The Art of Looking British

As part of an ongoing quest to discover whether it is possible to talk about a specifically British visual culture, or visual language, my first foray into the London Design Festival was structured around home-grown work. The below is series of notes and observations rather than a well-constructed argument. Feel free to disagree.

My itinerary went like this:

This Way Up from the British Council. Fifteen years of architecture, design and fashion leftovers from exhibitions that have toured the world. Featuring ‘The 21st Century Dandy’, a collection referencing the 19th century style-maker Beau Brummel, mannequins papered by scraps of the FT, a bookstore, a team of upcyclers, and Tom Dixon’s black lights. In an enterprising little twist, and as part of a ruse to clear out some of the British Council’s cupboards, many of the pieces are up for silent auction.

Imagined Cities at the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs. I used to live round the corner from Leather Lane, and had this café been there at the time I would have spent a lot of pennies on coffee. The interior is beautifully stripped back to bare brick walls, and for LDF they are hung with fantastical architectural drawings collected by Dainow & Dainow. All produced by British architectural students, the designs – motivated by real challenges – present imaginary ways of making urban living work.

Alan Fletcher at the Aram Store. Fletcher, a highly influential graphic designer and ‘a visual jackdaw’, amassed an archive of incidental curiousities and meaningful coincidences over his lifetime, which are brought together in his compendium, The Art of Looking Sideways. One could spend an entire day lost in this book, with page after page of visual double entendres, riddles, pearls of wisdom and literary excerpts. His polymath mind seemed to see connections everywhere, and delighted in pointing them out to others.

British-Ish at the V&A. One of the best things about the LDF being based at the V&A is the opportunity to discover different parts of the museum. For this installation, contemporary student work from University of the Arts London – fashion, ceramics, graphics, film, jewellery – is spliced into the British Galleries on the top floor. Furniture knitted out of wire thread sits alongside originals from the 1851 Great Exhibition. Pieces reference our colonial past – the  set of metal and paper lanterns that blend the structures of ship’s lantern and Chinese paper lantern; the beginnings of rampant consumerism – a printable paper suit; and concern for the natural world – a new beehive design.

– The Brutal Simplicity of Thought in the Sackler Centre.  A series of visual puns by M&C Saatchi (an oil drum stencilled with the words ‘Why do all roads lead to Baghdad?’), and musings on the difficulty of communicating simply.

Few and Far on the Brompton Road. Priscilla Carluccio’s emporium of exquisitely crafted products presents an exhibition of timber furniture from Pinch Design. Precisely detailed, quirky, and reassuringly expensive.

Flock on North Terrace. Successfully inhabiting a bit of in-between space behind the Brompton Road, this collection by female designers is edgy and thoughtful, a series of symbolic and performative pieces, commenting on domestic life, dual nationalities, and fetishes.

These are some of the themes I noticed.

– I have a suspicion that British visual culture is not primarily visual at all, in the sense of being particularly concerned about formal qualities or the golden ratio, and the design work I saw reflected this trait. Nothing is blue for the sake of being blue. Everything is referential. Most work is primarily driven by some kind of intellectual idea, or historical reference point, or cultural ambiguity.

– Multi-culturalism is totally embedded, synthesising and regurgitating multiple influences and reference points. But not in an overt way, almost unselfconscious, as a given.

– Subversion is prevalent. In a very British, understated way, there is rarely out-and-out protest, but there is a challenge in everything, often done with humour.

– Related to this, words and language underpin everything. The history of artistic achievement in this country is dominated by forms based on language and literature. It is no coincidence that the English vocabulary is the largest of the European languages. We may not have the architectural richness of Rome, but we have great texture in our sentences. Design work often refers back to the world of words and ideas, narratives and puns, histories and biographies. The cover of Alan Fletcher’s book is decorated with text.

– There is an obsession with advanced craft. British designers are increasingly experimenting with, and mastering, highly articulated processes that require a fusing of technical and digital expertise with creative direction. Precise results, pointed uses.

– Meaning is everywhere. Beauty is not necessarily a relevant word. Some of the pieces are visually pleasing – calming to the eye. But mostly they are not. Mostly they are provoking rather than soothing.

– In an interesting parallel, I think many of these phenomena are visible across the city. London’s development has rarely been driven by formal aesthetic considerations. Beauty has never been mission critical. The remnants of different communities are superimposed on each other. We have a skyscraper named after a burger garnish. Architectural precocity sits alongside disregarded space. Financial gain trumps beauty time and again.

So there you are: difficult, subversive, literary, funny, intellectual, experimental, and occasionally, when it is relevant, pretty.

Spoonerisms, Broadband and the Creative Industries

What an odd morning. Jim Naughtie, in a brilliantly Freudian spoonerism, managed to say the worst word in the BBC’s book live on-air whilst introducing Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary. And then the abovementioned Culture Secretary went on to speak at an event called ‘The Future of the Creative Industries’, in which the creative industries were barely discussed.

What was apparently happening, to the slight bemusement of some attendees (Crafts Council to my left, literary agent to my right), was the launch of ‘Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future’, a joint BIS and DCMS policy paper. Rather than discussing, as advertised by event host Reform, ‘his vision for the future of the creative industries’, Hunt explained the thinking behind the government’s plans for broadband rollout and upgrades.

In pondering the discussion afterwards, I was (still am) bemused as to how to analyse the announcements: on their merits as a plan for broadband rollout, or as the totality of the government’s vision for the future of the creative industries?

If it’s the first: I’m not an expert. Although I would say it looks like they are marginally prioritising spend on high-speed capacity for economic growth, rather than universal access – which is surely where the ‘Big Society’ emphasis would be.

If it’s the second: oh dear.

Digital accessibility is clearly relevant for many of the businesses and organisations that fall into the ‘creative industries’ bracket – in terms of reaching wider audiences, transacting and communicating online, exporting – and opens up other relevant questions for content producers, such as intellectual property protection in a digital environment. Joining Hunt on the panel, Peter Bazalgette (former chief creative officer at Endemol) mentioned more than once the notion that the new digital age presents a ‘challenge to the heritage business models of the content producing industries’ – which is probably the closest anyone came to addressing the topic as billed.

Whilst important, this is not the whole story for the future of creative businesses. To be clear, the current official list includes: Advertising, Art and Antiques, Architecture, Crafts, Design, Fashion, Film, Leisure software, Music, Performing Arts, Publishing, Software, TV and radio. These are not the only industries likely to be affected by faster internet.

What, if anything, does it signify that a discussion of the future for the creative industries revolved so narrowly around broadband capabilities? Because, although perhaps unintentionally, focussing on broadband as an economic enabler sends a very blunt message to those industries that can never be primarily digitally-based.

In short, it suggests that if it’s not music, media or broadcasting, its at best economically irrelevant, at worst, doomed.

In relation to that, Reform’s own narrow, media-focussed analysis of the Creative Industries in their recent booklet A Creative Recovery (see list of contributors here) was equally skewed. It now seems deliberately so to align with the forthcoming digital policy, or at least a ploy to persuade the Culture Sec to come and speak at a Reform event. A slightly Machiavellian approach and surely not one to earn them friends or credibility across the creative industries.

Perhaps they were just worried about the appeal of a discussion of this particular policy. The paper itself is a tad dry. Was this just a trick to lure ‘creatives’ into the room, bolt the doors, and then fill them with facts about IT infrastructure?

Or is this really all the government has to say on the future of the creative industries? Let’s hope not.

I Am Love: Gorgeous Melodrama

Eleven years in the making, Luca Guadagnino’s film is a tale of tradition and customs unravelling in the face of modernity, enlightenment, and love. It is also an exemplar study in sensuality on film, as co-producer and star Swinton herself so often seems to be.

The protagonist, Emma Recchi, is a Russian married to an Italian patriarchal dynasty of industrialists, whose contributing role in the downfall of the family is to allow herself to fall for a younger man. A chef called Anotnio to be precise, and it is his food that she is initially and instantly captivated by. Throughout the rest of the film, the contrast between the enlightenment of the senses that marks her experiences with Antonio and the strictness of her family life is carefully built and enhanced by Guadagnino, with caged bird metaphors popping up all over the place (a moth caught in the lamp beside her bed, a pigeon trapped in the dome of the family chapel). Insects also provide the clue to the difference between her Lady Chatterly-esque life with Antonio and her staid marital bed.

The Recchi family itself reflects the steady onward march of industrialism – they built a factory, moved up in society, hired an architect to design a beautiful modernist fortress (all hard lines and sumptuous materials), and their children and grandchildren study finance and the arts. The film is set at a tipping point in the history of the family, when it all begins to implode, the begnning of the end marked by the death of the grandfather. As well as smaller hints, such as Edo (the eldest grandson)’s failure to win an unspecified race – victory being a family tradition. Tellingly Antonio, the source of Emma’s later downfall, is the humble victor. The postscript scene finds Emma in a cave with Antonio, almost like a reversal of the process of civilisation that has been the hallmark of her husband’s family.

Although in a literal way, the only senses that can truly be affected by watching a film are sight and sound, some utilise these two to such effect that the other senses are brought into play. This must be one the few films where the first love scene is between a woman and a plate of seafood, impressionistic and seductively filmed, like a Marks & Spencer advert on overdrive. There is a scene where Emma grasps a handful of leaves from a bough and inhales, the camera paying such close attention that the audience can almost imagine the aroma in their own nostrils. In a classic deployment of pathetic fallacy the weather/ seasons are in keeping with the plot – from a cold wintry city scape to a hazy buzzing summer countryside. And Emma’s person is perfectly detailed, the cut of her hair and colour of her clothes reflecting events and her own mood.

Dealing with such classic themes as nature/ freedom vs captivity/ construct, it would very easy to tip over into obvious or trite symbolism. However the whole film is so carefully nuanced and layered, with references reachingback and forth through the narrative, and it is so beautifully detailed, that it glides past this potential trap.

Nevertheless it is unashamedly melodramatic. The dialogue is sweeping and grandiose: ‘You no longer know who I am.’ The music (by John Adams) is fundamental – perpetually heightening the drama, particularly in the closing sequence. But it is forgiveable precisely because it is so unapologetic, and because it works: the soaring violin really does tug on the heart strings. And for an English audience, no doubt the fact that it is Italian also excuses.

A delicious romance, refreshingly, the unfaithful wife gets away with it. She escapes, a pleasing result to the viewer because it really does seem like the ‘right’ thing. And, ultimately, who doesn’t want to run away to a picturesque hill farm with a lithe young chef who can cook food like you’ve never tasted before.

In summary, there is nothing new here, in terms of technique or concept – it’s just all done to utter perfection.