Friday, 27 January 2017

HUE/BECKTON - STRATEGIC VS> TACTICAL [PSYCHO]CARTOGRAPHY (PART TWO)

PART TWO IN A SERIES OF THREE. READ PART ONE HERE

“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”
-Charlie Chaplin


Looking back at the Hue psychocarte from 2014, experiencing disappointment: a pretty picture, but practically useless. A fraction of a battle map, spliced out and blown up, the details blurred and indistinct, all before the overlay… The plan had been to trace a random path through the citadel using the overlay, the route of a drive, but the streets were barely visible.

"All space is occupied by the enemy. We are living under a permanent curfew. Not just the cops — the geometry" -Raoul Vaneigem, The Unitary Urbanism Manifesto


The roots of the dérive (as opposed to its routes) are supposedly in urban warfare: the “aimless drift” was used as a means of reconnaissance. DeBord and the Situationists were engaged in cultural warfare, and via dtournement (cultural re-appropriation and re-purposing) these tactics were being turned back against the state. Like war, psychogeography was a political act. But like the actors portraying Joker and his comrades in Full Metal Jacket, there was also an element of play.

The closing chapter of Full Metal Jacket occurs in 1968/86 in Hue/Beckton. A crazed General, Kubrick, has ordered a platoon to wander through the remnants of a gasworks in search of a Vietnamese woman, whom they are to kill. She is the third and final woman, and the only one not to be presented by Kubrick as a sex object, though is equally disposable. The only enemy whose face is seen in close up- feminine, because the enemy must be emasculated. In the end, after a hard day’s play, the lads wander across the burning landscape, singing a song Mickey Mouse. In spite of yourself, you may just feel an incongruous warm glow inside.

Not only was 1968 a big year for Hue (just as 1986 was a big year for Beckton, although it would be made aware of that until long after the event), it was a big year for the Situationists. Increased militancy amongst industrial workers and students, culminating in a series of occupations, protests and a general strike nearly brought the French establishment to its knees. Though there were numerous socio-economic causes for this period of civil unrest, the Situationist International can take credit for providing some degree of leadership, and its writings strongly influenced the political graffiti of the time, which have provided some of the most enduring images of the period. 

Ultimately, the status quo prevailed, state power managed to suppress the protestors, and returned stronger and more resilient. Likewise, in Vietnam, the Tet offensive was ultimately crushed by the combined ARVN and US forces, and the rebel forces were expelled from all the major urban centres they had assaulted. In Europe and the USA, 1968 is often remembered as the last gasp of the counter-culture, a glorious failure. In Vietnam, the Tet offensive was a dress rehearsal for 1975, and victory for the revolutionaries (who, predictably, went on to impose their own repressive regime of state power). Ho Chi Minh’s forces succeeded, perhaps, because there was a coherent strategy in play, one which would outlive its progenitor.

Fire at the Albert DockVia http://www.invisibleworks.co.uk/ghosts-london-blitz-aerial-maps/
Tet is rapidly approaching, 49 lunar years having passed since the infamous offensive, and the Battle for Hue. 31 years have likewise elapsed since the Battle of Hue was recreated at Beckton gasworks. Both of these are prime numbers. The 49th Boulevard was also the previous name given to Pham Van Dong Street in Hue. The time (and the cosmic numbers) is right for some kind of intervention. Yet without a coherent strategy- in this case, my psychocarte- there can be no opportunity for a successful operation. From the outset, the superimposition of a Hue map atop a map of Beckton (or perhaps the other way around) seemed like the best place to begin.
Image by Struan Brown via http://struanbrown.blogspot.com/2013/12/beckton-gas-works.html
Sadly, it's been done before: here is Struan Brown's interpretation of Beckton overlaid on Hue. One cannot be startled by the fact that this has been done prior to it being imagined by me, but what is perhaps surprising is that Struan was actually a class mate of mine at the University of Greenwich. We studied together on the Landscape Architecture masters programme in 2014 (both of us had also been Greenwich students in 2013, but during different semesters). I have no memory of seeing this before, but was suddenly beset by a strange fear that I was experiencing cryptomnesia, the phenomenon of experiencing a memory as an original thought. 

Perhaps of greater concern was the possibility that, having previously seen this image, the map of Hue had been buried in my subonscious, and that its presence there had subtly compelled me to find its origins. My journey to Hue, less than one year later, was not only on a whim but also somewhat serendipitous. Originally, I had obtained a job (via an agency) as an English teacher in Hanoi. Whilst booking the flights, I discovered it would be much cheaper to fly to HCMC and travel up to Hanoi independently than fly directly. On informing my agency, however, it transpired that this would not be acceptable to my pospective employer (I would have missed some "essential" part of the induction process whilst travelling from HCMC to Hanoi), and a new course of action was decided. Instead of teaching in Hanoi, I was told to meet up with a group of newly-qualified TEFL teachers in HCMC and travel with them to Hue, a city I believed I had never heard of.

It's hard to recall what was influencing my decision making processes at that time, the whole period prior to my departure is a miasmic blur. My memories of this period are a series of weird vignettes, mostly of one-on-one conversations with peole who's lives are going to be somehow disrupted by my departure. There's no truth in them, really,: I've spliced and edited them back together too many times, there were filters on the lenses, and they're remakes anyway. 

PART 3 TO FOLLOW

Thursday, 26 January 2017

24 HISTORIC STYLES DÉTOURNED: PART I of XXIV

I recently downloaded a copy of Tom Turner's 24 Historic Styles of Garden Design, published by Gardenvisit.com. Tom Turner was one of my teachers at Greenwich, on both the BA and MA programmes. In this book, Tom aims to provide  "a short illustrated history of western garden design from 2000 BC to 2000 AD". "Western", in this context, includes Egypt, the middle east and northern India. If, like me, this subject is of particular interest to you then I recommend it: the text may be brief (and there are one or two typographic errors) but the accompanying illustrations- especially the style diagrams- are incredibly useful. 

Cover of Twenty Four Historic Styles... via www.gardenvisit.com

The style diagrams (illustrated on the cover, above) are part of a larger series that Tom Turner has been developing over many years. Clearly delineating how the elements of buildings, paving, vegetation and water are organised within each historic garden, they also imply, with a little bit of imagination, how these gardens may have been used. It occurred to me that they were also ripe for a bit of détournement- all in the best possible taste, of course.

So: every so often, I will select one of the twenty four diagrams at random, re-arrange it a little, then attempt to ascribe it to a time period or cultural movement.


Twenty Four Historic Styles of Garden Design by Tom Turner can be downloaded at Google Play Books

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

ON FASCISM

A political aside. I've been wrestling with my conscience for a day or two, in the aftermath of the events depicted below, a still lifted from a newsreel that’s circled the globe numerous times, has been memed and re-tooled and set to music and greeted with triumphant whoops. On my part, a momentary rush of malevolent glee was superseded by guilt, and then sadness, and then confusion.

Image via metal injection, of all places
In case you have been asleep for the past four days, the image depicts Richard Spencer, a prominent alt-right white indentitarian [sic], previously famed for addressing a group of white supremacists with a Nazi salute and a cry of “Hail trump”. The man to the left of him, clad in black, has punched him in the face because he disagrees with his views. The event took place in Washington on Friday, when Spencer somehow found himself in front of a camera within spitting of a particularly volatile demonstration of anarchists in Franklin Square.

Spencer is a hateful figure. A white nationalist, he has called for a “peaceful ethnic cleansing” of Europe in order to restore the continent’s traditional culture (whatever that is), called for the creation of a white Ethnostate within the USA, and denied being a white supremacist on the grounds that he does not support slavery. He also denies being a neo-Nazi, despite repeatedly making oblique references to Nazi propaganda throughout his career in alternative media. Whilst his detestable, irrational and abhorrent views are not the most extreme one might encounter amongst that interminable shower of pricks that have labelled themselves the AltRight, the acceptance of such views amongst people within earshot of the leader of the free world represents a clear and present threat to social progress and hope of a better world. For that reason, for a second or two, that technically incompetent fist (although, in the replay, it looks a lot like an elbow to me) to the fascist’s mouth felt fucking great. For a second or two.

A recent piece in the Guardian asks “Is punching Richard Spencer inciting violence or as American as apple pie?”, documenting the flurry of gleeful internet activity that followed the footage’s release, and quoting the references of a number of people to the American tradition of punching Nazis, a practice which largely takes place in the fictional universes of Indiana Jones or Captain America. The piece concludes, however, with a tweet from one of Captain America’s current writers, Nick Spencer (no relation), who stated “Today is difficult, but cheering violence against speech, even of the most detestable, disgusting variety, is not a look that will age well.”, in turn leading some commentators to question whether he should continue to write Captain America stories at all.

This element of the debate- this comparison of real life actions with those of fictional characters, and the tangents that such discourse engenders- is significant. A good friend of mine once remarked that we (in the west) are “descending into trivial fascism” and this evidenced by our ongoing debate about what Captain America would have done whilst protestors in Seattle are being shot at by fascists. Nonetheless, Spencer’s (comic Spencer, not Nazi Spencer) remarks are well worth considering. Punching people in the face because you disagree with them is what fascism is all about.

"He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.
                                                                                                                -Friedrich Nietzsche,
Beyond Good and Evil

Fascism is all around us, it is the enemy of humanity, of a just and fair world. For this reason it is not something that can be punched in the face and defeated. Fascism is the speech of Richard Spencer, but it is also in the fist of his assailant. It is the gleeful reaction of otherwise pacifist, liberally-inclined individuals, seeing a total chode receiving his just deserts. It is the outraged reaction of alt-righters, preparing to arm themselves in “self-defence”. It is the crowd falling in love with its own applause, as my friend also said.

The philosophical foundation of the libertarian (as opposed to the authoritarian) right is known as the non-aggression principal, which grew out of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and later Murray Rothbard. If the very mention of Ayn Rand sends shivers down your spine, please hear me out (and remember, although an apologist for radical, unfettered free-marketeering she was also a rationalist, a feminist, an atheist and a [classical] liberal defender of human rights, AND an avowed anti-fascist). The non-aggression principal asserts that the initiation of force is immoral: a rational, reasonable human being does not use violence, except in self-defence (or in the prevention of immediate violence… which is the trickier part). Right libertarians extend this principal to the role of the state in society, which it considers to be immoral because it a) monopolises violence (through police, military and gun control) b) and confiscates property (“taxation is theft”). Although this contains within it some loony extrapolations, it is a concept that those on the libertarian left should take on board: violence is wrong! Seems so ludicrous to write that, and worship of violence is certainly not specific to the political left. It crosses the political spectrum.

To me, this is what fascism is: a worship of violence. It is about submission to violence, subjugation of the individually weak by the more powerful, the assertion of will by force instead of reasonable argument. It is the praise of superman, whether that be in the form of a master race, a strong leader, or a messiah figure. Its roots in the authoritarian right are understood, but there is most definitely a “fascism of the left” in the form of so-called “socialist” states around the world. There is a “fascism of the centre”, in the casual worship of violence and the ubermensch that permeates mainstream western popular culture, as well as the mainstream media bias that blighted the recent US election. There is fascism at the fringes of identity politics, embracing individuals at the expense of the collective and a postmodern fascism embracing the collective at the expense of the individual. Finally, there are religious fascists amongst all the world’s great religions- Christian Falangists, Moslem jihadists, Jewish Israeli settlers on the West Bank, Hindu nationalists in India, even Buddhist Sinhalese ultra-nationalists in Sri Lanka.

The greatest enemy, however, is the fascist that lurks within the individual. Deleuze and Guattari explore this notion in Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia: fascism is at once the fear of being subjugated and the desire to be subjugated. When we see a Nazi getting punched in the face, it is the fascist within us that rejoices.

I consider myself to be an anarchist. I believe that true freedom, prosperity and justice for all humans- and for our planet- will occur when we have relinquished our thraldom to state power, indeed to all power. Fascists, on some primordial level, desire a regression to subservience, to the rule of masses by elites, to division and subjugation. Victory will not occur through violence, but through the end of violence. This does not mean that anti-fascists should not defend themselves, and they should indeed defend others who are the victims of hate, with force if necessary. But we should all be wary of being subsumed within this terrifying machine, this chimera of corporate capitalism, militarism and pop culture that is almost inseparable from our conception of who we are... and when the argument can be won, via both objective rationality and from a position of compassion, what need is there to surrender to the fascist within? 

Friday, 20 January 2017

HUE/BECKTON - STRATEGIC VS> TACTICAL [PSYCHO]CARTOGRAPHY (PART ONE)

Scale has a strong relationship with design intent...

Image courtesy Getty Images
High up above the city, peeking out from under clouds, the Luftwaffe coordinate their strategic bombing methods. There, the West Ham stadium (not the Boleyn ground, nor latterly the Olympic Stadium, instead the home of Greyhound racing) a waymarker far below. To the pilots and crew this view is a tactical map, the individual targets part of the broader strategy, the scale distorted by greater considerations of space and time.

Wikimedia commons

Not too far below, but nearly fifty years later, a film crew coordinate the vision of another 20th Century icon. Beckton's gasworks, abandoned since 1970, have been an established location for feature film shoots, as well as pop videos (The Smith's Derek Jarman-directed promo for The Queen is Dead). Previously, television and film directors had used the mounds of toxic waste (The famous "Beckton Alps") as a stand-in for real mountains, but on this occasion the crew have a far more difficult transformative task ahead of them: the derelict gasworks must be dressed in the accoutrements of a southeast Asian city, which none of them have ever seen.

1980s Vietnam, taken by Michel Blanchard
At that precise moment, but more than six thousand miles away (and though he may not have known how fast he was going, Heisenberg knew precisely where he was), the enactment of the Đổi mới economic reforms has initiated a transformation in the fortunes of Vietnam's urban residents, but it's full effects are yet to be realised in the country's former Imperial capital. The Party's plans for a socialist state have been postponed, with the objective now being modernisation and economic development. The strategic aim remains the same: the tactics, however, have been significantly modified. 

Stay with us. Try to keep the big picture in view as we flit and jump-cut through time and space. It's just basic fucking physics, this "Big Bang" for the Vietnamese economy: cause and effect. It is not happening in a vacuum, there are bigger bangs blowing up all over the place. Just a few months earlier, Thatcher's instigation of the "Big Bang" in London’s financial markets was sending waves around the world, although it could be argued that forty years would pass before the world would feel its full effects. Beckton would feel something soon: watching towers of glass rise above its immediate horizon, later a dry ski-slope upon the mounds of toxic sludge.

For now, the towers are of iron and concrete, and attempts are being made “Vietnamese-ise” them, to turn Beckton, London formerly Essex) into Hue, Vietnam. It’s all in the name of someone’s grand vision, of course, that someone being Stanley Kubrick. His cast will spend but a few days here, re-enacting the 1968 Battle of Hue (following the Tet offensive) from the point of view of a squad of US Marines. It is a strange thing, grown men playing at soldiers in return for money.

All around the world, in cities separated by time and space, children play at war, play out their deaths over and over again. Perhaps some of them will make a career of it in the future. Regardless, children make treasure maps, skip down deserted alleyways, invent or re-invent urban mythologies, name slag-heaps after mountain ranges and dodge snipers in high towers.


Some even do it for real. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

A NEW YEAR'S DAY DRIFT

After a prolonged absence, I encourage myself to engage in some urban walking, with some automated assistance.

DRIFT- available from I-Store now!
Prior to the chiming of the bells, the banging of gongs and the curious absence of a fireworks display (the government of HCMC are apparently using the money saved to assist flood victims), I had already resolved to engage more vigorously in psychogeographical practice in 2017, and to grant some additional motivation, I thought I would download some psychogeographic apps. Sadly, I have had no joy with one of those (Derive- though I can get it to play some colliery brass band music), but DRIFT (already mentioned in my post concerning Minh Khai) was a little more successful.

The premise is simple: to encourage urban wandering by providing the user with a sequence of ten commands, each involving wandering in a particular direction for a specified number of blocks, or until some other criterion is  met, culminating with the user recording an image using the camera app on the phone. The images are then uploaded to the app's site (though I have so far been unable to locate this site), as well as being stored on the user's phone. The ten steps are saved as an individual "Drift", and the user is able to then initiate another drift, containing a completely new set of commands.

For the first time in many years I was joined on my drift by a companion, who for the reasons which may or may not be connected to some shocking revelations concerning Ho Chi Minh has opted to remain anonymous.

The app is available for I-OS and Android, and you can find out a little more about the ethos behind the product at the site of Broken City Labs.

STEP I:

Walk north for a block and try to find something out of the ordinary given the economic spatial cues of the area and document it.


From our starting point, it was impossible to travel north, and by meeting this stumbling block we encountered one of the glaring issues with the app. By relying on the cardinal points to navigate, the app restricts the available options. A relative system might have a greater flexibility, and hence variation.

Instead, we negotiated our way around until were able to follow a Phạm Ngọc Thạch northwards. This is Saigon's most architecturally refined district, and thus the giant plastic flowers struck us as somewhat out of the ordianry, althought they were decorations in preparation for the upcoming Lunar New Year.

STEP II:

Walk east until you find a trace of history and take a picture of it.



Our earliest opportunity to travel east presented itself at Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, and the story of what we found there is recounted at this post.

STEP III:

Walk north and look for a faucet or tap on the exterior of a building and take a close-up picture of it.





STEP IV:

Find the nearest reflection to you and take a picture of it.





STEP V:

Walk north until you see an unmarked path and take a picture of wherever it leads.



STEP VI:

Walk north until you find something wonderful and take a picture of it.



Perhaps this does not strike you as particularly wonderful, but this was a beautiful street.

STEP VII:

Walk south for a couple of blocks and empty your pockets on the nearest surface and take a picture of everything spread out on that surface.


                      

This step puzzled me at first, but I quite liked it for two reasons. Firstly, it encourages examination of the immediate surface. Secondly, it turns the walker into a performer. The action is not rational and, sonsequently, draws attention from other street users. It's a nice moment of inversion, with the observer (briefly) becoming the observed.

Note: due some uncharacteristically windy conditions I was reluctant to spread the content of my pockets all over the pavement... and yes, that is a cotton bud.

STEP X:

Walk south for one block, look for an example of an appeal and take a picture of it.


Yes, we did skip a step- or re-arrange the sequence of steps. You may have noted that heading northward would have meant tediously re-tracing our steps, and would not really be in the spirit of gettting lost, which is at the heart of "DRIFT".

Instead, we decided to jump to step ten and trace the remaining steps in reverse order. After walking south for one block, this sign was the closest thing we could find to an appeal. It is a recruitment notice for security staff.

STEP IX:

Walk in the same direction of the shadows you can see for two blocks and then take a picture of the nearest outdoor light source.


STEP VIII:

Walk north until you can find an example of a game and take a picture of it.


A note: play equipment, amusement park rides, jigsaw puzzles, any distraction at all are all described as "games" in the Vietnamese language. To my companion, this piece of playground equipment in the grounds of an exclusive primary school exemplified the concept of "game" absolutely. I was at first disinclined to agree: whilst it was easy to imagine the games that could be played upon it, it was bereft of human children making full use of the facility. In that state it was no more a "game" than any other piece of obscure sculpture or street furniture.

I thought about the distinction for a moment, of how in most cultures it is not acceptable for children to climb over public artwork (unless, of course, that was the artists' inital intent). Probably more to do with litigation than propriety, I would imagine. Unlike a public sculpture, this bit of play equipment was designed exclusively for children to clamber over, investigate and explore. It was therefore  a game wating to be played.


Having completed ten steps, no prize was awarded, though my companion compared the Drift to a game, albeit one with an invisible reward system. Homo ludens adrift in Saigon, investigating and exploring, and occasionally clambering over obstacles.

Drift  was a good way back into praxis, and an interesting introduction to psychogeography for my companion. Indeed, the simple format (and arbitrary instruction) makes it quite suitable for use in pairs or groups, as an introdution to the derive. It is a pity, however, that there is no online collection of the drifts of others, or at least not one that I have been able to locate. I have emailed the game's developer(s), and will post their response as soon as it is received.

In the meantime, if you wish to download the app it is available on  iOS only. If you have used this software previously, it would be wonderful if you could provide a link to a description of your own experiences in the comments section, because that's what we're supposed to do nowadays.

You can also find slightly different edits of the images at  this instagram hashtag (#driftPCHCMC1)








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