New York Red

While I was emerging from a subway station on Manhattan’s upper West side last week, I was hollered at by a chap in his mid-to-late twenties sporting a black t-shirt and ginger beard who was standing on a corner handing out newspapers.

“Hey man,” he said “you have a red shirt on, you should read this!”  He thrust a newspaper in front of me that was some Commie publication and had as its headline a call to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act.  I have read that reinstating Glass-Steagall wouldn’t solve much despite its repeal being blamed for the Global Financial Crisis, but I was in no position to argue this particular technicality.

“Where are you from?” he asked me.

“Britain” I said.

“Oh man, with Barclays!  Those assholes have screwed everything!”

“Yes”, I said “they are assholes.”

“So what are we gonna do about it, man?” he asked, thrusting the newspaper at me.

I thought about a response.  What are we going to do about it?  I was going to suggest hanging politicians and lawyers, but I guessed his victim list would differ from mine and I didn’t want to encourage him.  As I was pondering the question he chimed in with “And no, war with Russia isn’t the answer.”

“Ah Russia,” I said “I know the place well.  Lived there for a bit. No, going to war with Russia won’t help much.”

“You were in Russia?  I heard St. Petersburg is beautiful!”

“It is.  It’s a shame everything over there is built on a few million corpses, though.”

“Corpses?” he asked, looking doubtful.  “Which corpses?  Nazis?”

“No.  Ordinary people.  And that’s the problem, isn’t it?  Which way is Central Park?”

“That way,” he said “but you gotta read this…” His voice trailed off as I walked away.

I hope he somehow gets to read this.

Ten Days in New York

I’m back from New York, having had a fantastic time wandering around, drinking, and hanging out with friends.  What follows are my general observations and thoughts, in no particular order of importance.

New York is massive, I mean seriously big.  I first got an inkling of this when I found the time it took to get from Harlem to 42nd Street on the subway was longer than I thought, and I’d only covered about half of Manhattan.  Later in the week I tried to walk from lower Manhattan to midtown, but gave up as I realised no matter how many blocks I covered I still wasn’t getting much closer.  Later still I stood on the Brooklyn Bridge and looked towards midtown, and realised it was an awfully long way off.  And when I crossed the Robert F. Kennedy bridge into Astoria and looked westwards at Manhattan, it seemed to stretch southwards forever.  Even disregarding Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, Manhattan itself is enormous, on a different scale to anywhere else I’ve lived (Lagos, despite having a population of about 18 million people, isn’t that big geographically).  I quickly realised that simply walking everywhere isn’t really an option in New York.

It took me a while to get used to the subway.  About two days in I figured out that different trains run on the same lines but stop at different stations, and that some trains were “local” – stopping at every station – and some “express” and only stopping at major stations.  And whether a train was local or an express changed with the time of day and the day of the week.  This was all a bit complicated for a farm boy from Wales, but at least it explained why New York subway stations are designed with a third track in the middle: it allows trains to pass through without stopping.

The metro itself worked well enough, and was mercifully air conditioned.  But the stations themselves weren’t, and it was stiflingly hot down there.  The locals seemed to cope with this a lot better than I did, as I was sweating buckets.  I can’t say I liked the subway carriages themselves, the stainless steel design making them look more industrial than perhaps they need to, but they were clean enough.  The same can’t be said for the stations, which were in desperate need of a pressure wash, and the whole system kept reminding me of violent scenes in films from the 1980s.  At least they don’t have Guardian Angels patrolling it any more.  I will say this, though: the people seem a lot friendlier on the New York subway than they are on the London underground or Paris metro.  One chap offered to help me figure out the myriad combinations of stops and express trains – something you’d never see a Parisian doing – and I noticed people spoke and interacted with each other more than anywhere else I’ve seen.  Aside from one bellend who came in dressed like a gangster, shirtless with his pants hanging down his arse and tattoos all over him carrying a ghetto blaster playing music that only reinforced my theory that the louder music is played the worse it is, everyone was awfully polite.

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Photos of New York

I found New York a surprisingly difficult place to photograph.  To start with, everything a newcomer would find interesting has been photographed a million times before, unless you are prepared to head out to areas where your camera will get nicked and even then it’s probably been photographed already.  Finding something new in New York is difficult, and for a tourist almost impossible.  If I’m in a familiar city, or one not as spectacular as New York, I can take my time to seek out unusual things in shop windows or down small streets, but in Manhattan my eye was forever being drawn upwards to the large and famous buildings I was usually seeing for the first time.  I’m a tall guy anyway, and my eye is naturally drawn upwards above the heads of the crowds and into the buildings and other structures.  One person who commented on my photos of this trip asked “Where are all the people?” as there don’t seem to be any.  Mostly this is down to my not liking photographing people without their knowing it as a general rule (I could have gotten one great shot of a homeless black guy, but I really don’t like taking these sort of “poverty porn” photos), but also because of the effect I just described whereby my eye was continually being pulled upwards.

One of the other things I noticed was that with modern architecture using so much glass and steel, the towers in Manhattan often look a uniform blue from the reflection of the sky, and hence don’t look particularly good in a photo taken from street level.

Contrast this with the older style of brick building:

On this trip I also discovered – and this is probably the engineer in me – that I like geometry in my photos, particularly intersecting lines and repeated patterns.

In this regard, shooting in Manhattan was pretty easy.  Sometimes I didn’t have my SLR with me, so had to make do with an iPhone, the best picture from which was this one of the sun striking the Chrysler building as I made my way (where else?) to a bar in the early evening:

The full set of my photos from New York can be seen here.

When an Engineer meets an Artsy Type

One of the reasons that this blog has been quiet recently is that I have spent a portion of my spare time dipping my toe into what I was told was the “art” worlds of Paris and, by proxy, New York.  I have posted some comments about my experiences in the comments section on others’ blogs, but felt it deserves a post of its own.

In February I met a 32 year old American woman here in Paris who I will call Angela.  She works here as a freelance translator/interpreter, and from what I saw she was pretty damned good at it and had obviously worked hard on her technique and vocabulary.  However – and the importance of this will become apparent later on – the three languages she knows stem from a childhood spent in a country with two official languages whilst her parents spoke a third to her at home.  In other words, they were not learned in adulthood or even late teens.  She had spent the last 18 months in Paris after 10 years in New York.

Angela called herself an artist, both on her websites and when asked by people what she did.  She definitely fit the description of an “artsy” type: facial piercings, unconventional clothing, a history of coloured hair, but unsurprisingly no tattoos.  Her identity revolved around “art”, and most aspects of her social life both past and present were somehow connected with the “art” scenes of Paris and New York.  I’ll confess she was a lot of fun to be around, especially because she enthusiastically took it upon herself to introduce me to the art world and show me stuff I had likely never seen before.  For my part, I am conscious that I work in a rather close-minded corporate environment (despite the campaigns, there is about as much diversity among oil and gas expatriates as there is in a Glasgow Celtic convention) and so took the opportunity to let somebody show me a world I might not know existed.  And boy, did she ever.

From the beginning, Angela talked incessantly about the Burning Man festival which takes place annually in Nevada’s Black Rock desert.  I had heard of it before and seen some photos, and concluded it was some sort of alternative/hippy festival involving lots of sex, drugs, and alcohol.  But the way Angela spoke of it, one would be forgiven thinking it was primarily an arts festival which just happens to have several acres of tenting devoted to orgies and other acts of sexual depravity.  Insofar as Angela was an artist, her claim was based partly on her attendance at Burning Man and other festivals and events, which I will describe later.

Shortly after I met Angela she told me she practiced taxidermy.  She said she’d stumbled across this hobby when a friend of hers had pulled out of a taxidermy course and she’d gone in her stead, and showed me a picture of a rat she’d stuffed.  She also said she’d given a workshop to her friends on rat taxidermy.  Beyond that, she’d not done any taxidermy.  But her greatest claim to being an artist was her being a photographer.  She had numerous photography websites – both personal and professional – plus Instagram and Flickr accounts containing hundreds and hundreds of photographs she’d taken over the years (I’ll not link to them because I don’t wish to reveal her identity).  She had done some part-time freelance photography work, mainly for friends but also occasionally for literary and other events.  But most of her photographs were of arts festivals (including Burning Man) and other rather odd conventions and festivals, and a good half of them were pictures of her mates.  She’d also worked for a few years as a graphic designer/art director for a restaurant magazine which went bankrupt, and later doing communications, administrative, and graphic design work at a non-profit organisation.

Now to be fair, she was a pretty good technical photographer: she had good equipment and knew how to use it, so she got some pretty neat shots which would have been a challenge to capture in the light conditions.  The sort of skill that comes from taking a photography course and practicing a bit, in other words.  She had a reasonable photographic eye but her photos were no better in terms of artistic composition and technical quality than those being posted by tens of thousands of hobbyist photographers on a daily basis.  I enjoy taking photographs myself, and although I’d concede her photos were overall better than mine, the gap wasn’t substantial.

Perhaps through my naivety and a willingness to appear open-minded, I took Angela’s artistic claims at face value and listened to the stories of her artistic pursuits with her friends in New York with a non-critical ear.  Hell, I liked the girl, she was a lot of fun to hang out with, and I thought I might learn something.  Yet something bothered me when I was at the birthday party of a Paris-based artist a month or so after we’d met.  A Frenchman, who might have worked in film production, asked us both what we did.  Before I could say that I was an engineer, Angela had said “Je suis une artiste” and expanded on that by saying she was a photographer.  I asked her later why she said that, when she was (more accurately) a translator/interpreter.  She said she considers herself an artist, on the basis of her photography and (from what I could gather) her interest in art.

A few weeks after that she began to reveal things about her past which caused me to raise an eyebrow or two.  That’s putting it mildly.  I have gotten involved in some weird shit in my time and for a middle-class British professional I’m about as open-minded as they come, but these revelations were shocking even to me.  I’ll not go into details because they are irrelevant to the point I’m making in this post (I’d normally say they’re a subject for another post, but a dedicated blog would probably be more accurate) but they were highly sexual in nature, pretty fucked up, and were intertwined inextricably with what, according to her, is the New York “arts” scene and the lifestyle that appears to accompany it.  I also think it worth saying, lest I come across as too judgmental, that a lot of what she told me was obviously complete bullshit, and had all the hallmarks of a carefully constructed narrative generated to avoid her having to admit responsibility for any of her unwise past choices.  It was the obvious lying, and her ultra-aggressive defence of the lies, that offended me more than the content of the stories.

So having learned some quite unsavoury things about my new-found artsy friend, I started to look a bit more critically at the stuff she’d told me.  And when the friendship faltered and then ended completely – solely because of what she’d revealed to me – I started looking at it a lot more critically.  And what I discovered was pretty depressing.

I realised that for all Angela’s self-promotion as an artist, she was nothing of the sort.  She had studied Political Science at university before going to work in various graphic design/admin. positions within what could plausibly called the New York arts world.  Now it could be argued that graphic design for promotional material and magazines is a form of art, but does doing this sort of work allow one to self-describe as an artist?  Perhaps.  But it feels a bit like me calling myself a writer on the basis that I spend half my working life writing engineering reports (anyone who doesn’t think this involves creative writing and a vivid imagination has obviously not worked in the oil industry).  Certainly, when Angela introduced herself as an artist she did not elaborate on her full-time jobs, which she’d quit in any case to become a translator/interpreter.  As I said, the basis of her claim to be an artist appeared to be her reasonable but not spectacular photography, her having stuffed a rat once, and her participation in various artsy events.

What she never showed me was something she had produced or achieved which was the result of hours and months and years of practice and effort representing skill, dedication, patience, and vision.  She couldn’t – or at least, didn’t – draw, paint, sculpt, or craft.  The best I got was this photo of a tattoo on a piece of broccoli she had done one night at her friend’s place.

I’ll admit that I hadn’t met all of her friends in Paris, and none of them from New York, but from what she describes they didn’t seem much different: working middle-of-the-road jobs vaguely connected to the arts world while claiming to be artists, but producing nothing which was the result of years of effort spent honing skills to create something truly unique, aesthetically pleasing, or of value.  Now I might be selling some of her friends and acquaintances short here, perhaps some of them were genuine artists.  But if they were, I never saw their output.

Now as I’ve said, she spoke at length of various “artistic” events she attended and was involved in, which formed the basis of her social life.  I have mentioned Burning Man, where she said she assisted people in the construction of large plywood artifacts which later got set on fire.  Now I have no doubt that there are things on display at Burning Man which are created by genuine artists who possess skill and vision, but her participation seemed to be more for the social element.  And the more I read about that, and spoke to other people who knew about Burning Man, and considered the revelations she had told me about some of her “lifestyle” habits…well, I never asked.  I really, really didn’t want to know.  But I could guess.

She told me that she was involved with an outfit in New York called Figment Project which is:

[A] forum for the creation and display of participatory and interactive art by emerging artists across disciplines. FIGMENT began in July 2007 as a free, one-day participatory arts event on Governors Island in New York Harbor with over 2,600 participants.

FIGMENT’s vision for art looks past the white-walled galleries and into the realm of participation. Art is not just something that you stand still and quietly look at–it is something you participate in. You touch it, smell it, write on it, talk to it, dance with it, play with it, learn from it. Interactive art creates a dynamic collaboration between the artist, the audience and their environment.

FIGMENT’s goal is to advance social and personal transformation through creativity, in the form of free participatory arts events and exhibitions.

So, it’s a “free” arts event, described with woolly guff that doesn’t tell you very much.  But they take great pains to tell us that:

FIGMENT is uninterrupted by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. Selling or advertising goods or services is not permitted. Neither our artists nor our planners and staff are paid: everything that you see at FIGMENT is born from a simple desire to share imagination with each other and the public.

FIGMENT accepts no corporate sponsorship of any kind.

FIGMENT is an alternative to many of the shortcomings of the commercial art world: exclusive, expensive, impersonal, untouchable and often simply boring.

How very principled!  So, where do they take funding from?

FIGMENT is supported by public funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. FIGMENT NYC is supported by theNew York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council, as well as by the Fund for Creative Communities, supported by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature and administered by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

Ah, the taxpayer.  Of course.  Which includes single mothers working minimum wage.

Angela – along with her ex-husband – were founder members of this Figment outfit, and as such both sit on its “Governance Council”, a position she attained when she was 24.  If she or her ex-husband have any formal artistic qualifications or significant experience to warrant their position on a board of governance spending taxpayers’ money, it is something she kept from me.  A quick cross-reference of her social life on Facebook and the names of people involved in this Figment Project suggests this is run by a group of mates/partners, much of it seemingly  for their own personal benefit and entertainment.  Here is a picture from one of their events:

Which is basically Angela (who is taking the photo) and her mates standing around a camp fire.  It looks an awful lot like the camping trips I used to take part in on Sakhalin, only we weren’t funded by the taxpayer.  And I wasn’t on a Governance Council.  I’ve seen other photos of other Figment events, and I don’t think I’m being unkind when I say they look a bit like a school fete that has been organised by the kids from the remedial class.  Little wonder Angela mounted a robust defence of state funding of the arts when I questioned whether it could be justified in times of austerity.

Bear in mind that when Angela told me she was an artist, it was in part based on her participation in events like these.  So what other events were there?  One called Santacon which is:

SANTACON IS A CHARITABLE, NON-COMMERCIAL, NON-POLITICAL, NONSENSICAL SANTA CLAUS CONVENTION THAT HAPPENS ONCE A YEAR FOR ABSOLUTELY NO REASON.

Here’s what it really is: a bunch of people, an awful lot of whom appear to be middle-aged, dress up as Santa Claus and take to the streets of New York getting pissed and (probably) smoking a lot of weed.  Here’s a photo Angela took at one of them:

How very artistic!  Another was an event was called the PEX Summer Festival and whose mission is:

[To] inspire and connect a growing, willing and participatory community of passionate, tolerant and motivated individuals by actively creating, supporting and providing engaging experiences. To this end we continually strive to foster an environment that nurtures and protects the family evolved by this culture.

From the gallery, it looks to me to be a cross between a rave, a hippy festival, and a general piss-up.  I have a couple of photos that Angela took at one of these events, but I will not post them here because those who have seen them begged me not to and several have told me, weeks later, that they still cannot get the images out of their heads.  But I will describe them thusly:

1. Two of Angela’s mates – a man and a woman who look to be in their mid-30s – wearing strap-on dildos which they are pushing together to make the ends touch, drinking from tins of lager.

2. Another of Angela’s mates in a swimming pool with the end of a strap-on dildo sticking up out of the water.

Angela actually told me about her attendance at this event before, and her own wearing of a strap-on dildo, as if this was something worthy of mentioning.  A mixture of tact and naivety made me keep my silence.  Another year at the same event involved Angela and her mates dressing up as grandmas and grandpas and sitting around drinking from tins of lager:

There was also Zombicon, an event similar to Santacon, only taking place in Florida and people dress up as zombies.  This event might not happen any more after somebody was shot at the last event in October 2015.

Now I’m not against people dressing up like idiots and getting drunk per se.  Indeed, I did an awful lot of that myself and I have plenty of photos to prove it.  But there are two crucial differences:

1. I quit all that in my mid 20s, when I grew up a bit.  Angela and her group of artsy mates seem content, indeed proud, to be doing this into their 30s, 40s, and sometimes 50s.

2. I never presented my dressing up like an idiot and drinking as being the basis of an artistic lifestyle, nor as proof of anything other than my being a twenty-something year old bloke with more energy than common sense.

I once asked Angela whether any of her artistic, creative friends played a musical instrument – something that requires dedication, discipline, and practice. Not a single one of them did.  By the time I asked her the question, I already knew the answer.  It probably goes without saying that they all voted Democrat, with Angela herself vociferously supporting policies such as the Living Wage, subsidised arts programmes, feminist causes (such as addressing the supposed gender pay gap) and draconian laws protecting women from “online threats”.

The truth – and this is the crux of this post – is that there is a section of society out there which is not completely stupid (but not particularly bright either) who lack the talent, work ethic, and self-discipline to enter into professional or corporate environments and so attach themselves like parasites to the genuine arts world in order to give themselves some sort of identity.  The problem with the arts world – as opposed to say, law, engineering or music – is there is no quality control: anyone can tag along, dress up in costumes, get drunk, take some photographs, and claim they’re an “artist”.

As one commenter said elsewhere:

Inventing a career and being an artist fits the bill perfectly as it’s one which can be thought to confer a certain degree of social status – it implies someone creative, passionate, sensitive, driven yet without the burden of requiring evidence of any particular professional or financial success.

Another put it thusly:

The “arts” scene you mentioned is a reminder that for many people “being an artist” is more of a lifestyle choice than an activity.  For every genuine artist who is serious about creating something of value there are at least ten phonies who just want to be seen as cool and creative without doing any actual work.

What worries me is the degree of control and influence these people have over the overall arts world (including taxpayer dollars), and how they distort the image the public have of genuine, talented artists.

I know some genuine artists, and have heard from others who do as well, and those who pursue the arts as a career have had to put in thousands of hours learning and perfecting techniques, honing their skills, and converting their visions and ideas into a tangible output.  I heard one say that he paints because if he didn’t, he might as well die.  Even those who don’t practice their craft full-time and have to take a normal job to pay the bills dedicate huge swathes of their lives doing what they love and – crucially – having something to show for their endeavours of which they can be proud.  Tastes vary of course, but one has to show something in terms of output.  Being an artist, like being anything worthwhile, is a lifetime of seriously hard work.

This just didn’t apply to Angela, and nor (from what I could tell) to her whole social circle.  Having come from a background of engineering, I must confess I was barely aware such a section of society existed.  Almost everybody I associate with has worked their backsides off, put in years of effort, and committed endless sacrifice to achieve something tangible, be it learn a language, perfect a skill, or even raise a family (Angela was long-term single and childless, having gotten divorced after 2 years of marriage to a fellow hanger-on in the arts world; few of her friends appeared to have children).

Putting aside my professional achievements and the efforts I put in to survive in places like Kuwait, Nigeria, and Sakhalin, since I graduated from university I have learned two foreign languages to conversational level, mostly self-taught; I taught myself to play the guitar to a high enough standard to enable me to take part in music festivals; I practiced long and hard enough to be able to ski down red runs if not every black run in the Alps; and kept myself pretty physically fit and strong through regular gym work for the past 6 years.  Each of these on their own represents hours and hours and hours of patience, effort, dedication, and commitment to achieving a goal.  Most of it was painful, repetitive, drudgery.  I did it because I liked the results.  Aside from those, I am pretty well versed in 20th century Russian and Soviet history and culture, and general military history, but those took no effort at all because I enjoyed learning these subjects.  Among my peers – both professional and social – I am nothing special, everybody has a similar list of achievements to their name.  Until I poked my nose into Angela’s “arts” world, I assumed that most middle-class educated sections of society were the same.

Apparently not.  Much was made by Angela of the fact that I, as an engineer without much by way of formal cultural education, would benefit from having my mind exposed to the arts world.  And maybe it would, but the side of the arts worlds that Angela inhabits is one I really hope never to encounter again.  I should probably have chosen a better guide.