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…

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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?”

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

Somesuch Stories

Bedding the President

Straddling two continents, the opposing strips of land that form the city are split by bustling seas…

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Straddling two continents, the opposing strips of land that form the city are split by bustling seas. Lit by candy-floss skies, this 8000-year old metropolis undulates to the rhythm of traffic and construction, its rising population cocooned by smoke and mirrors. As summer burns, public life recedes to sloping tea rooms, waterfronts and ’ways, the hum of bazaars providing a backing track for calls to prayer. Bridges adorned with 24-hour neon lights suck hard on the electricity supply. A man-made party island ‘for exclusive people’ lies only meters from the western shore; it is awash with hysterical consumption.

On the streets, blasts of sentimental music, old-world street sellers, multinational chains and slogans lost in translation vie for the attention of passers-by – the city thrives on misinformation. As it shifts from a centre for industry to one of finance and servitude, legal controls are abolished in favour of investment and perceived renewal. As Las Vegas’ signs eclipse their structures, so the structures here overwhelm their city. As neoliberalism struck, the foundations and those who had built them were remade and remodelled, while public services floundered; under- and over-water gateways were developed, creating new fissures between the ever-growing community.

Here, the principles of urban planning and building regulations stretch generously in the hands of gold rush tycoons. This elasticity has led to a long game of demolish-build musical chairs, one that retains only a fraction of its ancient landmarks and preys on the homes of the underclasses. Exploiting the city’s propensity for natural disaster, the risk of earthquake damage is utilised to extinguish shantytowns, apartment buildings and entire districts without the consent of homeowners. Social or low-income housing is replaced with luxury, gated complexes – projects on steroids making unjustifiable profits for their well-connected developers.

The city’s parklands are being evaporated in favour of fabricated, climate-controlled versions of the outdoors – monolithic meccas to the passé trope of the suburban American mall. Looping highways jut from the urban sprawl, overlapping to create platforms for floating discs of landscaped land, these sterile spaces assisting the fictionalisation of recent history. Concrete gardens are policed and cleared of any marks of human presence – be that wear and tear, or congregations deemed to be disrupting the sense of calm. Funded as part of the public programme to establish common grounds, the gardens funnel people into dead ends from which they can be collected up by officials – or left to enjoy the vantage.

Bedded tulips line the roadside, dancing in the sea breeze, unaffected by pollutants. Laid fortnightly in ornate compositions, the flowers recall the city’s rich past in international trade – tulips having been an early form of state currency. Planted in shallow soil, the bulbous heads never droop; they hardly have the time with a life cycle so stunted. The responsibility of putting on the flower show falls to government cronies. The shallow graves are designed to hold out for just long enough for the flowers to convey the beauty and horror of the evolving landscape, before friends of the family swoop in to replant and gather the profits from the generous commissions.

In a trance-like state, participating residents marvel at the beauty of the lustrous city before them, captivated by its live-action transformation. As heritage sites are privatised, the remaining public parks are swathed in shade by residential and corporate developments. These monuments to an advancing economy are intended to steal the spotlight from the president’s more fraught endeavours – from constructions steeped in controversy due to adverse geological impact through to the hollowing out of newspapers that refuse to practise ventriloquy. 

As well as being a tool for aggressive gentrification, the up-down dance of construction includes the art of the replica. Residents are relocated and their homes turned to dust, only to be rebuilt in their own image, to a lesser standard and at an increased profit margin for the firms. Doors open wide for thinly veiled charm, expert bargaining or a solicitous “how’s your father?” Permissions are granted to those willing to trade in party favours. Moving at such a rate, plans become outdated before they find fruition. Open lots and gaping holes dropping over 100 feet dot the city. With the last of the past century’s relics teetering on the edge, concrete is filling every gap, as if the streets are a game of Tetris. 

Planned as a location that could sustain 5 million people, the city now boasts a population of 15 million and it continues to rise. Bursting at the seams, the only way is up – or out. A new airport, due to be the largest in the world, is rising amid formerly protected wetlands, its connections requiring the levelling of millions of trees. Hills that had been preserved for recreation, as well as providing a substantial catchment for the metropolis’ water supply are overrun. One of few remaining public lands, this combined forest and wetland has now been assigned for commercial business. As well as airport services, hotels and shops will line the stretch from the monumental structure. Investment, its pace set by the offer of build-own-operate leasing, is monopolised by those close to the ruling class. Initial development was soon isolated from international interest by a corruption investigation into the firms’ senior executives – which was swiftly halted by government intervention, casting talk of the airport in hyperbole and the rhetoric of empire. “It’ll be the largest in the world!” is the rallying cry, alongside promises that more roads and more structures will ease, rather than encourage the overcrowding. 

As public space vanishes, the haphazard freedoms of social life are ever more curtailed. With views restricted so that all one can see is the show, the captive audiences either sent into waking comas or pitched into palpable unrest. Public space is eroded Revellers and protesters alike gather, celebrating and commiserating the lost world on rooftops, in past palaces, basement flats and peripheral playgrounds. As unrest brought tears of gas, small victories were soon over-ridden by force of government will. Shifting from the busy streets to the shade of overhanging trees, plans for urban revolution are shaped in a quiet hum. Games of cards and catch provide the setting for ground-up change in response to the top-down conversions. As a reflection of society, the city tremors as it is pulled in contradictory directions, stretched to its outer limits. Rapid fire burns public buildings, heritage sites become locations for financial speculation and the megalopolis rages on towards the multifarious conclusions of simulated life. 

All text originally published by Somesuch Stories. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.