Brushes with Culture

This is a space where I can reflect on the many fascinating things that I experience. Some of the things I brush with are Culture with a capital C. Others are just intriguing moments. Sometimes I am brushing with these moments in a hurry. This is a chance to relive those moments in tranquility. These are the stories I tell myself in those quieter moments.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The First Cuckoos of Spring

Last night was the second mention for the Avebury stones in as many days and thus these prehistoric lumps of rock are beginning to rival only David Tennant in the frequency of citings (sightings?)...

Digressing briefly to the tall, Scottish time-challenged one, check out Totally Doctor Who, the "new CBBC show for young fans of the Time Lord", on which the star prize was meeting the DTP, if you are in any doubt about Tennant's increasing ubiquity (or the BBC's craven milking of the Doctor Who phenomemon for TV material).

However, it is the ubiquity of the lumps of rock that concerns me here. Luckily, both mentions were from artists and thus, although these Wiltshire stones are credited by both with being more exciting than Stonehenge, it's possible they are still an open secret and not soon to be encased, like Stonehenge, in unscaleable fences due to the wildness of their popularity (or, at least, not till I've seen them au naturel).

The first mention of Avebury fell from lips of Steve Empson, who led the Kerala trip of this February and who was giving me a tour of his house and artworks in the run-up to the Oxfordshire Artweeks Visual Arts Festival. (Sidenote: it's worth a trip to his home to see the colours he uses, the row of toilet rolls, the 187 Ganeshes and the garden plantings alone...) In the process, he showed me an evocative study of the stones.

And, till this point, I thought the biggest coincidence of the week would turn out to be the fact that, on two consecutive days, he and I were both wearing the same colour clothing - first brown, then pink - made more remarkable, we agreed, by our disposition to wear blue. (I guess I'm easily pleased by coincidences.)

But then came the coincidence that made my spine go cold for a moment - a spine chiller with the accompanying mental "daa-daa-daa". This second mention came from a source that cannot be named. This man became famous as an art terrorist through his interference a few years ago with the Avebury boulders and the media coverage this received. Famous in the abstract, as no one found out who the perpetrators were. Which is probably just as well, because they were in their 30s and the world is kinder to young radicals than older ones. Their only brush with acknowledgement was to inform the National Trust what kind of paint they'd used to daub these national monuments so that they could be easily cleaned. (Emulsion... thus water-based, at least.) So hence my slight hesitancy at blowing their cover.

They painted the stones in the middle of the night, shortly before midsummer's day. They painted them with strange symbols: symbols seen as occult by the experts commenting on the radio, but actually, I can reveal here, just ideas out of their heads. I can reveal this because I turned out to be having a drink with one part of the pair that performed this act of "cuckooism". Cuckooism, I learnt, is art that occupies another artist's space. The concept of cuckooism has appeared in many arenas since - in contexts more or less legitimate and welcome - though not the word itself. Their intention was for the term to catch on too, but the continued anonymity of the authors probably made it hard to seed. (They should have left a note.)

In some slightly dubious life-imitates-art way, I felt the whole principle of cuckooism was being played out again this week in my encounters with these men. An innocent reference by an artist in Oxford to the source of his inspiration brutally highjacked and made sensational by an act of art terrorism. One minute a gentle evocation of all that's good in the English countryside; the next, my head is in the grip of a major coincidence, as a big brash Avebury story usurps the modest space demanded by the idea of the simple study even now being mounted on a wall in Florence Park.

All I can hope is that the fall-out from this sudden cuckooist attention manifests in my actually getting to see the stones in situ, before or after the third reference to The Avebury Stones that will now no doubt follow the preceding two.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Evolution in Floristry

I have a new friend and his moniker is "The Arch Materialist". This, because he embraces Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett, and by extension, I suppose, Charles Darwin himself too, with the kind of passion I've not seen since I left the roboticists behind at Sussex some years ago. (It's kind of nice to be back thinking about GAs, CAs, ANNs and so on, but he's such a new friend that I've not really broached this level of detail. So far we've only argued about the nature of reality.) So, not materialist in any Sunday Telegraph sense or because of his shopping habits, of which I know nothing as yet.

I mention this because, having given him a name that he was not wholly displeased with, I demanded one of my own. And in that lazy way that very clever people have of avoiding hard work, he borrowed where I had created.

Some weeks ago, when my sister was playing at considering alternatives to being an incredibly important person at a large public broadcasting corporation, she suggested 'chaos floristry' as a profession. This immediately appealed to me as an answer to the precise effetism that is Ikebana and its like. As a family we have perfected the 'trim-the-stems-and-toss-them-in-a-vase chic that is the equivalent to getting out of bed and not brushing one's hair for that just-got-out-of-bed look. Suddenly, it had a name.

Then I was made to think of it when I was talking at the weekend to a whole group of passionate scientists of whom "The Arch Materialist" was only one. We were talking about "Time Flu". Now, I can't remember for the life of me what Time Flu is, but at the time it was wonderful and quite significant enough to me to say that I would blog it, along with the Chaos Floristry theme, when I was next at a keyboard long enough. Which I am now.

But things have moved on...

I’ve been thinking of you as the chaos florist. But am prepared to devote some little time to coming up with an alternative.
he wrote when challenged to provide a suitable handle. Cunning. Put like that. I would have felt churlish to request that he uninvest the effort required to have thought of me at all. So my sister has lost her fall-back career and I am now "The Chaos Florist".

Which I was explaining to a longer-standing friend - the one that once almost had that encounter with David Tennant (and, yes, I will be missing the first of the new series of Doctor Who to go to Norfolk, although it's rumoured that there are televisions there).

And for her, chaos floristry evoked the festoons of flowers that erupt when there's a tragedy. Like Princess Di... or a traffic accident by a railing...

And that was interesting, because I had started to wonder how far different a chaos florist might be from a chaos architect. An architect of choas... But surely florists have such a limited domain that what might otherwise be havoc is merely a stem or two gone haywire. Stochastic stamens. Sepals without a cause.

Anyway, it is clearly an evocative term. And now it's mine, all mine...

As a footnote, the DTP rolls on... The man was modelling clothes in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

It's not just the stuff of nightmare discussion. is an estate agent in Balham. aaarrrhhhggghhh is the sound of me running out of south London very fast.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Buried in the Landscape

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada - one of the reasons I wanted to go and see it was that the name Melquiades came up in the last book I was reading: One Hundred Years of Solitude and I enjoy a coincidence exploited well. It's a good film to see if you are in the final stages of submitting a highly competitive academic bid of a kind you've never written before and everyone else is either no help or not helping. It's good and slow, thoughtful, develops its characters and story thoroughly, spreads them out across a wide wild Mexican landscape. Funny how much better the landscape looks when they cross out of Texas into Mexico. I wonder why that is.

There are touches that are pure Guillermo Arriaga, who also wrote Amores Perros (visit this link for a bizarre/entertaining/annoying piece of animated typography featuring those words), like the dark humour and dying animals. That mule going down a cliff: I've never seen anything like it.

But my favourite moments involved media - televisions abound in the story, though not in the landscape, and there is one strategically placed radio. Nearly all of them are used for comedy; obviously designed as an absurdist commentary either by Arriaga or whoever interpreted his word into flesh. From the old blind man listening to a Spanish radio station without comprehension because he likes the sound of the language, to the TV set showing an old English-language family drama run off the car battery and being watched by three Mexican gents pausing in the wilderness... it makes the border patrol guy cry with nostalgia to see it, but they just wonder what set him off. The fact that they don't understand the English is a witty echo back to the other side of the border. Then there is the space drama in the cafe; the grand prix flag waving on a whole bank of HDTV sets in the shop window in Odessa. Even in the hotel room when they turn on the TV to escape the embarrassment of intimacy, there's three channels of porn.

The day before I saw this, I watched Hustle on telly in a break from the bid writing, which had an absurd Bollywood theme though, sadly, no commentary on life that I'm yet aware of. More significantly here, it featured a man turning from bad to good after a blow to the head. Desperate events eventually have some effect on the baddie in the film too. Redemption themes then? Or perhaps just catharsis through self-ridiculing media.

But I must end this comment on the glorious Melissa Leo, who is maturing well and shows - in a burst of tatoos and nakedness - that middle-aged and sexy is not an oxymoron.