented like a downpour on a summer’s day.

The rich warbling, musical notes of the canaries fill the air with song, accompanied by the continual ze-ze-zeee-zeee of the zebra finches.

In the background, a loud abrupt whistle interrupts the flowing cascade of the canaries. Looking down from the foliage, a large gleaming yellow eye stares like a sulphurous sun against the darkest of skies. The glossy starling watches and then with remarkable agility and quick angular wing strokes, flies off; a blaze of topaz blue and emerald green.”

The Greenhouse was closed in the early 1990s following the end of the Environmental course a few years prior. It had been built in 1961 according to the intention of then Rector Robin Darwin, whose studio sat at the back of the ‘house amongst the canopies.

John Norris Wood had been appointed tutor of Natural History and Ecological Studies in 1971, caring for the plants and animals and holding specialist drawing classes up ‘til it was shut in order to make space for new developments in the Darwin Building. As described in Boys’s book: ‘On looking further out beyond the glass is a back-drop of irregular sharp-angled buildings. The artificially created world outside is enveloping all around.’

At this point the only comparable space would be the enveloped Fern Garden, a gift from the USA Olympic Team – a thank you for ‘our’ hospitality and the lending of the College as a Conference Centre and hangout for the sporting elite.

The Fern Garden is off limits. Described as the Rector’s ‘private project’ they are protected by bolts, balconies and the backs of bureaucrats as they type faceless emails concerning the protection of the ground against artistic endeavor. Reported to have cost millions to ship from Australia, the Ferns drain further thousands on each specialist hydraulic act, momentarily flooding their canopies in this false climate.

June, 2014

All text originally published in Head, Heart & Hand by the Royal College of Art. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

Royal College of Art

Book Test Unit: “Who Shot J.R.?”

In the closing scene of the third season finale of Dallas, dastardly oil baron J.R. Ewing was shot by an unknown assailant The question of “Who shot J.R.?” plagued viewers until close to a year later, when it was revealed that he was in fact alive, and the assailant had been none other than…

Stills from Dallas
In the closing scene of the third season finale of Dallas, dastardly oil baron J.R. Ewing was shot by an unknown assailant. The question of “Who shot J.R.?” plagued viewers until close to a year later, when it was revealed that he was in fact alive, and the assailant had been none other than his sister-in-law and mistress, Kristin Shephard.

The device of the ‘cliffhanger ending’ has long been popular in television, film and literature; and it now applies in our reading and understanding of news and current affairs, and in an escalated form. The Guardian’s red “Live” box, and its flashing button that accompanied much of 2016 and continues to thrive in 2017—with three potential tabs going on its Minute by Minutes section as I write—has offered live updates and instantaneous reflection on the EU referendum, the US election and the March attack at Westminster. Updating information in fits and starts as events, results, impact and context are understood; establishing strange narratives that shift and change as things unfold, creating sort-of limericks out of world events.

It is not that the reporting of breaking news in the media is a new phenomenon—it has long been applied in radio, television and in newspapers, and is an important service—but live updates, ‘Breaking News’ Twitter profiles, or the BBC app that sends alerts to your phone, exacerbate the potential for ‘cliffhanger endings’ in our understanding of daily life. We can be strung to the page, clicking through as each update arises, the tension mounting when you are only halfway through a note when another part of the story unfolds. Unlike the fans of Dallas who had to wait months on their conclusion, ours are resolved and replaced, sometimes in a matter of seconds.

News, or at least the reading of news, moving predominately online and onto personal devices has, perhaps inadvertently, created a slump in investigative or reflective journalism. We often receive news in a mix, as if we are catching parts of various salacious conversations at orbiting restaurant tables, never quite catching the beginning, or most likely the end, either. Our understanding is with dribs and drabs of context, which will often be fact-checked at a later date, and edited a few times over. The expectation of substance, confirmation, and rigour has made way for news that is immediate, flexible and reactive. As the Blue-footed Booby bird feed undigested, regurgitated fish to their young, we are fed segments of information in bitesize chunks, dependent on the source, but without any particular understanding of it.

Our expectation for instant gratification has led to much-publicised accounts of our degrading attention spans, and think-pieces and advice columns on so-called digital detoxes. If we are to improve our understanding of current affairs, the impact of our decisions and the knock-on effect of events worldwide, a considerable space needs to be marked out for reporting and analysis that surpasses “Whodunnit?”

May, 2017

All text originally published in Book Test Unit, by the Royal College of Art. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.