Beg, Steal & Borrow (2)

Hurray! My brain is like wet cotton wool, but I managed to finish a book.

Robert Shore’s study of contemporary art practice is really thought provoking, but also (for me) somewhat depressing.  It is basically saying that since the internet, there can be no originality, or even any creativity, just a process of stealing, curating, selecting, repurposing, copying, remaking…

It made me think of bacteria feasting on a corpse.

It raises the question – Is culture moribund?

If the future of art is cannibalistic, then is it also deteriorating in quality?

Some artists find this situation very exciting and stimulating, but I’m ambivalent. For example, the conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith, thinks the internet has been a game changer:

For me the whole world changed when we met the internet […] We thought postmodernism back in the eighties was really something awesome, a break with modernism, when in fact it was the end of modernism.  What we couldn’t see was this giant wall that came down that was called the digital, and once that wall came down the whole game changed. […]

You really have to change your idea of what it means to be an artist.

The biggest change is the volume of images that are now available and available instantly.

I remember as an art student in the 1980s, that I would sometimes use other artist’s work for inspiration, but mostly this involved too much effort, so I would draw from life instead – I would observe the real physical world that was around me, I would ask friends to pose for me, I would collect real objects from skips or derelict buildings.  Otherwise, I would need to go to the library and look through books to find work I found inspiring, or I would need to physically travel to an art gallery.

Nowadays, I can simply type something into Google and hundreds of images will appear, both photographs of the ‘original’ art work and interpretations of it in other artists’ work.  For example, I just typed “Le dejeuner sur l’herbe” into a search engine and, as well as Manet’s famous painting (which incidentally, was inspired by Raphael), it came up with these:



I just wonder this – once we have feasted on our own culture and the artefacts of other cultures and endlessly regurgitated and consumed them, what will be left?  Have we actually run out of ideas?


Beg, Steal & Borrow

Beg, Steal & Borrow – Artists Against Originality
Robert Shore

I’m very easily distracted and now find myself reading Beg, Steal & Borrow, Robert Shore’s study of “artistic borrowing” in all its forms.  I thought it would be more focussed on postmodernism, but he hasn’t even mentioned po-mo as yet and I’m more than half way through the book.  Perhaps that’s to come in a later chapter?  Shore takes John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Walter Benjamin’s essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which are essential reading for any art historian, and runs with them, diverting us into areas such as the history of copyright law and whether art can ever be original.

I’m all for accessibility, but I’m finding Robert Shore’s writing rather peculiar.  He’s so laid back that he doesn’t even bother to tell us the artist Jonathan Lewis’s full name – he just refers to him as “my friend Jonathan” throughout the book.

I’ll give you an example of his idiosyncratic style:

“Channelling the spirit of Carrie Bradshaw in best ‘I’ve just had a really obvious idea’ mode, I began to type the following (to be read aloud in Sarah Jessica Parker’s voice)…”

What if you can’t do an accurate impersonation of SJP?  I’ve never watched Sex and the City, so she might have a Yorkshire accent for all I know (though I very much doubt it).  Isn’t this a very old fashioned cultural reference in any case?  The series hasn’t been on television for over a decade!

Having said that, my friend Robert (I don’t really know him), takes what could be a very dry subject indeed and makes it relevant, interesting and entertaining.

It is particularly relevant to me, as I am a collage artist, and therefore steal and borrow from other visual sources all of the time.  I could well be infringing copyright law, but as I never charge money for my work, I think I’m safe from prosecution.

Many artists have found themselves sued for copyright infringement and many make art which takes copyright as its subject matter.  Multimedia artist, Antonio Roberts, for example, who believes that artists and musicians should have more freedom to incorporate and interpret other people’s work.

“It’s not plagiarism […] It’s cutting and pasting.  Culture is made in that way.  People take it and morph it into something new.  If you had to pay for everything, it would be impossible.”

I agree. It’s absolutely essential to be able to reference other visual material in your work. Art is like a conversation which has been going on for centuries and it can’t be created in a cultural vacuum – it has to speak to its antecedents and to its contemporaries.  As my friend Antonio says:

Mickey Mouse should be in the public domain by now.

But I wouldn’t risk using his image in any of my collages – even those I send out in the post for nothing.

Wage Slaves

copy of screenshotI’m not much for blowing my own trumpet, but I thought I’d advertise my recent story on, mostly because it ties in with everything I’ve been reading lately.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes a prison designed by Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century.  This prison structure was called The Panopticon and it would be constructed in such a way that inmates could be observed from a central tower at all times.  However, they were never sure when they were under surveillance, only that they could be at any time.  The theory was that inmates would modify their behaviour in accordance with this knowledge.

Bentham was surprised that panoptic institutions could be so light: there were no more bars, no more chains, no more heavy locks…

The word ‘light’ stood out for me in this passage. A prison can be so ‘light’ that it doesn’t need physical walls, just the technology to enable constant surveillance and supervision of some kind, such as a tracking device.

It can be even more subtle than this.  Nowadays non-criminals can be enslaved by the technology which not only watches their every online move, but also modifies their behaviour.  It does this along very basic Pavlovian lines – reward and punishment.

The Panopticon was also a laboratory; it could be used as a machine to carry out experiments, to alter behaviour, to train or correct individuals.

I have all of this in mind while I’m writing my current series of stories.  I also have in mind, the terrible working conditions that are imposed on many of my peers.  My job as an invoice clerk is incredibly repetitive and monotonous, and for an intelligent person, this is tantamount to torture.  However, it is nothing to the soul-crushing routine inflicted on a ‘picker’ in an Amazon warehouse.  I can go to the toilet whenever I like, I can even get up and make myself a cup of tea. For some people in this country, my freedom would seem like luxury.   They are monitored at all times, their steps are counted, they are penalised for being sick, even when they follow the correct protocols for reporting absence, and they collect demerits for arbitrary infractions, with the constant threat of their employment being terminated hanging over them.  This isn’t employment – it is a form of enslavement.

The Prisoner

I don’t have a book to review at the moment, as I’m currently reading a very thick book about Dada.  The last fictional book I read was by Philip K Dick and I think his horror of the future is feeding into my current mood.  In other words, I don’t really have anything to say, but I have to write something for the sake of my mental health, so it’s going to be a strange paranoid rant about the town where I live.

Are you familiar with the sixties TV program The Prisoner?  The IMDb summarises the plot:

After resigning, a secret agent is abducted and taken to what looks like an idyllic village, but is really a bizarre prison. His warders demand information. He gives them nothing, but only tries to escape.

I only mention it, as that’s how I feel every morning when I wake up – that I’m trapped in an attractive, ‘idyllic’ prison town.

An artist acquaintance, who also lives here, once described it to me as Stepford Town.  She is right – it does have something of the uncanny atmosphere of Ira Levin’s excellent novel, The Stepford Wives.  There’s a sense that everything is surface, but that if you scratched that surface, you would discover something unpleasant underneath.

A photographer I know, once took some peculiar photographs on the town’s common, of discarded rubber gloves and dildos.  I’m not sure if there is a strange perverted sexual vibe to the town, as I don’t tend to pick up on those sorts of things, but the surface is very much tweed and gingham, wine and cupcakes, yoga and rice cakes.  Wholesome middle-classness, with bunting and a cherry on top.  However, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that there is an underground scene of dogging and swingers parties.  The local newspaper said that a brothel was raided a couple of weeks ago and its ‘lonely hearts’ ad section is most definitely a thinly veiled forum for prostitution.

I don’t think I would feel such animosity towards this place, if I was free to leave.  However, I’m somewhat trapped.  I can’t afford to live here, but I can’t afford to go.  The lion’s share of my income goes on rent, plus a tenth of my income goes on council tax.  I can’t afford to save – I don’t have a get out of jail card – but neither can I find a decent job here.  The money here is accumulated in London, in the City mostly, and the husbands leave at the crack of dawn and return at supper time, to their shiny Stepford wives.  Meanwhile, it’s all minimum wage, dead-end depressing dregs for the rest of us.

As my background is public sector, I have tried to get jobs at the council, but I get a sense that it’s a closed shop.  They have to invite you for an interview if you tick all the right boxes, but I guess that the jobs are already allocated.  In my more paranoid moments, I imagine that the council is entirely corrupt and a hotbed of Freemasonry, or the locus of some sort of cult.

The first time I went for an interview there, I was met by a woman who was frothing at the mouth – she was in full Exorcist mode.  I was then interviewed by a couple of harridans who asked me in-depth questions about my project management experience – something which had absolutely no relevance to the job I was applying for.  I’ve been ‘forgotten’ by interviewers and have been left waiting for an hour in an office reminiscent of something from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, I’ve never been given a computer that worked on any of my aptitude tests and I have been given exercises to do which required a working knowledge of departmental procedure (it would have been impossible to answer the questions, if you didn’t already work for the council)… it all adds up to a feeling that I was invited there to be humiliated.  I’m really not being paranoid – I could hear the harridans’ post-interview analysis through the flimsy wall and they were cackling like a couple of Stepford witches on nitrous oxide.

Anyway, unlike most of the wino yummy mummies who live here, I don’t self-medicate.  Art and writing are my valium.  If you’ve managed to make it to the end, then thank you for indulging my bilious invective.

Discipline & Punish

This is a follow-up post to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. I wanted to illustrate the idea of “The Punitive City”. In my view, a city which employs this level of surveillance is essentially an open prison. China has a dreadful human rights record, which is conveniently ignored due to their global economic power. See also, the photographs and documentary films of Canadian photographer, Edward Burtynsky. His Manufactured Landscapes is well worth watching and manages to distill unexpected beauty from the dystopian horror of modern day factory cities.


“Manufacturing #18” Cankun Factory, Zhangzhou, Fujian Province,

Photograph by Edward Burtynsky


Discipline and Punish

Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison
Michel Foucault

foucaultHere’s another favourite from my university days.  I would go as far as to say that this is one of the most important books of the twentieth century.  Reading Discipline and Punish changed how I viewed the world, and whether or not you agree with Foucault’s theories of power, his ideas are undeniably influential.

Discipline and Punish opens with one of the most gruesome descriptions of torture that I’ve ever read.  Foucault goes for the shock factor and it works; the reader is immediately immersed in a society in which punishment is public spectacle of the most horrific kind, with the human body providing the locus of the punitive act.  Perhaps the eighteenth century public execution seems like a distant relic of barbarism to the twenty-first century reader?  Particularly to someone who lives in a country where there is no corporal or capital punishment.  It serves as a reminder of how civilised we have become, since the penal system has been reformed and ultimately privatised, and wrong-doers are now excluded from society, rather than being disembowelled in public.

However, this is not entirely the case.  The prison is not separate from society, Foucault would argue, but integrated into it.  Society is a theatre of punishment and the penal mechanisms extend throughout the whole.  The prison system relies on the idea of deprivation of liberty – we are free and the prisoner is not.  The prisoner is constantly surveilled and monitored, while we are not…

Oh, but wait.  We are now.  This is the wonder of Foucault’s work – he foresaw the great Panopticon that is modern society.  He predicted surveillance society and provided a explanation of how its power structures operate.

Yes, like inmates, we are constantly monitored – watched on CCTV, our actions scrutinised on social media, our data collected and sifted for ‘thought crime’.  We may even correct our peers when they stray into dubious and unorthodox thinking and we internalise this mechanism, so that we no longer feel free to speak our minds.

What interests me the most about this book, is that we undoubtedly live in a society which is become less free, while those who are incarcerated are becoming less disciplined.  The lines are blurring.  Those in prison are deprived of freedom of movement, they are separated from wider society, but they enjoy many of the same mod-cons as the rest of us. Are their lives so very different?

Daily+Mail+work-shyMeanwhile, the discursive framework for describing the criminal reaches into the lower strata of society, through the idea of the ASBO, the scrounger, and the cheat.  The media and television, through headlines using the word ‘scrounger’ or ‘benefits cheat’ is functioning in a punitive way, whereby all people on benefits are demonised – ignoring the fact that many of those on benefits, may actually be in work.  There is little discussion of how economic policies may have created a situation whereby certain areas of the country provide few opportunities for employment.  At the same time, those in government, who enjoy subsidised canteens and bars and can claim hundreds of pounds in expenses, despite having personal fortunes and earning a decent income, are not seen as ‘scroungers’.

Thus, through this discourse, a whole social class is tainted.  A whole section of society is in a sense “guilty” of being “workshy” and what do we do with the guilty?  We punish them.

Obviously, Foucault never uttered a word on ‘Austerity’ but his ideas inform the way I think about the current government and its punitive regime.  Austerity was a response to a recession – a recession not created by the poor.  However, it is the poor who have been chosen to bear the brunt of its cuts and tax hikes.  The word austerity comes from the Latin ‘austerus’ meaning severe.  Its synonyms include spartan, asceticism, self-discipline and sternness.  The ruling class have come down hard on us poor folk, while using the language of punishment.  It is authoritarianism in the guise of common sense belt-tightening.

Foucault’s philosophy enables me to dissect the political rhetoric of those in power, it enables me to see society as a network of power structures, in which language and ‘the gaze’ are not neutral.  I may not agree with everything he said, and he might not have agreed with the way I use his ideas, but his writing has enriched my life and informed my thinking.

There is so much more to say about Discipline and Punish and I barely have time to read at the moment.  I may attempt to discuss his ideas on ‘Panopticism’ at a later date.


Proving your identity

I just wasted far too much time, attempting to prove that I am who I say I am.  I don’t have a passport or a driver’s licence and so I tried to set up a ‘Government Gateway’ account, so that I could apply for a provisional driver’s licence (although I have no intention of learning to drive).  But, of course, you need a passport or a driver’s licence to set up a ‘Government Gateway’ account, so you end up going round and round in circles.  Not to mention that you need access to a computer in order to do all of this.

I’m no further forward in this quest.

You can’t do anything without a computer nowadays.  For example, you can’t apply for a job with my local council, as they only accept online applications.

Just another example of how poor people are discriminated against.

I guess I’ll have to bite the bullet and pay for a passport at some point.  Although this costs approximately ten hours of my wages and I can’t afford a holiday anyway.  Plus I don’t know any ‘professional’ people who can vouch for me, because I don’t hobnob with lawyers and doctors!

Being a precariat is a pain in the arse – there is an obstacle to deal with at every turn.

Electric Dreams

Electric Dreams
Philip K Dick

I take back what I said before – I am a Dickhead.  A fan of Philip K Dick, that is.

My introduction to Dick’s work was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which I found slightly disappointing. However, this collection of short stories is excellent.  His ideas are incredibly prescient – I’ve no idea how he managed to predict with such accuracy, the sense of paranoia that developments in artificial intelligence would engender in modern society.

The collection seems to have been brought together because of a series of programmes on Channel Four.  I don’t watch television, so I haven’t seen them.  Having said that, I have enjoyed some episodes of Black Mirror on Netflix and can see that Philip K Dick has influenced them indirectly through the idea that virtual realities would give rise to ethical dilemmas and facilitate our darker impulses.  (Or perhaps Dick influenced them directly?  I don’t know the screenwriter, Charlie Brooker, so I can’t ask him if he is also a Dickhead).

I’ve seen a few interesting YouTube videos recently.  I have mentioned before that I like to watch university lectures!  Yes, I’m very sad.  Brian Eno mentioned DeepMind in one of his talks, which led me to check out their website.  It is fascinating, especially if you are interested in neuroscience and psychology, not just AI.  DeepMind describe themselves as “the world leader in artificial intelligence research and its application for positive impact.”

Well, I’m not here to argue the ethics of Artificial Intelligence – I’m sure my sense of paranoia is already evident to anyone who reads this blog! It’s the misuse of our data, that causes me concern, rather than a fear of some Terminator-style rise of the machines.  (Having said that, I actually had a tantrum while using a “self-service checkout” this morning – not my finest hour.  Really, M&S, is it too much to ask to be served by an actual human being first thing in the morning, instead of arguing with a temperamental computer?  Imagine the difference a smiling and helpful sales assistant would have made to the start of my day).

Anyway, please do look at the DeepMind website: there is a project about how AI systems learn, which is very interesting and also one on how AI systems can learn to navigate cities “as humans used to do, without maps, GPS localisation, or other aids, using only visual observations.”

Is that how humans really learned to navigate cities – “using only visual observations”?  I suspect it is a far more holistic sensory experience.  Perhaps humans attach memories to places, of personal significance, and use them as a breadcrumb trail?  Or you may use your nose to help you navigate.  Different areas of London still have different aromas – this would have been even more evident when London was a working city with tanneries, docklands, fish markets, abattoirs, etc.  For example, the term ‘The Shambles’ means an open-air slaughterhouse, so if you live in a quaint city which has a road called The Shambles, then you can imagine what it must have smelled like once upon a time.  Perhaps you could have followed your nose?

I’m not sure why a robot would need to ‘navigate’ a city in a human way – surely you could just program the coordinates into it or something?  What do I know?

This is Techno-Luddite signing off.

Three Books


These are three of my favourite books.  Well, they are of the ones I own.

The Politics and Poetics of Transgression is possibly the most important book in my intellectual development.  I haven’t read any of these books for years, but when I find a spare couple of weeks, I may do so again.

I suppose I should put them within some sort of context – I read these as part of the most interesting module of my art history degree – the history of photography.  They’re not photography books, but they fit, because the development of photography facilitated the Victorian fascination with observing the lower classes.  In the nineteenth century, principles of scientific classification were applied to people, so that taxonomies were developed, informed by the existing and emerging social orders.

I could go on, but I won’t, as I would need to actually study the subject again and I don’t have time.

The reason I bring them up, is that if we are going through another “Industrial Revolution”, then it may be a good idea for someone to actually consider the potential consequences for unskilled workers.  What are they going to do?  Where are they going to live?  How will they live?  Will they live like the poor people observed by Henry Mayhew – picking up dog shit and collecting bits of rubbish?

Of the places I’ve visited, Hong Kong is possibly my favourite. However, it really was a place of contrasts.  On the one hand, it was incredibly hi-tech, a dazzling and futuristic place, but if you ventured into the back streets, you would see how less fortunate people lived, stacked up on top of each other and selling tat from makeshift market stalls.  On Cat Street I was approached by ancient Chinese woman, who held out something for me to buy.  She looked at me hopefully.  It was a tiny piece of green bottle glass worn smooth, like a jade bead, but definitely not a jade bead.  I didn’t buy it.

Is this what future cities will look like?  Sky scrapers and rubbish dumps?  Bio-hacked bankers and no-tech mudlarks?  Or will we social cleanse the useless eaters – moving them out of sight?

My friend Pete is trying to persuade me that we’re living in a Computer Simulation anyway, so perhaps none of this is important.  I’m hoping it’s all a big game of SimCity™.


I watched this video today and I thought it seemed like an interesting postscript to the book Hired, discussed below.

It’s perhaps not fair of me to say this, as I haven’t read anything that he has written, but I feel that Jeremy Rifkin is espousing a seductive, but selective worldview.

For a start, his description of what he calls “the First Industrial Revolution”, focuses on communication, energy and mobility (transport) – that is, steam-powered printing, coal and railways.  Completely ignoring the factory as the locus of production – conveniently forgetting that the industrial revolution relied upon workers, human labour, as well as consumers.

Likewise, his description of the “Second Industrial Revolution” focuses on America and its own oil fuelled phase of capitalism – concentrating on the telephone, TV and the internal combustion engine. He mentions the motor car, but how could Rifkin be forgetting Henry Ford and the development of assembly line production?

My own guess is that it is a convenient oversight on Rifkin’s part, allowing him to ignore the impact that the coming “Third Industrial Revolution” will have on workers.

According to him, the next revolution will be “The Internet of Things” –  information, energy and logistics internets are about to converge to a single platform.  He likens this to the central nervous system and its connection to the brain.

“We have sensors on the factory floor, constantly keeping up-to-date information on the flow of production…, sensors in the front and back office, sensors in the retail stores… feeding big data back.”

Big Data flows via sensors… to what exactly? Feeding data about us to whom?

According to Rifkin’s positive spin, any of us will be able to use the big data and produce our own apps and algorithms.  “Any consumer can become a prosumer… we all have equal access…”

Really, Mr Rifkin?  Excuse me if I find this hard to believe.

I’ve also watched an extended lecture by Jeremy Rifkin in which he says that after the Third Industrial Revolution we won’t need to own anything – we will “share”.  That sounds lovely.  No, I actually don’t think it does.  What it really means is renting everything – hiring goods and services.  I already rent a house and can be evicted at a month’s notice.  That’s bad enough – I don’t want someone else sleeping in my bed while I’m out at work.

The cynic in me wonders if this future isn’t a bit like the Uber drivers described in James Bloodworth’s book, Hired?  A workforce who as part of the new ‘gig economy’ have lots of ‘freedom’ but very few rights.  Their freedom is somewhat illusory as they have to be constantly available via the Uber app and therefore can’t work for a rival company – they are not really self-employed, as they can be given the sack if they refuse too many jobs.  They have no sick pay or holiday pay and this can result in them earning less than a minimum wage worker in real terms, if they have to take time off.

Jeremy Rifkin’s hypnotic delivery is very reassuring, but he relies upon his audience being ignorant of labour history.  He is attempting to seduce affluent millennials and get them on board for the coming revolution, but I’m too old for this.  I don’t want to be plugged into the Matrix.  On the other hand, I don’t want to be part of the twenty percent of the world’s population who doesn’t even have electricity.  What’s a girl to do?  Apparently, the third world is going to just skip the first two industrial revolutions and go straight to Hive Mind anyway.  There’s no escape – join the internet of everything or become extinct.