Category Archives: the city

I am fascinated by cities and writing about cities

seen on Hermosa Beach (blast from the past)

I was in Hermosa Beach in August, and I was amused and charmed by this. Cali punk graphics used to decorate a municipal utility.

It reminded me of my mis-spent youth, and I’ve seen all the bands listed on this  carapace.

Seriously good fun.


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David Bowie – Heroes



Berlin Remnants of the Cold War 2012

Like many people and all of my friends, I’m sad and upset and unsettled by the death of David Bowie.

I was not a ‘fan’ in the usual sense of the word, but I think in some sense we are all Bowie fans – those of us who value creativity, progressive ideas, humanity. His music expressed all of these and more.

I love many of his songs but the one that touches me most is Heroes. The sentiment of the song is wonderful – “We can be heroes, just for one day” – and indeed we can. The music is soaring and dramatic and makes me shiver.

But also, the song expresses for me what it was like to grow up in that strange time  called the Cold War. The song spoke to me then, as it does now, of living in the shadow of politics and folly yet being able to rise above it, and love and live.

The song (and his 3 Berlin albums, Low, Heroes and Lodger) are my favourites … but can you have favourites among such a stupendous output by such a mercurial, creative, restless genius?

In any case these albums made me want to go to Berlin, and in time I did and it stays one of my favourite cities. I suppose he kind of put the city on the map for someone like me, living  in the depths of Canada… it came in to my consciousness as a place… this was probably good for Berlin, for the people there not being forgotten.

I’ve had Heroes on loop for 2 days now.

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I set up a VIMEO channel for a particular subgenre of  films I very much like, “city” films


It’s got some of my films on it and links to others.

Since its inception, cinema has engaged with the phenomenon of the modern city and the varied experience of urban life. Even the earliest films manage to show the freedom and energy of the city, such as Dziga Vertov’s ‘Man with a Movie Camera’. Cinema has also captured the city’s liminal zones, urban decay and human anxiety. Through film, we can follow each period’s key debates around architecture, urban planning and globalization.
This channel was create din the spirit of László Moholy-Nagy’s great unrealised film Dynamic of the Metropolis | (Sketch for a film) – 1921/1922
Moholy-Nagy’s ‘Gross-Stadt Zigeuner’ 1932 and ‘Impressionen vom alten Marseiller Hafen (Vieux Port)’ 1929 are also key moments in the “city film:” slices of life seen through the camera’s eye.
[NB: Moholy-Nagy’s films are FINALLY AVAILABLE –
Other significant city films of the silent era include “À propos de Nice” by Jean Vigo and “Études sur Paris” by André Sauvage and the stunning “Berlin Symphony of a Great City” by Walther Ruttmann.
Later narrative films also embody the “city film” ethos – Jim Jarmusch’s early “Permanent Vacation” is one example. Need I mention the brilliant Julian Temple’s “Detroit Requiem” and “London the Modern Babylon”, or St Etienne’s “Finisterre.”
The purpose of this channel is to collect and showcase “city films” as part of my ongoing research and development of this peculiar and particular film sub-genre.


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is it my imagination or …?

Every place that used to be something or offer something has turned into a place for swilling endlessly.
The bookshop now serves food. The library has a cafe; in fact the cafe is much busier than the library. The urban garden does coffee and sandwiches. So does the supermarket just in case while you are shopping for food you are overcome by hunger and need to eat.
Even the bicycle repair place is also a coffee shop.


What is going on? Why is every second shop a restaurant or café? Some streets, such as Broadway Market, used to have actual shops, but now it is just one whole street of food (with 3 bookshops which, so far anyway, mercifully don’t serve food).
Why do people eat all day long, even in the street? Can nobody just live for a few hours without grub?

I mean, for sure sometimes you do have to grab a bite when you’re out all day long, but I can’t understand why and how, overnight a hardware store for instance shuts down, then in 24 hours it becomes a café and is immediately full of people all stuffing themselves like they have never had access to food before.
It’s not like people are using the cafés in the old-school way, to meet with friends and have, like Surrealist meetings like Andre Breton used to in the Café Cyrano, or Sartre and de Beauvoir in the Deux Magots. No they are just sitting there alone swilling very expensive coffee and chunks of cake bathed in the blue glow of their Macbook Pros.
It’s all a bit – well, not depressing exactly, but perhaps dispiriting.


Swill swill swill, nothing else to do.

2013-02-12 15.35.50cuppa

you could just wait till you get home 🙂

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Last Sunday I participated in a fascinating presentation and discussion around critical urbanism. Alongside film maker Andrea Luka Zimmerman and artist Cathy Ward, we discussed the position of art and the city, the role of social housing and how artists can avoid or minimise being instrumentalized particularly by developers.

These are all huge issues in today’s city. Today’s city, especially London,  is a place where social housing is being demolished to make way for luxury flats – often bought as investments and left untenanted.  Where workers such s paramedics, nurses, teachers and other professionals can never afford to buy a house or rent anything decent so they have to think twice about raising a family.

Iain Sinclair referred once to artists as the “shock troops of the developers” and he was right. In the past, it was simply about artists paving the way by making a place a bit trendy. This happened in my neighbourhood of Hoxton-Shoreditch. When I moved here as a student it was a wasteland. Aside from the Bricklayers’ and Charlie Wright’s there was nothing. You could not even get a cup of coffee. Now coffee is about all you can get, as many more functional businesses have shut up shop. In many ways I welcome that change since at least most of the social housing is intact (with some disgusting exceptions) and I like coffee (although we see to have gone from the sublime ot the ridiculous, in cups of coffee per head of population).

But now developers are actually actually instrumentalizing art and co-opting artists to make developments seem more attractive and to create a façade of a ‘give back’ to the ‘community.’ This is almost always less than it seems. Also I notice that, in an area such as East London which is so ethnically and culturally diverse, the artistic profiles championed are very white and middle class! Typified by the posh white boys doing Banksy-lite (lite as in, without political content) on a  developers hoarding. Or the other posh white boys doing a big ‘street art’ piece in Shoreditch High St – oops no wait it is actually an ad for Red Bull. (where do the developers find these guys anyway? Did they go to public school with them)

Is there another way? This is what we talked about and we offered our own experiences – and art works – and discussed the positives and negatives. What was great is that we found some like minded people at the event, and the conversation began. We did not go there with solutions, but with a desire to find solutions – and that is for the long haul not a 2 hour slot.

Coda – one of the most hilarious things has to be the naming of one development as Avant-Garde Tower.  It’s just off Brick Lane – traditionally an area of high-visibility immigrant culture – when I first visited London it still had a Jewish presence (a kosher café on Whitechapel High St was a haunt of mine), but was largely Bangladeshi except on the Sunday ‘Cockney’ market. Over the years it became a trendy go-to market and entertainment district, and it is definitely a lot of fun. Many of the houses there were incredibly run down. So it is good that new housing has been built – but I do object to it being all ‘luxury’ i.e..totally unaffordable to the average citizen, and the egregious use of the term avant-garde is just laughable.

On the other hand, the real meaning of avant-garde is ‘the foremost division or the front part of an army; advance guard; van.’ If the purpose is to cleanse the city of its working class population with military precision, then perhaps it is the vanguard, and it is aptly named.

(Jeez I remember studying Marxist theory at uni and it was just a theory … Pass the exam, move on.

Now it’s become a handbook for living, for negotiating the reality around us.)2013-11-10 12.40.03

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TAKING OVER THE KING’S LAND at Sheffield Docfest

VideoTech_logo_01 sdf

Sheffield Docfest has begun!  It’s the first day and yes, the weather is appalling, so far. Luckily though, the films are indoors.

TAKING OVER THE KING’S LAND has just screened at the Puny Gods Cinema in Exeter and is now at the Sheffield Docfest, the UK’s biggest and most important film festival for documentaries.  The film is 23 min long and is in the festival Videotheque, available to all the festival delegates.

Arts docs are notoriously difficult to place since many people associate the documentary genre to social issues, or art history. TAKING OVER THE KING’S LAND is a portrait of  an artist, and of a remarkable project set in the world’s greatest metropolis.

Short synopsis:

What on earth is an Egyptian doing painting the walls of a condemned block of flats in East London? As the city prepares for the 2012 Olympics, the Kingsland social housing estate lies in ruins, synonymous with crime and brutality. Taking Over The King’s Land follows artist Nazir Tanbouli and his self appointed task to take over the condemned housing estate and cover it with art. He battles the endless rain and the bitter weather of the “British summer.” Can art counter the urban atmosphere of deprivation, blight and neglect? Can it help Naz come to terms with life as an émigré Egyptian in London?


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London: a city of baristas and billionaires?

We’re still working out what we learned from running Studio 75, but it’s become clear that it’s very difficult to run any kind of independent gallery or exhibition space. That spaces that do exist are largely able to do so because they have some form of funding, or more commonly, investment, and they don’t actually run on the proceeds of their activities. Because of this, it’s very rare for these places to exist for long periods of time, and sometimes it means that projects don’t get completed, or a space just starts to begin to build a following when it’s forced to shut its doors. It’s probably always been like this, but in the past two years the insane pressure on properties in London have made it more and more difficult to support creativity. Of course, people with wealthy connections can easily afford to buy or rent properties to create vanity galleries, and the city is full of such places. But these places exist purely as entertainment spaces for rich cliques, and have nothing to do with the rest of us. Even if we wanted to visit them, we would find the art that is presented there to be, to a large extent, turgid and dreadful.

People keep asking us are going to open another space, but the short answer appears to be no. We were incredibly lucky to get the space when we did, and we don’t expect to get such luck again soon. In any case, there is not much point to try to repeat what we already did successfully, just for the sake of it; and at this stage that doesn’t seem to anything that we really want to learn from opening another space. (But never say never.)

I suppose the thing we’re digesting and being fascinated about the most is the way in which the money economy, or what philosopher Thomas Carlyle called “the cash nexus”, permeates even the most basic human aspects of what purports to be the art world. Carlyle decried what he considered the substitution of human relationships for cash relationships; he was disgusted by the idea that people saw one another and treated one another in terms of their financial relationships, the “cash nexus” when social relationships are merely reduced to economic gain. Carlyle was anything but a socialist; he distrusted socialism and championed tradition. But Carlyle’s version of tradition was quite an idealistic one, and he believed that the wealthy and responsibility for ensuring that the lives of the rest of the population were good. He believed that those who had money and position should use it for the general betterment of society. He was opposed to poverty, to exploitation and above all, to greed. Carlyle is important because he actually points to the fact that it’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion that the presence of wealth in the society should lead to impoverishment of exploitation and acceptance or admiration for greed.

Which brings us back to the idea of London the center of international finance and wealth, a city that contains within it terrible exploitation, much hidden poverty mainly in the form of underemployment and appallingly poor housing. In these circumstances is quite difficult to complain about there not being enough space or opportunities for artists, although of course that is a genuine complaint. But just as we worry about London becoming a no-go area for ordinary working people to to live in, we also worry about London becoming a no go area for ordinary working artists – that is, ones without the luxury of a private family income supporting us for all our days. Artists who need to sell work, but also pay rent; artist and who need to have day jobs in schools and colleges, community centers, retail shops, museums, and so on – traditional employers for artists. But these jobs increasingly cannot provide Londoners with housing and transport.

And it is not just artists; just recently Cory Doctorow wrote an impassioned article in the Guardian, where he pointed out how the so-called “tech city” area around Old Street is quickly disappearing as a breeding ground for important digital startups. The inexpensive office spaces are rapidly being demolished or gentrified, principally being turned into barracks of housing for wealthy overseas students. In a flash, jobs in the information industries disappear, quite possibly abroad and opportunities to train and nurture local underprivileged youth in new technologies, disappears. At best, we end up being a city of baristas and billionaires, with nothing in between.

Where will it all end? We don’t know. It will be really a pity of London goes the way of Paris. Paris is a beautiful city, don’t get me wrong. But walking around Paris, one can’t help but feel that large parts of it are simply playgrounds for the well-to-do, and stalking-grounds for the desperately impoverished underclass who huddle as beggars – and possibly worse.


I don’t really know what else to say; this is turned into a bit of a rant and that’s really not what I intended when I started. I’d like to just finish by offering a quote from the work of the artist Dave Beech:


“Political art must transform the social relations of art itself, to get rid of it to historical elitism, it’s privileges, its hierarchies and its cultural capital. Political art cannot be political if it leaves arts values, categories and institutions in place.”


But I would go further. I would say, that in order to be art, all art is inherently political.

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Hating hipsters (and worst cup of coffee, ever)

Hating hipsters

It has come to my attention that one of the key urban trends these days is “hating hipsters”.
This phenomenon is caused by the disgust felt when whole swathes of neighborhoods suddenly experience an explosion of the following:

tattoo parlours
expensive “gourmet” coffee shops
ostensibly organic “natural” supermarkets
Cool Bars with “art galleries” attached
energetic hyper-networking 20-30 somethings with substantial parentally-derived incomes, talking loudly about postmodern drivel

followed shortly afterwards by a viral nuclear level explosion in the rents of shops, studios, flats and pavement inches.

Now, I can’t say that I personally hate hipsters. In fact I find the very word itself to be suspiciously retro enough that the hipsters themselves no doubt revel in it. I suppose the only difference between me and then is that my parents don’t support me at all and never have and I am too old to give a crap about being trendy. In fact even when I was not too old I took a sheer delight in being off trend.

I digress. What I wanted to show you was a photo of the worst cup of coffee, ever. I had it in a hipster joint on Mare St near to Space Studios. It was weak and cold. I complained and was told it was supposed to be that way as it was a gourmet blend. It cost me £3.50 /$5.74 US / 4.24 euros

I have lived in this hood for quite  awhile and I remember the days when you could not get a coffee for love or money (only Nescafe from workers caffs – till about 3 pm in the afternoon). I don’t wax nostalgic for those days. They were actually shit. But there is a limit and we have hit it….

I do hate postmodernism though., But that’s a whole other blog post.


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January 18, 2014 · 5:43 pm

On and around Brick Lane – photographs

beigelbake old days

The area around Brick Lane teems with life most of the time.

I took these photos one Sunday on a wander. From the hectic market to the quiet of the Christchurch churchyard, this little neighbourhood is a source of endless fascination.  I have been coming regularly to Brick Lane since my first trip to London ,  and I never tire of it.

boots contem plate shisha eye streetart silent christchurch christ church sign frame canoodle bus miriam moses street collage orange

I don’t have much to say about it all, I’m just inviting you to look.

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WHEN I was growing up in Vancouver the city had a remarkable amount of neon signs. These highly colourful signs advertised everything from diners to dry cleaners. Driving through the city at night in the back of my parents’ car was like vising fairyland. It was amazing.

As I got older I noticed the neon slowly being removed and being replaced with ordinary backlit plastic signage. Much more boring.

I was surprised to find, on a  visit the Vancouver Museum this summer, that some of the old neon has been saved and here it is, a glorious display in the museum – which is well worth visiting in any case. I tok these pics at the museum, but it’s better to see it for yourself, if you can.
Vancouver neon

1-2013-08-07 15.33.21

The Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret was a well known jazz club in the 50’s and I heard rumours that Hendrix jammed there in his youth (he lived in Vancouver for a while) but I have no idea if it’s true. It was a legendary punk club in the late 70s.

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The Blue Eagle cafe was on Hastings St. I ate there quite often – stuff like French toast.

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The Owl drugstore at 41st, I used to pass it every day going to high school and university.

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This auto repair sign is just too good.

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The museum display. I spent ages in here, sucking it up. I LOVE neon. Real neon not the crap that “contemporary artists” put out.

AND here’s two more that are still in situ:

1-2013-07-20 20.21.58 1-2013-08-07 12.07.04-1

You can see more on this great site:

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