The Fifth Estate

Courtesy of a preview screening for Guardian staff I got to see the Fifth Estate last night. The biggest point of reference is The Social Network with the script focussing on the relationship between Julian Assange and Daniel Berg. However whereas the Social Network focusses on friendship, loneliness and betrayal this film focuses on ambition, idealism and inspiration.

The film depicts Berg as someone in search of a purpose who finds a leader and a cause in Assange. The rest of the script plays out the consequences of success and the interplay of loyalty, obedience and belief in a radical political organisation.

The film tritely suggests that Assange’s childhood experience of being part of a cult and later trial for hacking (where his fellow defendants testified against him) is mirrored in how he structures WikiLeaks with Assange as the undisputed leader of an organisation centred unquestioningly around him.

The better parts of the film do a more nuanced job of representing how the strength of personality required to change the world in a radical, political way also manifest in the personality flaws of paranoia and arrogance.

All radical political movements are charismatic, disruptive and unstable. The Fifth Estate tries to contrast political achievement with personal cost but it feels laboured with the visual metaphors bludgeoning and the dialogue clunking.

There is also a massive problem in that “computer stuff” is just visually difficult to portray, like theoretical physics or philosophy. It’s primarily the internal workings of thought.

Really the most enjoyable part of the film are the central performances of Benedict Cumberbach and Daniel Brühl. Some of the photography is pretty good as well.

The script uses some heavy-handed techniques for showing that the leaks were not “victimless” but actually affected real people in difficult situations. The disconnection between actions and consequences for cyber-activists was worth addressing.

As for the depiction of the Guardian. Well naturally anything you know about always seems to be travestied when outsiders write about it and this is no different. Most of the journalism stuff seems clichéd. The film doesn’t capture any of the real debate about the nature of “citizen journalism” within the Guardian or the wider world of commercial journalism.

More weirdly though the presence of the Guardian feels irrelevant to the central themes of the film and therefore tends to drag on the plot. However in the real world the involvement of profession organisations was actually vital for turning the raw data into some explicable to a wider audience. That aspect of the story is some what glossed over or under-explained.


London Zine Symposium

On Sunday I took a trip to the London Zine Symposium in the East End and filled up on a lot of zines, falafel and flapjack. Unfortunately due to other commitments I wasn’t able to spend the whole afternoon there but I was glad to get along to it and enjoyed a lot of what I saw.

The venue was pretty good, a slightly musty workshop-style space that was slightly overcrowded and under-ventilated but with a nice open courtyard and space for a wide variety of stalls. The organisation was also excellent with a lovely programme, a series of talks and a zine in a day effort. I always enjoy having an active, creative element to an event like this and the talks were really welcome as a way of having a bit more depth than just buying zines.

Personally I was looking for what has been happening in the zine scene as I haven’t really been that involved for a couple of years (I have been looking more towards the internet, of which more later) but I was also looking for relatively heavyweight zines that focussed on prose as I have enough poetry, sketchbooks, comics and collage books to last a life time. One thing that immediately struck me is that there is a wave of graphic design sweeping through and in particular screen printing seems to have taken off and people are really good at it.

In terms of content though I was disappointed, I haven’t gone through all my purchases carefully enough but there was very little that I was immediately excited about. The revolution still hasn’t come, grrrls and queers are still upset, girly kitsch is timeless and all the DIY guides still come from America. There was a sense that the topics are the same and in fact the forms are being recycled by a new generation to experience something for themselves. That’s a shame because actually when revitalising and reinventing something like DIY (as an aesthetic) or zines then everything should be up for grabs. It actually felt that a lot of the technology stuff I’ve been doing in the last year (unconferences, Social Innovation Camp) actually feel a lot more radical because they are pushing the boundaries of everything to do with their organisation, running and communication.

Of course things like zines are very broad church or at least should be. The old tensions are still there between the politics, the aesthetics, the purism but there also felt like there was now this tension between the artists and those people capable of organising very high production values and the older lo-fi crowd. It is all nonsense as usual and is probably a good sign as factionalism only occurs in large groups. The marginal tend to have to stick together out of necessity.

One thing that was clear though was that the Internet was often dismissed out of hand. That might seem natural at an event dedicated to physical works but I was disappointed as the next logical transition is to combine on and offline works in a continuum. I am a huge DIY zine fan and I have espoused the importance of the physical zine for a while. I have also been looking at the idea of Constructivism and the mass produced artefact. The photocopied booklet seems to me the logical extension of a lot of those ideas.

However as Internet access becomes more pervasive and the ability to create and host content online becomes less and less mediated it seems against the goals of the culture not to embrace it. The photocopy seems democratic but the truth is that by itself the handmade limited edition is more elitist or ghettoised than the webpage. Valuing the physicality of something is fine, valuing it over the ability to connect to an audience is an ideological limitation. The internet has done more to achieve the creation of communities and the connectedness of individuals than the physical zine has ever managed. We cannot pretend it is the 70s anymore.

For me the event itself showed a good example of how to combine the power of the web to organise and co-ordinate the event with physical tokens of attendance in the form of the programme. I will also be following the reaction to the event online via people’s blogs rather than through the zines. However in six months time the things I have seen and read will go on to form some kind of zine because it is something I still love and a format I feel is still enjoyable.

So what would have excited me? Well having a look at the pages people were creating for the on day zine I think that there is an undue emphasis on the personal or single creator zine currently. I found only one anthology zine (although there may have been two punk collectives who seemed to be creating single collective titles but collections of reviews, gig reports and interviews don’t really have the cohesive editorial content I was looking for) I would have liked a few more. I also would have liked more words, something really text heavy with an emphasis not on impressionist feeling but actually essays and arguments. Things that appeared to engage outside the personal, domestic world.

Things I did like were zines made up of digital camera photos and text messages, I enjoyed the way they reflected both changing creative possibilities but also the way our world is changing. I liked stalls that had a synopsis of the zines they were selling. I liked the artist’s books, but only so far as their cost made it feel difficult to buy something that might have good and bad moments. I liked the collectives who mixed the books with prints, cards and more conventional black and white photocopies.

I also really liked people who were selling their own food and cakes. What an obvious gap in most shows I’ve been to, don’t just sell the recipe booklets! The Symposium t-shirts were pretty cool too. It was a good afternoon and I would have liked a little more time but hopefully there will be another one next year.

Art, culture, London

Exhibition: From Russia

I had a chance to attend a Member’s Preview of the From Russia exhibition at the Royal Academy. The exhibition had a tricky start due to the status of some of the paintings as confiscated goods. The works are all here now though, courtesy of the Bolsheviks.

The preview was moderately crowded but not unbearable crush that these events can turn into all too often. The work on show is varied but the Expressionists predominate. Personally I reverted to type and really enjoyed the Constructivist and Suprematist pieces that are on show. Malevich has to be one of my favourite painters, even familiar stuff like Black Cross was great to see again.

The show has several pieces by Picasso who is normally a favourite of mine but they seem to be early stages in his Cubist phase and a far too Primitivist for me. Even the more “classically” Cubist on display didn’t grab me, maybe because it just doesn’t have any meaningful context. All the other Picasso Cubist paintings I have seen have usually been on display with at least a few Braques.

Of the native Russian painters Boris Grigoriev‘s Portrait of Vsevolod Meyerhold was the really surprising piece. A double portrait of an actor that has an amazing colour scheme. It also made me wonder why the double portrait is such a rarely used device.

I’m going to take a second look at the exhibition later but for all the fuss it does seem very thin.


London: City of Culture

The title of the post comes from briefly spotted headline in the Independent over Christmas. But, alors!, have I had my fill of culture this weekend! I have been to see the Terracota Army exhibition at the British Museum for a second time. An excellent chance to see a cultural and artistic oddity that can only be topped by travelling to China itself.

I also dropped by the Photographer’s Gallery, Antoine d’Agata’s exhibition is like a pornographic revisitation of Brassai’s Paris by Night. It’s worth seeing but there is a line between art and stylish pictures of people fucking. Less controversial was the excellent selection of Lee Miller photographs. Her war journalism is excellent and the photos from her “apprenticeship” with Man Ray are a delightful slice of life between the wars. I also enjoyed Chrystel Lebas‘s forest photography.

Then today is was an impromptu trip to the Wellcome sponsered Science Museum exhibition on iconic machinery. Did you know the Rocket steam locomotive is now part of the Science Museum’s collection? The exhibition dwelled too much on Britain’s contribution to manufacturing which I don’t think has ever been a strong legacy. However the British contribution to science and engineering was rightly highlighted without being jingoistic. I really liked the idea of using heroic iconic machinery as a way of indicating the developments in science and engineering. There’s just ten metres between the Model T Ford and the Morris Mini and both speak volumes about their times.