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Photography, writing and terrorism

February 25, 2010 Leave a comment

I keep meaning to write about professional development. Instead, here’s a rant about photographers, writers and terrorism.

It seems yet more photographers have been stopped, searched, question and briefly arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000. The link to this particular story is in The Guardian, 21 Feb 2010. The way this Act has been implemented has caused a huge amount of friction with photographers. Mostly they’ve been newspaper photographers but stories have also covered fine art photographers, academics taking pictures for architecture studies, amateurs (as in this case), and even the occasional tourist. There’s been a running dispute between the police on the one side and the National Union of Journalists, civil liberties organisations, etc. on the other and the crux of this has been Section 44 of the Act.

Essentially, Section 44 allows a police constable who is ‘authorised’ (within the meaning of the Act) to stop any person, vehicle, or person in a vehicle  and search them, their possessions and the vehicle if it is considered ‘expedient for the prevention of acts of terrorism’. Section 45 states that this power can be ‘exercised only for the purpose of searching for articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism’ but ‘may be exercised whether or not the constable has grounds for suspecting the presence of articles of that kind’.

The upshot has been a huge number of people taking photographs in public places who have been stopped and questioned by the police, occasionally searched and sometimes arrested (if usually released shortly thereafter). In response to this the Home Office last year issued a circular that was supposed to clarify the law, though appears largely to just re-state it. And senior police officers also promised to apply the law more sensibly.
Incidentally the current state of play on photography in public places in the UK can be found at UK Photographers Rights by Linda MacPherson; the relevant bits of the Terrorism Act 2000 can be found here.

Having got through all this, it appears that in the Accrington case reported by The Guardian, the police officers informed the photographers they were being questioned under the Terrorism Act, but then, as the photographers appeared to know their rights, changed tack and alleged that (in the words of The Guardian) ‘the way the men were taking images constituted “antisocial behaviour”‘. All this, and the suspicious and allegedly antisocial pictures were of a Christmas street parade involving people in fancy dress, a band, and a Father Christmas.

By way of a digression, antisocial behaviour is described by the Home Office as ‘intimidating or threatening activity that scares you or damages your quality of life’ – and by this point I’m tired of providing references – the headline law is the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 but several more recent laws also deal with it. Yes, there are ways photography can be antisocial, such as where it constitutes harassment: but intimidating and scaring people and damaging their quality of life because you’re photographing a public event?

So where am I going with this? I think there are a couple of obvious points and a non-obvious one.

Firstly we all know since the 7/7 London bombings in 2005 (and probably before) that terrorists might be interested in taking pictures of potential targets, obstacles, etc. And they might pose as tourists for this purpose. But are they going to hang around in the way photographers tend to, looking for the right composition and waiting for the right light? And are they likely to use a biggish pro camera or the one on their mobile phone? It seems the people being stopped are those who have the hefty pro or pro-consumer cameras and who are being obvious about what they’re doing.

Secondly, something like 80% of us carry mobile phones and about 80% of these have cameras in the phone (I just googled these figures using terms like ‘proportion of population with mobile phone’). So that’s around 64% of the population at any given time who have the relevant equipment on them, day to day, to qualify as suspects. And think of the number of people, especially young people, who take pictures of each other in public…  In Accrington there must have been literally hundreds of people on the streets whose use of photography equipment (i.e. their mobiles) was equally ‘suspicious’ and ‘antisocial’?

But thirdly, while the furore has been about photography, the Terrorist Act (and for that matter relevant bits of the antisocial behaviour legislation) are much more wide-ranging. So if, for example, I’m sitting in the centre of town on a bench writing notes for a story (which I have done, because I had a notebook and pen and a sudden idea) could that be seen as suspicious or potentially antisocial? There certainly wouldn’t be many people doing it. What could I be writing? How about if I’m reading a book in a public place and sat there for a long period of time? How about if the book is, say Melanie Phillips’ ‘Londinistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within’ (2006) which I could have just borrowed from the local library? Would reading it in public make me a target for being labelled as a suspicious person of some kind?

I have some sympathy for the police and intelligence services, because there are threats out there and a good chunk of police work in this area, like many others, involves sorting out the 99.99% of irrelevant material from the 0.01% of significant stuff. Equally, there are plenty of stories of significant things being discovered purely by accident – the serial murderer discovered because he got stopped for a traffic violation and such.

But at the same time, the legislative structure and the way it’s being implemented seems to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, identifying potential threats in a particularly lazy way (especially, as in the Accrington case, if they know their rights and challenge the police – the details are in the Guardian link above), picking on easy targets, and challenging the rights and liberties that the state is supposed to be protecting.

It may be the Accrington case, and many others, is an example of a police officer getting huffy because the people they’re dealing with aren’t immediately compliant – the underlying story might thus be the old one known in criminology as ‘contempt of cop’. There are obviously a whole bunch of possible undercurrents running that may well never come into public view. But my take on it is that it’s photographers now, and the rest of us in the near future unless we reach some new way forward.

I could support this argument with a review of the literature on how the ‘War on Terror’ has been used in other ways to justify laws and controls that have relatively little to do with terror (if you’re interested try chapter 24 of the latest edition of the Oxford Handbook of Criminology – or just google ‘Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000′). But when I started the rant I didn’t think it would turn out this long.

How we negotiate, or renegotiate, this situation I don’t know. Maybe my traditional liberal/libertarian values are just becoming obsolete. But I do think that it needs to be handled with some sensitivity because  if the state itself starts to be perceived as the problem, rather than the solution (and I suspect many people already think this way) we’re going to be for a rough ride.

Post-project blues anyone?

February 20, 2010 7 comments

This is more a Livejournal-style diary entry than anything else: I don’t know whether anyone else gets post-project blues but it’s something I seem to suffer from.

Hit the ‘send’ button late last night on a  project that ended up being 64K words, and today I’ve been useless. I have another project that’s running late and by rights I should have been all over it today, but instead did a bit of editing that should have taken an hour and ended up taking about six. After that, batted about wondering what to do with myself (Trendhunter.com is a wonderful timewaster!).

An evening of my partner’s homemade blackberry wine helped, with a varied soundtrack: Prince, Jace Everett, Angelspit, Dengue Fever… I’ll be on it again tomorrow. Memo to self: after finishing a big project, allow a day to decompress and readjust head! There’s a New Age thing about giving yourself time to celebrate your successes, and actually I think there’s a lot in it. (The wine by the way came from blackberries picked last autumn, matured over the winter and we drunk the first bottle at Christmas – I’d recommend it highly; unfortunately that was the last bottle of the batch!)

Human Resources Transformation Consultant

February 11, 2010 1 comment

There really are such people as Human Resources Transformation Consultants, but I’m sure they don’t do the job described in this piece – or at least, not in the way described. What can I say? I was working on personal development planning materials and by one in the morning my creativity took a sudden left turn. I’ll write something more sensible about PDPs in a day or two!

***
This was the job I applied for:

We are looking for a highly motivated individual with the ability to innovate new and creative solutions quickly, in a fast moving business environment. The post holder’s responsibilities will include:

* Working alongside line managers and using business analysis procedures to identify posts that do not require people to staff them.

* Developing structures and processes that enable the company to move forward with appropriate recruitment strategies for human and other resources.

* Addressing any unexpected developments with timely and efficient solutions

* Providing training to line managers to enable them to get the best out of their human and other resources.

I have a good CV, a great track record, and I get an interview.

Two people face me across the desk. No smalltalk.

“Mr Jones? I’ll start by asking you how you’d identify posts that don’t require actual staffing?” This is a young guy who uses a lost of expensive skincare products. He has old, old eyes. The kind that might have seen things in a previous life. His tie’s not regimental. He’s not ex-military but he’s certainly ex-something.

I choose my words carefully, try to sound bright and positive. Talk about business process analysis and taking out unnecessary jobs, greater use of automation. The woman interrupts me. It’s only the severe tailoring of her jacket and the stand-up collar on her shirt that stops her looking about sixteen. She flicks her long hair the way teenage girls do.

“So if you had a post that requires filling, can’t be automated, but is repetitive? No one is prepared to do it. Call centre work, say. What kind of labour force would you envisage using?”

The usual stuff. Redefine the job, integrate roles. Build brand identity, foster the idea of working for a greater good, look for labour niches such as young mothers working part-time, out of normal hours, maybe from home. If all else fails, outsource to a low wage economy.

“I don’t think you quite got my drift. The idea would be to transform the role from human to non-human.”

“As in…?”

The man shrugs. He’s bored now. “We’re currently working with staff recruited from morgues, or in some cases from mass graves. They’re fine for back office jobs, except for the odd bit of cosmetic work. We don’t go into replacing anything like shattered limbs, though.”

Am I the butt of a private joke? “Are you seriously saying you’re employing dead people?”

“Dead?” The woman smiles at me, bright white fangs. “Of course not. Not by the time we’ve worked on them. Electrodes in the right places, regenerative drugs.”

“But if they were bodies, what about the families? Grieving relatives? Employment law? Health and safety?”

The man’s interest picks up again. “Mostly we use supply sources that don’t come with those problems. War zones, for instance. But you’re hitting the right general area. The section of the job description about developing structures and processes for recruitment. We see it as largely smoothing out the paperwork on our acquisitions. But you have some good points there.”

I look at the ceiling, the florescent light fitting with shadows of captured dead flies. I look at the floor, a green carpet with patterns and stains of wear. I look back at the interviewers, the shadows in them. To break the growing silence, I ask if they experience problems training the human managers of inhuman resources.

“Not at all,” the woman says. “Some have never considered their workforce in people terms anyway. Though others do need conceptual readjustment. You’ll provide them with training to address the ethical issues that underlie resources transformation. But we tend to find where line managers have difficulties adapting to the new workforce, small doses of datura work well. That’s covered in your orientation package.”

They look at each other. His dead eyes, her sharp teeth. Abruptly she flicks her hair back. “Are you okay to start Monday?” she asks. The man has a spiel about it being a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a revolution in business practice, the development of possibilities that are simply “otherworldly.”

I get out of there as fast as I decently can. On the way home I stop for an umami and cholesterol sub and a skinny latte. The guy who serves me has pallid skin, blank eyes, non-existent communications skills. I’d like to put it down to long hours and minimum wage, but I can’t quite make myself believe it.

Inspiration

February 4, 2010 Leave a comment

Recently, here and on some Livejournal blogs, I’ve been reading about people having trouble with ‘inspiration’. I’ve never had any problem with this, save that too many things attract my attention and ideas spin off from them. I’m never going to be able to use all of them and I have to pick and choose.

Over on Livejournal, someone was suggesting writing ideas down and putting them in an envelope to be opened in a ‘inspiration emergency’ when you can’t think of anything to write.  Actually I do write things down – not in any sequential or ordered way, but on backs of envelopes, odd bits of paper, a couple of notebooks and a file on my PC depending on where I am and what writing implements I have with me when I get the idea (in an emergency I just text myself the idea and check my mobile later…). It might be a character, a situation, a hook line, a title… The problem is there’s often so much stuff coming up that I never get round to working back through more than 1% of my notes.

Insofar as this is a ‘problem’, I blame a workshop I went to a few years back. It was run by someone who wrote for TV soaps, who said he’d often suffered writer’s block. But, he went on to say, think of what the word ‘inspiration’ means. One definition is ‘drawing breath’. And if you can breathe, you can have an idea. You can start anywhere, literally anywhere, and let your mind take you away. This is of course somewhat similar to the now-famous ‘oblique strategies’ devised by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, a set of cryptic comments where the idea is that thinking about them frees up the mind to imagine new things, or new ways of doing things, or whatever.

(Actually it might be fun to take a situation and have a character use oblique strategies to negotiate a way through it, much as Luke Rhinehart’s protagonist did with dice in his 1971 ‘Dice Man’. How’s that for instant inspiration? There also used to be a game on the BBC writers’ website, when it existed, that offered you tarot cards for protagonist character, situation and resolution, or something along those lines. While I think of it, the old BBC Getwriting site seems to have been recreated as a standalone called MoreWriting, and there’s still a writers’ community there.)

The other side of inspiration is of course developing an idea. Here I’d have to say that one’s own character comes into play. Firstly, for me, in terms of what grabs my attention (example: immediate problem, write a Personal Development Plan template for use with distance learning). Secondly, in  terms of where my natural inclinations wander (example: immediate thought, how would a serial killer fill out a personal development plan? Would they see serial killing as a craft, a vocation, something that requires training and acquisition of new skills to build up to?). Your milage may vary: a similar situation could be developed as horror, science fiction, romantic comedy or whatever – presumably not with a serial killer protagonist if it was a romantic comedy, but there you go, it could be an interesting set of possibilities… oh, and your oblique strategy for the day, should you care to use it, is ‘breathe more deeply’.

I’ll sign off with the to-do list i just found on my desk, no explanation or context, just the headline items: marking, craft fair, timetable, car hire, chainsaw. I can see these items as relating to horror, but also a romantic comedy. I’m not exactly known for writing romantic comedy but you never know, I think I’ve just set myself a challenge.

Now we are all goths

February 2, 2010 Leave a comment

People who know me will now that I’ve been, if mostly marginally, involved in goth culture on and off for around a decade. But it seems to me that over the last three or four years it has become its own memento mori, with many fewer people at goth events and a certain ossification of its forms. And yet this has happened at a time when the fashions of goth, and interest in some of its preoccupations, have become very much part of the mainstream.

So what happened? Has the subculture, having been plundered by fashion houses, TV productions and publishers, given up the ghost? Was it just a case of mainstream culture picking up on it as it began to fade? And what does my crystal ball tell me about the future of goth?

First things first. ‘Goth culture’ is a subculture that started in the late 1970s/early 1980s, around the time punk lost its initial visceral attractions. It’s about music and fashion, but it’s also a state of mind, a set of values, a worldview. Like many subcultures, the view from ‘inside’ is much more fragmented than the view outsiders would have of it. There are 20 or so different identifiable styles in fashion and music sub-genre, and they often don’t talk to each other. However it does have unifying aspects. Most goths (in the UK at least) will acknowledge the subcultural importance of the twice-annual Whitby Goth Weekend that’s run since 1994.

The music and fashion is clearly of central importance, and other cultural forms – literature, art and so on – are very secondary. That’s not to say they don’t exist. There’s a gothic ‘literature’, from novels to comic strips, much of it in the horror and dark fantasy genres. A great deal of it is published in niche magazines that run for brief periods of time before folding, or is available online (I wrote some of it myself, incidentally, for a magazine that’s long since vanished). There are artists such as Anne Sudworth and Emma Tooth who enjoy success within and sometimes outside the subculture. And there’s even Repo: The Genetic Opera, a gothic and gory successor to Rocky Horror that was first produced in the US and is now becoming known in the UK (remarkably, the DVD version has Sarah Brightman and Paris Hilton among the cast).

But none of this eclipses the fashion and the music, and none of it really constitutes a ‘core’ of subcultural work that many (or even a small percentage) of goths would recognise as specifically gothic in nature. In a recent book, Contemporary Gothic (2006), Catherine Spooner namechecks half a dozen contemporary artists and several authors and film-makers who work in the gothic mould – yet it’s comparatively rare to find goths who recognise the names and know the works. Indeed it’s likely that almost any material perceived as gothic by those outside the culture would not be accepted as such by those inside it, even if they are aware of it and perhaps even cite it as an influence on them.

As a side note, among the various subgroups (romatigoths, cybergoths…) we should probably now add academigoths: a group that specialises in finding, and claiming as gothic, cultural artefacts that deal with dark and deviant themes – whether or not goths generally would accept such claims or even be familiar with the material.

That said, Spooner is perceptive in identifying other common elements of the worldview.

First, gothic subculture as we know it today was essentially an invention of the late 1970s and 1980s. While it has appropriated older and often literary themes – Frankenstein, Dracula, Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu, Lovecraft – it is very selective in so doing. It is in no way a reprise of Victorian gothic (okay, Lovecraft was the wrong period, 1890-1937, but you get the idea).

Second, its preoccupation with darker themes – death, self-harm, insanity, sexual deviance, obsession, the occult – can be read as a preoccupation with the end of innocence. It speaks of a politics of cynicism, betrayal and exploitation, and discovery of sexuality outside conventional bounds. It is about a world-view that sees society as fragmented, power and authority frequently misused, and the rules of civilised society treated with contempt and hypocrisy by those who are supposed to uphold them. In such a situation, it becomes a rational response to create one’s own subcultural tribal affiliations and one’s own rules.

Goth is hardly the only subculture in which we can find these sentiments. From the beginning of the rock’n’roll era onwards, youth subcultures have seen adult society in negative ways. For that matter, dystopian views are equally common in many areas that even today remain severely damaged by the economic and political shifts that started with Thatcherism. Yet one doesn’t see these dark themes explored in the same way, or with same detailed attention to fashion, in mining villages that suffered at the hands of the police in the 1984-5 miners’ strike and have never recovered from pit closure, or in socially excluded council estates.

Moreover, it’s not as though goth subculture expresses its understanding overtly or with political self-consciousness. There is, as it were, no ‘goth manifesto’. There is no ‘movement’, no collective view about how society should change, no social, economic or political agenda. It is, however, a ‘fashion statement’ that is a statement. The look says: contemporary society and normality is just not good enough. It says: the dark themes that preoccupy us are not fictions; they are metaphors, descriptions of the way the world really is. After all, how many of us feel our employers would really like to drink our blood, or that our political masters secretly believe we are no better than zombies?

Similarly, if liberty and personal choice mean anything at all, why should we not please ourselves in our private lives? Within the goth world, gender roles and looks are often fluid and practices ranging from S&M to chastity are easily accepted (and yes, there are people who are into both; beat me, bite me, but you can’t fuck me). The attitude is: the choice is ours to make and no one has a right to take that freedom away. We can invent and reinvent our own lives.

It would be easy to see goth as a 1980s hangover, a subculture with a dwindling number of members, a social curiosity on a par with Teddy Boys or Mods and Rockers. And in some respects it is. Goth clubs over the last few years seem to attract fewer and fewer patrons, and the bands smaller audiences. Even the headline goth event,  Whitby Goth Weekend, has (so I’m told) begun to look emaciated compared to several years ago. Many of those who were goths in the 1980s are now in their forties, settled with jobs, families and mortgages that make dressing up and clubbing a more complicated lifestyle choice.

Yet it is somehow more than this. Even as the goth subculture began to weaken, gothic sensibilities began to slip into mainstream culture. There had of course been weak forms of it for many years, in the form of Buffy and horror/vampire movies aimed principally at a teenage audience. For a slightly older audience there were, for example, Poppy Z Brite’s novels. But from around 2008, gothis motifs and styles started to find their way into TV advertisements, especially for perfume, alcohol and chocolates, and especially during the winter/Christmas season. In 2009 this trend was pursued by TV programming such as True Blood, based on a series of novels by Charlaine Harris that first appeared in 2001. They might best be described as vampire horror for adults, with the TV series including relatively explicit sexual scenes and some S&M. As of January 2010, a search for ‘goth’ as a tag on trendhunter.com brings up the following, all new developments in fashion and design identified between October and December 2009:

  • A new brand of black lipstick
  • A new line of handmade goth/vampire wedding gowns
  • Two fashion designers independently promoting a ‘dark’ goth look for spring 2010
  • A cluster of designers promoting gothic-inspired headwear, tiaras and jewellery
  • A cluster of new fashion accessories coming on the market with futuristic metal cybergoth-inspired designs
  • A series of CD album covers and music videos for pop/rock artists (incuding Rihanna and Lady Gaga, neither of whom immediately inspire particularly gothic associations) using goth-inspired imagery

Some of this slippage is likely to be because fashion designers and artists take inspiration and style from a wide range of sources; pastiche, and subcultural or cross-cultural borrowing is extremely common. Many of those inside goth subculture would no doubt want to put a great deal of critical distance between themselves and the mass media/mass culture representations of gothic. Even so, one might ask why certain borrowings, in particular those tagged as gothic, seem to have more cultural resonance and be more influential and enduring than others.

The answer is probably that the look and its perceived message does chime with a widespread perception that we live in dark times. Now, I don’t want to over-sell my pitch. Wearing eyeliner and listening to Nine Inch Nails, Rammstein or Combichrist isn’t exactly a revolutionary or seditious act. Goth style isn’t a solution to an existential dilemma. Goth subculture is, in political terms, inchoate and unformed (though because many of its members are relatively well-educated and net-savvy it’s not uninformed).

But its seepage into the mainstream is a marker for, a reminder of, the existential problem we all do face. At one level it might represent the teenage angst of ‘what is the meaning of life?’, but it also represents a deeper dissatisfaction with the exploitation, cynicism, hypocrisy and uncaring policies that surround all of us as adults.

For all that, goth doesn’t provide answers. It doesn’t even raise critical questions. But it does make visible an attitude that is increasingly shared across mainstream society. Plus, it looks startling and feels good. In the right environment, it still does what it wanted to do in the 1980s: épater la bourgeoisie, in the same way that Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Wilde and other did over a century ago.

So what’s the likely future of goth? As a subculture it’s had ups and downs, and is currently down. It seems static in many ways and may continue on a downward spiral for a couple of years yet. But there are still young people newly adopting the style, and some crossover with emergent trends such as steampunk. At some point it will no doubt be reinvented through a myriad of individual choices, and probably self-consciously seek to distance itself from whatever aspects the mainstream has plundered. It is and will remain very much the style of the outsider, of those who want to be outsiders. But since current social and economic trends are hell-bent on making us all outsiders, I’d wager that in some form, goth style is here to stay. It won’t be so much a case of goth creeping out again from its shadow, as the shadow expanding to cover us all.

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