ROTTENBUGGER: Encompassing the mythologisation of nature in film compeered by David Attenborough, concept art with finance, and ecology promoted like a monetarist derivative
The oddity of the Maidstone denaturalised wood (see the addendum to MABEY BABY) somewhat helped compensate for a desolating absence of song birds and insects on this waste ground that could well have once have been common land. Three sun filled days in mid September, 2009 with sound carrying for miles on the motionless air, and all we saw were several Common Sympetrums, one female Common Aeshna, one Comma, one Small Copper and at most three Speckled Woods. We remarked on the absence of wasps, bees, hover flies but especially crane flies, unable to spot even one daddy long legs, though in truth we opted not to look too closely, preferring to remain blind. In nearby suburban gardens the diadem or garden spiders appeared to be doing well, but one couldn't help feel that this was an aberration and that it did not indicate a recovering eco system. But this is the position that has been adopted by Buglife and the British Arachnological Society, duplicating the dangerous hyperbole of the billion Painted Ladies that purportedly would, in a spectacular reverse migration, be winging their way to warmer climes in late summer.
No other explanation was ever offered for the seeming large number of arachnids. Helped by the decline in insectivorous birds, spider eating wasps, frogs and even flies, could it be that the chain of predation has broken down, allowing more spiders to reach maturity than is customarily the case? The larder appeared to be all but bare when we came to examine garden spider webs in the second week of October, these intact, tensile and empty orbs showing only a barren assortment of leaves, down, dust particles and the odd winged aphid. Though this may seem far fetched, a comparable scenario is infolding in drought-ridden East Africa. Big cats are also doing well there because stricken herbivores are very easy prey. Of course we would know nothing of this if all we had to go on was David Attenborough's shameful "Life" (first screened on October 12th, 2009) which began in Kenya and showed an example of cooperative behaviour, three leopards joining forces to bring down an ostrich. The series was three years in the making so there can be no excuse in pleading ignorance regarding a drought that has ravaged East Africa for five years with Kenya, and neighbouring countries, the first to be almost totally burnt to a frazzle by climate change. With this in mind "Life" (though "Death" would be a better title) did not come across as a scientific record but rather as invitation to a wild life safari and was therefore advertising at its most deceitful.
Attenborough is a master of the black arts of pseudo conservation and honorary president of Butterfly Conservation, chosen on account of his celebrity status and unrivalled capacities as a salesman of nature. This year BC and the Independent newspaper got together and came up with the hard sell of "Butterfly Summer". In fact this partnership was an ecological bogoff - join BC and the Independent was yours for free for one year.
On July 25th the Independent's environmental editor Michael McCarthy foamed that we were in the "middle of one of Britain's most extraordinary butterfly summers – with a billion butterflies of one species about to take wing----presenting people with a chance to spot butterflies in greater numbers than have been seen in Britain for years". What pernicious nonsense! One butterfly, no matter how many there are of one species (in this instance, the Painted Lady) hardly makes a "butterfly summer". Nearly six weeks later the same sentiments were echoed in the Guardian (4/9/09) with a journalist claiming he "had been amazed by the swarms of butterflies that I believed only existed in the hyperbolic imagination of Victorian lepidopterists" adding "the summer of 2009 has witnessed one of the greatest Painted Lady migrations in living memory". Both journalists appear to have been suffering from the same hallucination brought on by the editorial enforcing of wishful thinking, because, in our view, there have not been that many Painted Ladies on the wing either in the north or south, certainly not in comparison to the great invasion of over a decade ago when it was possible to pick Painted Lady larvae off thistles growing up through cracks in the pavement of inner London and Silverdale Moss in Morecambe Bay was one mass of writhing larvae. Come October 2009, even the BBC's "Autumnwatch" began to have their doubts: where were all the expected millions - even billion - second generation Painted Ladies? No one dared say it was not much more than hype from the very start. And so this perplexing ecological mystery needed to be solved and perhaps we the viewers had the answer! And there had to be an answer – if not some knowing wiseacre might begin to compare this piece of inflationary nature hype with the fictive bubbles generated by a stagnating capitalism founded on the advertising of brands (or butterflies) and the spinning of wilder and wilder fantasies.
As the Independent's environmental Editor Michael McCarthy, of all people, should have exercised restraint. In an article for the Independent on April 21st 2008 he wrote of the alarming decline of birds migrating between Africa and Europe, this profound motion having long been "recognised as one of the worlds most magnificent natural phenomena on the scale of the gulf stream and the Indian monsoon". On the 22nd of March, 2009 reviewing a book titled "Say goodbye to the Cuckoo" by John Murray he wrote of his unease, of something troubling he could not put his finger on, of spring as we know it coming to an end, of something so momentous "that perhaps it is better not to think it through". Fortunately for the Independent's environmental editor "Butterfly Summer" saved him from having to do that and bland conservationism is once more the order of the day. The majority of conservation yap is today filtered through the media with cash strapped editors and program directors pressuring journalists into writing up-beat assessments against their better judgement, just as if they were preparing a company report prior to a shareholders meeting.
In this media transect they clutch at numbers (numbers in organisations, numbers of individual species, numbers of consumers of nature - everywhere the hunt is on to increase the number -) never once stopping to ask what do the numbers actually mean, for their jobs would be on the line if they did so. And wild life conservation charities ever anxious not to alienate the middle ground, in the last analysis unequivocally support this bad practise - despite the occasional quibble of a conscious stricken member who is then silenced by being ignored, (or maybe judged a bit touched), rather than asked to leave.
Even more insidiously than their advertising counterparts (for it is expected of them) the bio-numerati have, almost without exception, fallen into the trap of hyping the one swallow that makes a summer in ad land but certainly not in nature. So number begins to substitute for genuine biodiversity and becomes bioperversity, the main aim of the language of advertising being to inflate expectations and the myth of possession, the ceaseless wanting rather than the actual holding. Selling dreams as reality, the consumer imaging of nature as abundance rather than dearth, works just so long just so long as we remain separated from nature, either as viewers or tourists to earth centres and pricey nature hospices like the St Albans butterfly house, made all the more agonizing because not one voice has been raised in protest against it, in fact very much the opposite. Only if we resist the controlling images of nature will we begin to get anywhere.
A language inevitably accompanies the financialization of nature that comes straight from theatre, film, gallery or music reviews. Briefly viewing the BBC's "Autumnwatch" before I could stand it no longer and had to switch off, I was forcibly struck by hack literary expressions like "natural theatre", "incredible drama" and then show biz head liners like "Battle of the Titans", "King of the Green" etc. to describe the red deer rut. At one point a nature presenter (Chris - Crisp Packet - Packham) accused another (Simon King) of "trying to out-orchestrate" him. Continually assaulted with jargon like "nature's harvest", "autumn's incredible riches", autumn was being constrained to live up to its stereotype, as though Keats' "Ode to Autumn" had been especially composed for the show. Rather than seeking to express the alarming reality of today's out of kilter autumn in which birds are nesting and fields of poppies blooming for the second time, language was here deployed as a tool to style a conventional autumn, the one sanctified by tradition, the cosy autumn of fireside chats and church harvest festivals.
Of course, these presenters know a lot about nature and their facts and experiences are often very interesting but there again so are ours and all others immersed in nature that have no profile or position in society. For the last two centuries at least, there's been tension between the specialists (often writers) and the field naturalists though neither could get by without the other; a living testimony if you like to that vibrant democracy nature forces on us – intimated perhaps again in Keats' "grand democracy of forest trees" – a concept ever beckoning towards greater enrichment. Have we now reached the moment when there may be a greater coming together involving the questioning of the very existence of money, the state, the suburbanisation of life and a omniscient trivial consumption bringing about the end of all the eco-systems which so much life depends on? In short, a coming together to combat the era of suicide capitalism.
The creation of an artificial language that shapes rather than reflects reality, is greatly aided by the fact that nature is increasingly experienced as a media representation, one we are guided through by professional presenters and 'unworldly' falsifiers like David Attenborough as if they alone know the path to nature's holy grail, a nature unspoiled by the devastation wrought by capitalism. Sir David has now acquired the status of a national treasure. Revered to the point of worship even by the likes of Johnny Rotten, to be even mildly critical of this nature royal is to be guilty of the crime of lese-majesté. As the nature illusionist, he has rightly incurred the censure of George Monbiot but who then typically retracts and praises the man - however in a way that totally damns Sir David, once the connotation of his remark are properly understood and whose true meaning obviously escapes Monbiot. Godlike in that St David can do no wrong "in the eyes of all who worship him" he is godlike in another sense in that "he has created a world which did not exist before".
A comment like this could have rolled off the pen of a Schelling or even the far harder-headed Hegel. Dialectical idealism aside, also present in this categorical statement is the romantic dream of ultimate artistry, the desire to create life and replace "god". Translated into today's environment it amounts to saying that without Sir David nature does not exist and, what's more, can only do so in the presence of celebrity, for this is now its conditio sine qua non. Forget cameramen and women, production teams, production editors, operations managers and what not, (actually all irrelevant save the former), this is more than just the appropriation of other peoples efforts typical of captains of industry or those erstwhile "masters of the universe", the financiers. No longer just a knight of the realm, Sir David has now become a demi-urge that creates the universe we are in! Every bubble is more an outrage against common sense, more of an anti-gravity event than the last, so now is the time to float the possibility of a nature bubble, a Planet Earth become an ark of re-engineered nature.
In order to retain their credibility, nature celebrities like Attenborough have begun to pepper their broadcasts with calls for action as though they were saying something shockingly radical, the incantatory effect of this word sweeping all before it like magic. But really it is a call for more talks at the political level, for talks about talks until the incendiary word has been robbed of all meaning by talktalk. Action as envisaged by Sir David is inaction, a motionless form of motion, an impotent declamation on the stage of world politics such as the December 2009 Copenhagen Conference on climate change will undoubtedly turn out to be and which more perceptive, though hardly radical, commentators already acknowledge to be the case (see, for instance the Guardian 29/9/09 "The last chance to save the world: long, contradictory and impenetrable") The last thing Sir David wants is for people to take matters into their own hands and act for themselves. This is the only way to save nature and is also rapidly bound to reconnect with a past which has been smothered in forgetfulness and drowned in calumny when people did take to the streets and could make a difference.
In the interim, as never before, celebrity became a displaced praxis, an alienated form of empowerment based on the renunciation of self and a symptom of increased dispossession such that nothing is achievable without the presence of celebrity. So omnipresent is the infatuation with celebrity that not so long ago Butterfly Conservation organised butterfly walks along the south coast of England with each step of the way guided by a different celebrity! By virtue of being a celebrity they knew everything about butterflies and gave life to them. So much for the little things that run the earth. Without a parasitic superstructure it seems they can't! Today there is nothing a celebrity can't fix from curing world poverty, negotiating with the Taliban, sorting out the Middle East to finding a cure for cancer. Their collective, gargantuan, though self-serving aims, reminds one of the hopes that formerly were invested, for much sounder reasons, in the workers and non-workers' movement. And ultimately it all boils down to money, the need to justify it, even appearing to give it away ("we owe it to humanity") in order to double up on income later, once the media publicity has done its work by keeping a celebrities name in circulation. And that is why Sir David Rottenborough has to predate the word "action" and render it extinct through over kill. His unspoilt, not of this world, vision of nature he seeks to project is ultimately directed to preserving the status quo, to conserving the money economy and a dreamlike nature rather than a down and dirty nature for an anonymous majority that has temporarily lost sight of itself, the worship of celebrity a major part of this self-denying ordinance. And only in so far as the eco-constituency is prepared to transgress, and not do as it's told, will it begin to understand this and act upon it. Not only is the eco movement in desperate need of a relevant critique of capitalism, it is also totally wanting in a critique of the state. Because of this, actions that have the potential to cut loose from the state and capitalism can fast get bogged down in the quick sands of the state that will ensure they come to nothing, though admittedly it is far from easy to keep the two apart as the state will always shadow a threatening social movement and seek to do everything it can to integrate it if it cannot destroy it directly. No one in their right minds can expect Sir David to initiate a discussion of the role of the state because, like all big name ecos', he is incapable of even beginning to see that the state is a huge problem and that a nature liberated from capitalism is also a nature liberated from the state. He couldn't even contribute intelligently to a discussion on how the conservationist state arises out of voluntary initiatives beginning more or less in the 1920s which are then promoted by radio and national newspapers in particular, the conservation of nature eventually forming part of a broader national plan of strict town and country planning laws, welfare agencies and the nationalisation of basic industries, all designed to preserve capitalism and make it function 'properly' by correcting, once and for all, free market anarchy. Though Sir David is aware that if we get out of kilter with the natural world "the associated emotional, spiritual and physical loss is the road to madness" he does not see that the nature tradition in this country is infused with a hidden radicalism of great subterranean power and that the extraordinary pre-eminence of natural history in these islands kicks off when its founding father, John Ray, refuses around 1660 to swear an oath of allegiance to the state in matters of conscience. Thus from the very start, modern natural history in England is stamped with liberty and a resistance to state tyranny, though as time passes it tends to increasingly become an underground current. Though a very broad one, it is reluctant to show its teeth and is inclined, like all underground movements, to whisper rather than bark, fearful of making its presence known and only roaring out of earshot.
The Attenborough files, with nature a distinct second, are now to be made available on line in the BBC web archive. It has been hailed as "a massive on line experiment" with fresh clips, between two and eight minutes long, uploaded everyday. The streaming of film on the internet is increasing by leaps and bounds so why call it "a massive on line experiment"? How will success be measured? By the number of hits a hit counter registers? Or will success be measured to the degree the consumption of digitised images replaces actual nature? If digitised viewing becomes an end in itself then there is no need to conserve nature, for the proxy more than improves on the tedium of the original that fails to bite when we want it to or hides beneath a leaf or won't come out of its cave. Rather than the key to appreciating the diversity of life, this aesthetic Darwinism selects only the best shots. And why stop here? Why not eventually offer the opportunity to remix nature as we think fit and make up our own cryptozoology as we go? Interactive media is still in its early stages but dreams of becoming digital biology. So what better way to compensate for the disappearance of nature than by inventing our own? This we can 'print' out in a backyard biofactory and then set free to maraud like a vengeful chimera straight out of the pages of Lautreamont's "Songs of Maldoror? Though still only a distant possibility there is many a true word spoken in jest. Attenborough is on record as saying "urbanization (means) people are increasingly out of touch with the natural world" but that the great remedy is TV that has "an obligation to keep people informed of what is going on"! Search far and wide and it is difficult to find anything that remotely can compare with this Delphic banality and that has to be a candidate for the most stupid utterance ever.
From fairly modest beginnings, the BBC's Natural History Film Unit has become enormously influential over the past 25 years, commanding a worldwide audience - and franchise. The standard format is tailored to the demands of television and never lasts longer than an hour and typically makes maximum use of a more or less lone presenter, David Atttenborough becoming the first nature celebrity to achieve international renown. Though the world hegemony of the made–for-TV Natural History Unit is not at risk, it is now facing a challenge from the "big screen". Disney is back again, this time selling more of a space/time experience than the earlier fare of appealing bed time stories that were the despair of serious naturalists and the butt of satirists. The new company is called "DisneyNature" and was formed after the screening – a few years back - of Attenborough's "Planet Earth" in the States, Disney responding to the series success by setting up its specialist nature division. The company's first release in the US was simply called "Earth" – a full length version of "Planet Earth", meaning it was a once-and-for-all viewing experience with no subsequent episodes to be screened over the following weeks. Over the next five years "DisneyNature" intends releasing a film a year, the first , "Crimson Wing" a "lyrical study of flamingos living on Lake Natron in Tanzania", the second , the sub aquatic "Adventure Ocean" (why not promote it as "experience total immersion"?) and the third, "Naked Beauty" about the job pollinators do but which wont mention that in 2007 there was a 31% loss of bee colonies in California and so will intentionally fall far short of the Naked Truth.
The other factor behind the founding of the company was the runaway success of the French film "March of the Penguins" which when released in the States in 2005 grossed a staggering $77m. As the British director of "Crimson Wing", Matthew Eberhard said, the French film "made things possible because other people saw they could make money out of it". Though the emphasis of "DisneyNature" is upon an immersive experience – Eberhard said of "Crimson Wing" "we wanted it to be a project that people can't experience on television (by helping) give one the feeling that they could be there" - he also added that "we're trying to tell more of a story line than a standard wildlife film". Are we back to the old Disney ways or will the narratives strive to be more faithful to nature and seek to reflect its truth? Some hope of that, matey! Eberhard has confessed to finding himself "getting quite bored with television wildlife programmes" a view we would readily agree but which he then immediately negates by declaring they lack artistry " big screen productions giving one a little more artistic leeway" i.e. code for artistic license and all the crap that goes with it. Frankly to find Attenbrough's approach preachy, and proselytising because it "tells people what to do" is to be deaf, dumb and blind to the low key box of artistic tricks from out of which the series is constructed and the equally insidious "do nothing" message that goes with it. Other than chucking the TV out and going back to dial-up, we cannot, all that easily, disconnect ourselves from this increasingly universal form of smothering, academic, nature entertainment that is now so predictable, repetitious and formulaic that we take about as much notice of it as the air we breathe it is so omnipresent. In fact it is only a superior form of Disney, a staging post for Hollywood, a bloc buster in abeyance. The cunning of artifice resides in its capacity to slam the door shut on the absolute need to make that imaginative leap that leaves the editing of nature behind and goes to its actual defence on the field of the battle for nature. The spectacle of the fullness of nature is part of this sinister stratagem: why save when nature's credit is unlimited?
In tandem with the financialization of nature, the BBC's Natural History Unit has become increasingly capitalised. The days are long gone when a naturalist husband and wife team would live out their days in a tiny caravan parked on Spurn Point in the Humber estuary sparingly using the film they could ill afford to buy, so pitiful was their income from the BBC. We also yearn for the vérité of George Cansdale and "Animal Magic" when animals bit keepers and went berserk in the studio. On the spot where once stood an outhouse to nowhere there is now a career ladder. And nowhere has this been made more explicit than in the Unit's dealings with everyone's favourite animal of the moment, the Meerkat.
Twenty years ago Attenborough produced "Meerkats United" which subsequently was voted the most popular nature documentary of all time. It was made by James Honeybourne who had just joined the BBC's Natural History Film Unit. He has since gone on to 'better' things and is now the director and "brains" behind "Meerkats-the Movie" which is backed by the Weinstein Bros and narrated by the deceased Paul Newman. In the New Disney the presenter has become a voice, though not just any old voice for only an instantly recognisable one will do. The voice we hear on the American version of "March of the Penguins" is that of Morgan Freeman and Whoopi Goldberg narrates on "Meerkat Manor", the film that will go head to head with "Meerkat - the Movie".
The original "Meerkat Manor", (narrated by Bill Nighy of the abysmal "Love Actually"), was an animal soap and the first of its kind and became a hit both sides of the Atlantic. Produced by Oxford Scientific Films with support from the BBC, TV ratings showed it had as many viewers as "Eastenders" and "Coronation Street". It was originally the brainchild of Tim Clutton-Brock, an animal behaviourist and head of evolutionary biology in the University of Cambridge, who had been carrying out an extensive study into the lives of Meerkats for more than ten years. Using a LAN system of miniature cameras linked to computers to aid the team's investigation, at some point or other the penny dropped the footage could be turned into a new kind of serial movie and franchises used to fund further research. "Nature" selected for, processed and digitally remastered into a "somewhat art" is here used as a form of pop art futures trading and economic prop to underwrite science. (Note how the funding of science has become increasingly dependent on the amount of exposure it receives in the media and whether research can be digitally imaged. The Independent of the 6th October 2009 carried, on its front page, a striking photo of a human embryo to focus attention on the fact that all research on the creation of animal-human "hybrid" embryos had been refused funding).
In the feature length movie of "Meerkat Manor", reconstructions and special effects have been employed - and the drama upped. As the Independent (15th October 2009) put it "Honeybourne's film draws one animal's life in to a tear jerking coming of age drama". The anthropomorphic views of Konrad Lorenz have been aired once more to explain our attraction to Meerkats, Lorenz arguing that humans react positively to animals that resemble babies because we are hard wired to do so. However, in later life, Lorenz became a victim of what he had initially struggled so hard against and his malignant brand of sociobiology led to a facile projection of human responses onto the animal kingdom, and vice versa, Lorenz crudely justifying fascism as "animal" in origin because, through the study of animals, we "discover facts which strengthen the basis for the care of our holiest, racial, volkish and human heredity"! How very cudddlesome! In his book "The Year of the Greylag Goose" (1979) Lorenz spoke of one bird's "scorned mistress", another's "unfaithful mate" and a goose's "dumbstruck grief" at the loss of his beloved. Reviewing the book in "Natural History" magazine, a zoologist wondered, "How did this soap opera get into a book on geese?"(For further comments see "The Encyclopaedia of Evolution" by Richard Milner). Other than the maintenance of the status quo the sociobiological art we are discussing has no political agenda beyond that of keeping us fixated on the media, dumbed down, with the freedom to choose and enjoy more channels than ever before and that has now become the essence /definition of the good life.
Having mentioned one of the "big three" ethologists or behavioural naturalists (Lorenz, Von Frisch and Tinbergen), I am reminded of another exhaustive study of animal behaviour. Under the guidance of Niko Tinbergen, beginning in 1952, Kittiwakes on the Farne Islands were put under the spotlight for several years by another husband and wife team, Esther and Michael Cullen. Then the phrase "under the spotlight" was merely a rhetorical flourish, whereas nowadays it would mean the Kittiwakes had been singled out for the Meerkat treatment. Rinsed by media exposure, their identity, as Kittiwakes, would be subtly erased, softening them up so they could be remade by the marketing men. We would, for instance, give the birds names, like they were a troupe of actors, to prepare them for their debut on the world stage. In "Meerkat Manor" there were several clans, or mobs - the Whiskers, the Lazuli, the Commandos, the Starskys, the Zappas, staffed with soldiers like Frank (geddit?), Hannibal, Zaphod, Mitch, Houdini, Punk, Mozart, Carlos, Nikita, Wilson, Shane etc. So from this to Count Orlov of "compare the market/meerkat.com" is only a short step for mediaman – but one giant step for Meerkats. Though the ad that has been heaped with industry awards and remixed in virals that has Count Orlov watching porn, the Meerkats grooming essentially begins with Attenborough - and ends with regular updates on Count Orlov's twitter feed and flick album. It's that simples.
Back on the Farnes off the coast of Northumberland, Michael Cullen sought to capture the Kittiwakes display on film whilst Esther carried out her tireless observations from a windbreak erected perilously close to the cliff edge. Today there would be a network of leads, digital observation replacing actual observation. The hair raising risks that once were part of fieldwork and gave it that special, electrifying umph has been largely superseded by computer fed armchair observation, which, though it can be just as canny, do not force upon a person that life-enhancing spirit of adventure and carelessness of personal safety that animated the old naturalists.
I have seen snatches of the film shot by Michael Cullen, and which though absorbing, has not struck me to anything like the same extent as the regular appearance on Tyne Tees Television of Kittiwakes nesting on the Tyne Bridge. Would prolonged observation reveal subtle differences in behaviour when compared with the behaviour of Kittiwakes on the cliffs of the Farnes? The regularity of a machined environment does affect animal behaviour and it takes some adjusting too, like the garden bird Julian Huxley observed that persisted in trying to build a nest on each rung of a ladder despite the fact the nest fell to the ground every time. In nature there are no such regularities, the bird tricked into thinking the ladder was a tree, and the rungs, branches. Similarly I feel particularly miffed that I have not been able to follow up my observations on the Grayling in Healey Mills Marshalling Yards in West Yorkshire and examine further the butterfly's relationship to rusting railway lines and points levers, the peeling cream paint of the latter giving them a flaking, blotched appearance not unlike that of the bark of a silver birch which Graylings traditionally like to rest on- and rather warmer, moreover, because of the heat retentive properties of metal. But no, dumb fuck authority decided the yard looked better with the old, buckling, railway lines and rotting sleepers pulled up and carted off. I did notice in 2009 that their has been a reversion to type and that the Grayling is returning once more to hug the birches that fringe what used to be the colony's centre. A marvellous opportunity has been irretrievably lost without one conservation body giving a damn. The urban Kittiwakes are the only thing that would persuade me to visit Newcastle's quayside. However, once there, I would wander down to take a look at the Eye Bridge and then sadly reflect does anyone know the real origin of this metaphorical, body-part, construction which goes back to 1968/69 and Raf Fulcher's brilliant reconstruction of Tatlin's Ornithopter in dingy basement premises in Newcastle. We did not know it then but this talisman was the herald of a fundamental change about to take place in Newcastle and that, far fetched as it does sound, eventually would have a colossal impact on the regions industrial base, easily as big, and certainly more consequential, than Parsons Turbinia on show in Exhibition Park. This construction was just a part, and a recuperative part at that, of a tide of advanced revolutionary thinking then sweeping Newcastle that sought to transform everyday life in its entirety. Unable to remotely achieve its goal, this profound, encepahlous movement that was almost immediately brutally stamped on, would eventually reap the ironic harvest of aestheticisation the city is now noted for. Everywhere we go in present day Newcastle we see the inverted image of what we were about all those years ago. For the moment its more avant-garde, conceptual conservatism has been overlain by an even greater orthodoxy, that of traditional theatre and the musical epitomized by the runaway success of Lee Hall's "Billy Elephant" and "The Pitman Painters" in the West End and on Broadway. When Melvyn Bragg, that consummate philistine of encyclopaedic scope, interviewed Hall on TV there was no mention of the most knowing painting ever produced by the Ashington miners, which was of a public urinal in Wallsend. Containing a hidden reference to Duchamp's Urinal, potentially it could have opened a can of worms and pointed the archaic debate more in our direction. (Again in this respect take a look at "A Malicious Dunciad in Newcastle" elsewhere on this web).
And so once more to the brownfield Kittiwakes of the Tyne Bridge. Urban yes, but they are not yet urbane. And to become that they require the services of an artist. But it doesn't have to be that of a film crew, editor and producer taking instructions from an increasingly art conscious animal behaviourist. It can be like what happened in Folkestone on the south coast just as the noughties economic crash was getting under way. The Folkestone Triennial, curated by Andrea Schlieker, is a three yearly "time and space" exhibition, the first taking place in the summer of 2008. All the usual names were to be found with their noses in the trough - Emin, Deller, Wallinger.....and Marc Dion an LA artist who had constructed(or rather had made- which actually is an important qualification, for today's conceptual artists typically cannot bang a nail in) a Mobile Gull Appreciation Unit in the shape of a giant seagull. This staffed unit was a clearing house for information about the "evolution, ethology, natural history environmental status and folklore of these remarkable birds", Dion announcing in a masterly statement of the obvious that "Gulls are the most conspicuous non-human denizens of Folkestone". Conceptual artists valorise just by looking and eco artist are no exception, the observation of nature now coming with a price tag attached.
Andrea Schlieker had been called in by the Town Council to head an arts led re/degeneration of Folkestone though in fact all the Council did was rubber stamp the Creative Foundation set up by Roger De Haan, a resident of Folkestone and chair of its most successful business, Saga (or Gaga) that deals in tourism for the elderly. A multi millionaire, De Haan owns masses of run down property in central Folkestone and through the Triennial clearly hopes to set the gentrification ball rolling. An Observer newspaper reporter described Folkestone "as once the most glorious holiday destination in all England", Edward V111, his mistress and an entourage of aristocrats staying in the Metropole and Grand hotels high on the leas overlooking the Channel. Now that the port has been run down in the wake of the opening of the Channel Tunnel and the former hotels converted into apartments for the retired, the town has become "a ghostly place" in search of a new identity. However at the head of Schlieker's roll call of notables is none other than Marcel Duchamp, who reputedly crossed the Channel to play a game of chess in the town. It is he who has stamped his seal of authority on the Triennial's "tales of space and time" and there is enough that is ambiguous in Duchamp that leads one to suspect he might nimbly have side stepped the issue of for or against but nonetheless gone along with this property led stab at regeneration - though covering his tracks with an enigmatic silence.
Schlieker is unquestionably streets ahead of Lee Hall "culturally" (though any meaningful dialogue with her is just as much out of the question) and checking out her curriculum vitae we see that, in addition to being a Turner prize judge, she jointly edited an exhibition back in 1992 in the (S)Turpentine Gallery with East London born Henry Bond whose "work is discussed in relationship to the derive as theorized by Guy Debord" (no apologies for not reproducing the blurb). One of Bond's published Photo Books is called "La Vie Quotidienne". Now that title rings a bell, even in English!
Schlieker has chosen the sites of the Triennial's work and they stretch from the Martello Tower "up near the Warren". Mention that name to any lepidopterist and it will start a ghost for it once teemed with butterflies and moths, though not any more. There are records of Berger's Clouded Yellow and it formerly hosted a variable colony of Scarlet Tigers, a moth I have yearned to see since childhood, having only ever seen a squashed specimen on a road near the village of Stanton St John in Oxfordshire. In E.B. Ford's "Moths" (1955), the Warren is one of just four plates illustrating habitat and I am reminded that, as a youth of twelve or thirteen, I would stare at the black and white photo in my bedroom in temperate Co Durham and dearly wish I could be instantly transported to this alluring, tropical, undercliff. When an artist like Dion, who describes his work as "incorporating aspects of archaeology and ecology", moves in on a place it invariably means that place is fucked ecologically and historically in terms of grasping its real, rather than local history, and that we had better look elsewhere for a nature that still just about manages to run free and a history that escapes ideology. The contrast is at its most stark between the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (which the Triennial cites as an example of ecologically minded, open space public art) and the nearby Woolley Colliery spoil heap. The latter is in every respect superior, from the Pit Fountains, to the Dingy Skippers, Little Ringed Plovers and rather rare Marsh St John's Wort, to the submerged iron grids with their coral-like bloom of rust, lapped by the gentle waves that ripple across the pit ponds. The fall in numbers of species inversely parallels the growth in the number of eco artists. (For further elaboration read the first paragraphs of MABEY BABY and/or look at the video of the Dingy Skipper at Woolley colliery elsewhere on this web.
In 2009 the Triennial appears to have bombed, a victim of the crises. I couldn't help but contrast the reality of a council estate barbecue I attended in the summer of 2009 in Folkestone and the PR put out by a West London agency promoting the Triennial. The art fest was never mentioned but the bats were, the residents of the estate taking a pride in their presence. We had been invited by Andria, a wholesome lass, and the difference between her and Tracy Emin is that between an absurdly rewarded nothing artist who provocatively plays on her sexuality (the only thing she has going for her), whilst pretending otherwise, and a worked to death, white collar secretary, in a road building firm who posts politically incorrect, off message texts of extreme obscenity. Emin was contracted by the Triennial to create an installation, which she duly did and that she entitled "Baby Things", to call attention to the town's high rate of teen pregnancy. Andria's texts are full of cunts, cocks, saggy breasts and limp dicks that give the impression she's anybody's. Nothing could be more mistaken, but she is up front in a way Emin can never now be, Emin's role, if she could ever get though to a person like Andria, to make her ashamed in front of herself, to confuse and disorientate her, give her two faces instead of one and destroy her working class reality. For the Triennial is about buggering-up the perceptions of the ordinary people of Folkestone, to make them other than what they are, to substitute alterity for alienation and to get them to act as the bottom-up drivers of new phase of capitalist reconstruction from which the majority will be excluded, concept art and the valorisation of nature playing an increasingly central role in the makeover and rebranding of traditional townscapes and their hinterlands.
Meandering dirt roads lead eventfully today to the superhighway and so we are back to where we started out: futurology and techno-romanticism. Though the allegedly larger than life and more real than for real, "DisneyNature" films have yet to hit the big screen, an "innovative" example of another type of bankrupt genre has: "Avatar". This too strives to manufacture a visceral immersive film experience and to turn cinema into "the ultimate immersive experience" as the director James Cameron puts it. Director also of "Terminator 2" and "Titanic", Cameron sought to create in "Avatar" an unprecedented "illusion of depth" formed from a novel "fusion digital 3D camera system" and the use of motion capture suits, studded with sensors that feed back to a bank of computers. 70% of it is CGI (computer generated imaging), the actors now genuinely byte actors, half digital half human chimaeras on a performance capture stage six times bigger than anything used in Hollywood before. With each day that passes, the film studio becomes more like a wished-for future biolab or protean operating theatre that puts its imaginary nurslings through their first steps.
Though the revived 3D format still requires audiences to wear polarised glasses, Hollywood execs are now talking of moth balling their conventional 2D illusions. And TV has responded with the first 3D sets promised shortly with laser TV somewhat further down the line, and that has the potential to be yet more immersive and like interactive theatre. Billed as the ultimate sitting room entertainment, it is merely the initial stage of a yet more distant possibility that seeks too make entertainment self and advertising also, and that we end as digitised man having become our own software and image producing factory. How will nature film makers respond to these challenges, for they are already half way down the road, digital renditions of microscopic processes now the norm? But this too is merely a beginning. And will Attenborough eventually be seen as a transitional impresario, part new, part old, a mere presenter, finally, but not a "creator", a hesitant anticipation of the new digital magi to come, for he is, though unawares, most assuredly already pushing hard in that direction?
Attenborough of course would not see/recognise himself in this mirror held up to the future and would find it preposterous. Yet all his life he has gone in fear of saying anything leading and so we must now abruptly shift away from the gruesome birth pangs of techno-romanticism and go hard up against present day reality and scrutinize what Attenborough had to say on the July 2009 Vestas wind farm factory occupation on the Isle of Wight. This will take up no time at all because he had absolutely nothing to say about it - which is, after all, only being true to his Royal Sirness.
Stuart Wise: October / November, 2009