Lost in the Wastelands: Wilderness, Capitalism & Mental Health

Hiding out in the Mountains

I’ve been feeling increasingly drawn towards mountains. Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to go on several journeys and each time I’ve gone somewhere with mountainous landscapes close by: the Anti-Atlas in southern Morocco; Granada in Andalucia, with its views of the Sierra Nevada shimmering in the distance; the cliffs of Crete, and finally to Colombia, to its Andean highlands and the coastal mountains of the (other) Sierra Nevada.

Mountains put things in perspective. They’re beautiful and brutal landforms that remind you how tiny and silly and insignificant you are, liable to get blown over by the wind at any second. In March, I attempted to scale the 4700m Volcan Puracé in the Cauca region of southern Colombia. I got halfway before getting firmly kicked in the arse by Mother Nature. I didn’t have the right clothes, I wasn’t ready for the brutal winds, the rain, the cold, the altitude. I ended up back at the base camp covered in mud and feeling like a fool.

Nature can be healing and nurturing or capricious and indifferent. As such, mountain dwellers (at least the ones that I’ve met) tend to be calmer, humbler than their cousins in the city. Maybe because they know how harsh and difficult life can be – they’re conscious of the fact that in living closer to the sky, they’re closer to death.

But mountains can put you back in touch with something we rarely encounter in cities: quiet. The sounds you’re met with, if you’re met with any at all, are those of the elements – the howling of the winds and the cry of birds (and the occasional human trying to shriek like a wolf). You realise how much of your brain gets clogged up in city life with the whirring of cars, machines, people and increasingly, the fickle vibrations of social media and the unrelenting information streams of the digital world.

Then there’s the fact that mountains (at least those of my imagination) are hideouts for rebels and outlaws: the Jamaican Maroons of the 1700s waging war on the British from their base in the Blue Mountains; the Tairona culture of Colombia, undefeated by the Spanish conquistadores; the Berber hill tribes of the Rif mountains, resisting colonial incursion in 1920s Morocco; the Zapatistas declaring autonomy from the Mexican state, hiding out in the hills and forests of Chiapas.

Something in me is being pulled towards wilderness. Maybe it’s because staying sane in the city feels like a constant battle, especially as I’m constantly skirting the edge of vagrancy – temporary accommodation, temporary work – struggling to keep up with the hamster wheel of employment (or lack thereof) and consumption while the notion of ‘worldly success’ of any kind feels like a distant fantasy. Even now, while I sit in my local library, I’m plotting escape routes, ways to get a bit closer to the elements.

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Wilderness

The last few weeks, I’ve been on a massive reading binge. On separate occasions, friends have mentioned the book Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths, and then a copy showed up for me to read. Wild rips apart the foundational myths that facilitated the spread of European colonialism, the repression of indigenous cultures and the ‘taming’ of wild nature. It unpicks Western depictions of wilderness as irrational, dangerous and uncontrollable. It also sheds light on how wilderness has been understood as feminine and therefore in need of conquering by the ‘logical’ minds of men.

Griffiths refutes these ideas with knowledge gleaned from the cultures she encounters – in the Amazon, the Arctic, among Indonesian sea peoples and Aboriginal Australians – to reveal the complex systems of meaning, belief and reciprocity that indigenous cultures have developed in supposedly ‘empty’ landscapes.

One thing that stood out from her writing was the fact that her nomadic voyages came out of attempts to escape from the ‘wastelands’ of her own depression. Rather than seeing wilderness as empty and devoid of meaning, she argues that it is those of us “lost in the wastelands of the psyche” who are most in need of the healing that can come through time spent in the wild.

She also notes the detrimental effect that living supposedly civilised, settled lives can have on nomadic or indigenous peoples. For example, among some Canadian Inuit communities, suicide rates are 13 times higher than the national average, a jarring statistic she puts down to those communities having lost touch with the ancestral knowledge that allowed them to survive the harsh conditions of the Arctic in the past.

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Wastelands of the Psyche

I’d argue that feeling lost in the wastelands is now the default state of being for many of us living in late neoliberal capitalism (or wherever it is that we are). Mental health difficulties like anxiety and depression are becoming endemic – a permanent feature of trying to navigate a world that’s moving very fast, which measures human worth solely in economic terms and then sells us self-help books and wellbeing packages to ameliorate our own loss of self.

Consumer-capitalism, aside from the exploitation and environmental degradation that it produces, is fundamentally at odds with our own mental health. How are you supposed to live in a culture whose underlying premise is your own inadequacy (the solution to which is always to Buy More Stuff) and not feel alienated and depressed?

Mark Fisher, one of the master chroniclers of late capitalist culture (whose own depression led him to tragically take his own life last year), addressed this in Capitalist Realism, arguing that neoliberalism brought with it a ‘privatisation of stress’, where our mental health difficulties are seen as our own individual pathologies, divorced from the social realities we find ourselves in.

I’ve spent a lot of my adult life in the wastelands, lost in quagmires and endless loops of anxiety, self-doubt, inertia, confusion and sometimes outright self-loathing. The wastelands are fundamentally a landscape of alienation: of disconnection from ourselves, from each other, from work and from the natural world. (Psychologist Gabor Maté also has much to say about these forms of alienation and how they are toxic to our health).

Gradually, I’ve been discovering routes out: more time in nature, more time immersed in creativity, trying to be more present in my body, the occasional psychedelic odyssey to loosen up the brain waves. But I think a fundamental shift on a collective level is needed. I’m not saying we should all flee to the hills to raise chickens. Obviously that’s not an option for the vast majority. But if we continue to believe that we’re not part of the natural world, and that human beings are no more than economic units to be tallied up on a spreadsheet, then we’re only creating bigger wastelands to get lost in.

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Off Grid in the Sierra Nevada

Thoughts and observations from 2 weeks spent on a permaculture project in northern Colombia. Names have been changed.

Arrival

As I get off the motorbike, I set my foot down on the wrong side and immediately burn my right leg on the exhaust pipe. I stumble to the ground while the moto-taxi driver looks at me blankly. He’d been getting annoyed at me all the way – a mostly uphill journey on a dirt track – trying to balance my backpack in front of him on the petrol tank while shouting instructions at me to shift my weight forward. My calf throbbing, he leaves me in front of a stream, which marks the threshold of the finca I’d be spending the next two weeks on as part of a work exchange project in Northern Colombia.

Inhabitants

I get the to the farm which lies six miles into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, around mid-afternoon. Everyone’s making lunch. The centre of the finca is the kitchen, which sits under a corrugated roof, on the other end of which is a bedroom, the only place with walls in the 10-hectare area.

There are 5 people there when I show up: Steve, who bought the plot a few years ago; a visiting friend from England who’s been relegated to sleeping down the road in Steve’s van due to his snoring; a sturdy German woman who constantly looks and sounds faintly annoyed, and a couple who arrived in Colombia overland from Peru, both of whom still processing an Ayahuasca ceremony they took part in.

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There are two dogs. One is small and white. As soon as anyone lays down to rest in a hammock, she jumps on them. The other is lankier and resembles a confused greyhound. She barks at anything that moves, including children, motorbikes, soldiers, donkeys and other dogs. When they get bored, the dogs battle each other on a large bean bag or chase each other round the farm. They also battle the cats, of whom there are four, all named after the four elements. The cats spend most of their time sleeping, hunting lizards, or trying to steal volunteers’ breakfasts.

The finca was founded by Steve, a warm-hearted Welsh DJ, traveller and self-taught permaculture enthusiast who fled the UK in the late ’90s, exchanging a life of putting on warehouse raves and free parties for a life on the road, travelling across South America in his truck. He’s lived a hardcore life (including getting kidnapped in La Guajira and getting jailed and deported from Venezuela) but is welcoming, generous and open-minded. His partner Daniela comes from one of the provincial Andean towns in central Colombia. Despite claiming to ‘not like people’ she’s actually as warm-hearted as Steve. Living with them is their 4 year-old daughter, a startlingly beautiful and intense child; an expert in destruction and cat torture.

As well as being an experiment in permaculture and self-sufficiency, the finca is an educational project that hosts a revolving group of friends and volunteers. Over the two weeks that I’m there, the number of people ebbs and flows from 2 to 11, made up of nationalities including Brits, Colombians, Italians, Germans, Americans and a number of Venezuelans who’ve fled the economic meltdown of their homeland and made their way across the border, which is a few hours away.

Rhythms

I get put to work right away, but I spend the first few nights feeling out of my depth, in a state of deep paranoia about snakes, fretting that the burn on my leg will get infected and wondering what I’ve let myself in for. I’m unprepared for life in the jungle, living in close quarters with strangers without a space to retreat to.

But I gradually get used to the rhythm of the place. I sleep in a hammock, wake up early and have a breakfast of oats and fruit. I wash in a natural pool down by the entrance and then get started on the day’s tasks which are mostly weeding, planting, watering, and helping to build a little beach area next to the pool. Being about an hour and a half away from the nearest city, the sounds that I wake up and fall asleep to are entirely non-human: I’m in a realm of insects, tropical birds, bats and on one occasion, howler monkeys.

Guardians

The Sierra Nevada is the ancestral territory of several different indigenous groups. The Kogi are one of these and see themselves as guardians of the area. In Kogi cosmology, they are the Elder Brother, tasked with protecting the biodiversity of the region and keeping an eye on rapacious Younger Brother (the non-indigenous world). There are several Kogi villages nearby, small settlements of thatched round huts.

The Kogi dress in white and wear their hair long. While seemingly adhering to a deeply spiritual way of life, they are also faced with the very real problems of isolation and poverty. A couple of days after I arrive, three other volunteers and I get a chance to visit one of the villages. We’re shown around by a comisario, an intermediary between the Kogi community  and the outside world. He seems quietly bemused by our presence, but answers our questions patiently. What we see of the tiny village is simple and beautiful but life there is harsh: the villagers subsist on the minimal amounts of food that they can grow, occasionally supplemented by what can be bought nearby and live without running water or electricity.

Dangers

My snake paranoia is not totally unfounded. On the day that I arrive on the finca, I’m sat at the table and Steve brings out a plank of wood that’s resting on one of the roof beams. ‘So, in terms of dangers…’, he says, and indicates the metre and half snakeskin that is nailed to the plank. It belonged to a Mampaná, the local name for a Fer-de-Lance, one of the most lethal vipers in the Americas. Getting bitten by one can mean you lose a limb, or even your life, if not treated quickly.  

Other dangers are only ever hinted at. On the day that we visit the Kogi village, I spot a man standing by the side of the path wielding an assault rifle. It takes me a minute or so to realise that he’s a soldier, and that there are several others lurking in the bushes, part of an outpost on mountain patrol. One morning, while we’re all having breakfast, the patrol shows up at the farm. They’re on the lookout for someone who is wanted in the area but leave fairly quickly once they realise the farm is mostly populated by puzzled foreigners.

During a couple of conversations with Steve, he’d mentioned that there was a paramilitary presence in the area, but didn’t seem too keen to go into details. He’d described the area as ‘unpoliceable’, and said that state forces rarely entered. Like many parts of Colombia, if an area isn’t policed by the state, it’s policed by someone else. Much of the Sierra Nevada was guerrilla/paramilitary territory until not so long ago and despite last year’s signing of the peace accord between the government and the FARC, armed groups are still active in the area. A friend, who had been working on a farm on the other side of the mountains, had fled an incident when armed men in balaclavas had stormed the place, assaulting one volunteer. She believes this was retaliation for the owners of the farm not paying vacuna (protection money) to the local paramilitaries.

Plants

Like many a disillusioned city-dweller with fantasies of running off to the hills, I quickly realise that my skill set – in terms of surviving in a remote area – is a bit lacking. Apart from a few brief stints doing painting and decorating jobs when I was younger, carpentry is not my strong point. Nor is plumbing or motorbike mechanics. And I’m not that green-fingered either, though I do my best to look after the passion-fruit and sweet chilli plants that are left in my charge.

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I do, however, eat more healthily on the farm than at any other point on my trip. All the meals, which are collectively prepared, are freshly cooked from wholefoods – beans, grains, vegetables and fresh bread. I reflect on the fact that many of us residing in cities have an abstract relationship with the land because we have a skewed relationship with food. Eating food you’ve grown yourself provides you with a very direct point of contact with the earth, giving you much more of an incentive to see that it is protected.

I also get a sense of the challenges of living off the grid. There’s running water in the kitchen, sourced from a nearby waterfall and electricity is generated through solar panels on the roof. We shit in a compost toilet, which is fine up until the point that it gets infested with fruit flies. Steve tries various methods to eradicate them, including smoking them out and blasting them with an aerosol can and a lighter. Living without the amenities of a city means that a much larger chunk of your time goes into providing the basic material necessities of life: food, water, shelter, energy.

Dis/Connection

I feel victorious after making it through the placement. But I’m also left with a sense of tension between wanting to connect with nature on the one hand (and thereby disconnect from the mainstream, from the city, from concrete) while on the other hand acknowledging the sense of vulnerability and isolation that comes with this.

As someone who spends a large chunk of my time in the digital realm, I’m taken aback by how unsettled the sporadic/non-existent internet makes me feel – how dependent I am on it for almost everything I do. In a more concrete sense, without a motorbike of my own, I’m reliant, as are all the other volunteers, on mototaxis to get in or out. Most of the food (as well as building materials) is brought in this way too.

I feel aware of how dependent I am on others for my survival. I’m also aware that, if anything goes wrong, I’m at the mercy of nature, of the elements, and in the worst case scenario, at the mercy of ruthless men with guns, as most rural Colombians have been over the last 50 years.

I also realise that, with a lot of time and effort, I could learn the necessary skills to live more self-sufficiently, which might also pave the way to a simpler and more grounded life. Given the social and environmental problems we all face, it probably wouldn’t hurt if more of us learned skills like these.

 

Bogota Street Art – Social Commentary and Indigenous Psychedelia

It’s hard to wrap your head around a new megacity that you’ve just landed in at the best of times, let alone when your body is still adjusting to the altitude, your head is rattling with crime warnings and you’ve already had a run-in with the local police.

I knew that Bogota would be far too complex to get anything but a brief glimmer of when I spent a couple of days there ago on first arriving in Colombia. But I thought that one way to try and make sense of some of the themes shaping the city would be to go have a look at what had been painted, tagged and stencilled on to the city’s walls. Not usually one for big guided tours, I joined a group led by Bogota Graffiti Tours to get a lesson in social history via the city’s street art.

Bogota is unusual among big cities in that graffiti is technically legal. All you need to do to be able to paint without being hassled or fined is to gain the permission of the building owner. And while not all owners will give permission, they often do, sometimes just to avoid having their shop or house being tagged anyway, so explained Carlos, a local graphic designer and street art fanatic who led the tour. But many of Bogota’s grafiteros choose to ignore this, preferring to stick to the old-school traditions of graffiti as passed down by the original New York forebears: painting as an act of rebellion, done explicitly without permission.

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While Bogota has in the past decade or so become a magnet for aspiring street artists from across the Americas, it wasn’t always this way. The acceptance of street art in the city came about following long-standing battles with the local authorities, particularly in the wake of the police shooting of an unarmed 16 year-old, Diego Felipe Becerra, who was gunned down after fleeing from two officers while he was painting his trademark Felix The Cat stencil in an underpass. The boy’s murder and the subsequent police cover-up (police alleged they were hunting for a suspect who had just robbed a bus) led to huge protests, which was in part what led to the lowering of fines and the eventual regularisation of street art in the city.

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Unsurprisingly, in a country which is only just emerging from an internal armed conflict that has lasted more than half a decade (and which still lingers in parts of the country), social and political themes were very prominent in the murals and stencils I saw in the city’s downtown and La Candelaria neighbourhoods. Artists like Toxicomano and DJ Lu use the medium of stencilling to provoke commentary about consumerism, corruption, the impact of extractive industries on the Colombian environment and the effect that foreign intervention, (in particular Plan Colombia) has had on the country’s development.

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But what stood out even more for me were the many indigenous faces staring out from the city’s walls, as painted by artists such as Guache and Guerrero. Beautiful, elaborate murals of indigenous men, women and children, often painted in bold colours, with psychedelic undertones, were peppered all over the city centre. Colombia might be less well known for its indigenous culture than neighbouring Peru, or other Andean nations like Bolivia, but indigenous people make up around 3.4 % of the population, and a staggering third of the country is made up of indigenous reserves – particularly in the Amazonian region. (Though this has not prevented these regions being plundered for their resources: indigenous people have often being disproportionately affected by violence and displacement and indigenous social movements continue to be targeted by paramilitary violence).

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Many of these murals offered joyous, colourful visions of the future, in contrast to the prevailing greyness of much of the city and the bleakness of the social and political reality that artists are wrestling with. I recognised this aesthetic – a kind of indigenous psychedelia – from some of the album art of musicians I’d been listening to before coming to South America, artists such as Chancha via Circuito, El Buho and El Remolon, all of whom are working in the borderlands between indigenous and Andean folk music, cumbia and electronic music.

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It wondered whether both visual artists and musicians, in striving to build an optimistic vision of Colombia’s – and South America’s – future, were doing so partly by trying to reclaim and reimagine the continent’s indigenous heritage, building an aesthetic in which indigenous symbolism, knowledge and iconography is central, and calling for a more balanced and equitable relationship between human beings and the natural resources they rely on.

 

Simple Things Ext – Kayla Painter, Fatima Al Qadiri & Pan Daijing – review

Electronic music that isn’t specifically created for the dance floor often faces a problem of presentation. If rhythm or movement isn’t the primary driving force behind a composition, then when it comes to performance you’re often left with a room full of people standing awkwardly while someone on stage twiddle knobs, hunched over a laptop.

As a result, many forward-thinking artists have been pushing the visual aspects of their work in recent years, drawing attention away from aforementioned knob-twiddling and redirecting the senses by creating immense spectacles. Performers such as Flying Lotus, Amon Tobin and Squarepusher have pursued this approach in order to alter the way their music is consumed and experienced.

There’s also the fact that much electronic music can pull you in two distinct directions: it can either root you in your body and in the present, or carry you to alternate spaces and dimensions. In many ways, the cinema is as natural a home for this type of music as the dance floor, and this may have been the thinking behind last night’s Simple Things Ext. event, which featured three pioneering artists exploring the synergy between experimental electronic music and audio visual performance at Bristol’s Imax.

Kayla Painter’s mesmerising opening set seemed to be governed by an appetite for non-human structures and landscapes. The Bristol-based artist has always had a strong visual component to her work, but utilising the immense scope of the Imax screen helped to amplify its potency. Beginning with stunning geometric habitats, her set traveled through extra-terrestrial formations and kaleidoscopic astral patterns.

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Oddly enough, these hallucinatory visuals – which culminated in an epic view of a planet built out of an endless array of pyramids – were also the most comforting. Musically too, her set was the the most accessible. Painter has mentioned in the past how the influence of Garage has shaped her music, and spluttering beats made their way in and out of her set, layered on top of sampled snippets of voices and drones. But it was the complex, intricate sound design that stood out, full of insectoid whirs and crackling glitches that was immensely satisfying to listen to.

If Painter’s set was about being transported to other realms, then the following performance by Fatima Al Qadiri was an abrupt turn to Earth. Pursuing a more brutal and dystopian vision, Al Qadiri seemed to be wrestling with the destructive forces of human nature: her visuals were primarily composed of what looked like drone and satellite imagery, beginning with cockpit footage of bombs and tracer fire. The dominant image was that of an oil refinery billowing black smoke into the sky, the silhouetted bodies of workers grimly visible in the distance.

This was a more ominous performance: distorted Arabic vocals were set against discordant pad sounds, punctuated by occasional rattles of harsh percussion samples. Accompanied by the apocalyptic imagery of environmental destruction, the effect was nightmarish, possibly drawing on childhood experiences of war during the Iraqi invasion of her native Kuwait.

As the evening went on, I got the impression that each performance was drawing ever closer to the human body. While Painter’s performance had been farthest away – orbiting other planets – and Al Qadiri had hovered over a scalded, and damaged Earth, the performance by Berlin-based dancer and performance artist Pan Daijing was the most physically intimate as well as the most disturbing and uncomfortable to watch.

From the start, when a woman’s face became visible from below while she seemingly performed a massage, there was something queasy and sinister about the visuals. Grapefruits being smooshed in an eerily erotic fashion; scar tissue being poked and prodded; bodies photographed from odd angles: all of these hinted to an obsession with the tactile, but also to the strangeness of bodies.

Much of the unease stemmed from the unsettling soundscapes: sampled strings and field recordings of running water were transmogrified into distinctly unnerving, even terrifying sounds. This final piece was too challenging for some: around 10 audience members left as the audio-visual body horror intensified, the auditorium filling with high-pitched sounds of metal scraping on metal. Daijing has stated that she’s interested in the potential of sound beyond the confines of traditional music, and while it was extremely challenging to watch, it was clearly an intensely personal and cathartic work which was electrifying to behold close up.

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on boxing & masculinity

I’m down at the boxing gym and there’s a guy in his early 40s sitting in the changing room, showing off his scars. He’s built like a pit bull and takes up a whole bench, one of only three in the tiny space. One of the scars is on his shoulder but there’s a more vicious one on his left hand: his fingers are still bruised and swollen and there’s a massive gash running between his first two knuckles. ‘Got ‘em fighting’, he explains to one of the other guys getting changed, who’s in his mid-20s. Apparently two armed men came at him and attacked him, the result, from what I can tell, of an ongoing feud between rival traveller families.

I get the feeling that his reasons for coming to the gym might be different to mine. I’ve been doing some kind of boxing or kickboxing training for about two years now as a means of staying fit. As an over-analytical introvert who spends way too much time in my head, the intensity and immediacy of the training puts me back in my body and forces me to be in the present. I’ve also found it to be an excellent way of burning through anxiety, which on other days can leave my head and body rattling. When you’re hitting pads or hitting the bag, you’re not really thinking about anything else. I’ve only sparred a few times, but there’s even less time to think when someone else is stood in front of you, trying to connect their fist with your face.

Before the age of 30, I’d never set foot inside a boxing gym, and it’s something that would never have crossed my mind in my 20s. But years of battling poor mental health has led me to explore avenues that wouldn’t have occurred to me before. The exercise does me a load of good, and I enjoy the workouts, however brutal. Martial arts seem to resonate with my body more than most sports, which is a bit of a surprise, given that I have zero interest in violence or confrontation in my day-to-day life.

From my late teens onwards, I’ve mostly had female friends, and was never drawn to standard boy interests like football. As a result I’ve generally kept my distance from activities that involve being in packs of men. So the boxing gym is probably the most masculine space I find myself in (apart from the barber shop, but that’s another post). It’s not an unfriendly place, and there are people of all creeds and colours who train, but the weight of testosterone is palpable: the walls are covered in posters of ripped men squaring off with each other, and there’s usually only a handful of women alongside the growling, sweaty males.

Plenty has been written about the positive effects of boxing training: increased fitness and self-confidence; helping to keep kids (especially teenage boys) out of trouble; developing discipline. But there’s no escaping the inherent violence of the sport itself. Not to mention the fact that the culture of professional boxing is still steeped in old-school hypermasculinity. The recent bout between Floyd Mayweather and MMA superstar Connor McGregor was just the latest example of this type of tedious dick-swinging: in the run up to the fight, McGregor was heard making a slew of racist and sexist jokes; Mayweather, while undoubtedly an outstanding athlete, has behaved atrociously towards women outside the ring, clocking up several charges of assault and domestic battery against his former partners.

Boxing – maybe contact sports in general – is a world in which masculinity is rarely questioned or interrogated. It’s taken as a given in that context that being a man equates to gruelling physical ordeals and the potential for inflicting extreme violence. So spending time in spaces where people are learning skills designed to cause damage to human bodies has got me thinking about my own relationship to masculinity, as well as to violence.

I never grew up feeling particularly masculine. Most of the men in my family are gentle, bookish, cerebral types and I don’t remember ever being told to ‘man up’ or not to cry as a kid. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve become more aware of my physical presence and what it means to inhabit a male body. I’m more aware that being able to walk the streets at night generally without a fear is a privilege not shared by many of my female friends. Being a 6-foot, mixed race dude, I get masculinity projected on to me whether I like it or not.

Boxing and kickboxing has been a revelation in some ways: I’ve been enjoying the feeling of being in my body (and yes, my own strength) probably more than I ever have before. At the same time, every time I step into a boxing gym I also enter into a dialogue with myself. Why am I drawn to a sport which has violence at its core? Am I toying with a type of masculinity that felt foreign to me for most of my life? Do I feel like I have something to prove – like on some level I should be able to endure the extreme feats of endurance that boxing calls for?

At the edge of this question is the issue of self-esteem. I’ve recently felt more of a need to challenge myself physically. This is probably partly due to being in my thirties and feeling a sense of ‘now or never’, as well as realising just how important exercise is to my mental health and overall wellbeing. But there’s also an underlying sense of frustration at not having achieved as much as I should have in my working life so far (though this notion of ‘achievement’ is arguably a sterotypically male trait in itself), a sense of continually fumbling and stumbling my way through life, frequently falling on my face.

I realise that in a sense I’ve ended up in the boxing gym via a kind of vulnerability. Bouts of depression, precarious housing and chronic underemployment have all taken their toll and there have been points in my recent life where I’ve felt like I’ve allowed myself to be blown around by the wind. Part of me wonders whether, in trying to rectify that and regain some self-confidence, I’m subconsciously buying into an age-old and maybe outdated idea of masculinity: one which rests on demonstrations of physical strength.

What does it mean to be a man? I really don’t have a clue. But in a context of almost daily revelations about sexual abuse or harassment scandals, and a wider backlash by some men against the gains made by women and LGBTQ folk, it’s probably time that more men starting asking themselves this question, and felt able to interrogate their own identity, their relationship to the world around them, to other men and to women. Many of the horrors of the world – war, conflict, sexual violence – can be attributed in some way to masculinity and men’s continued need for control and dominance. We probably need to start asking ourselves whether this model works any longer, or if it ever did in the first place.

Non-human bodies – Blade Runner: 2049

If you’re a secret sci-fi nerd like me, it would be easy to get seduced by Blade Runner: 2049, at least on the surface. Taking on a cult classic with such a committed fanbase was always going to be an ambitious undertaking for director Dennis Villeneuve, but the hype that surrounded the release of the sequel was not entirely unfounded. As a spectacle, the film is immense. Its production and set design immaculate, pushing and pulling between the aesthetics of the original and a new visual style for the story. The score, full of growling, ominous drones and rattling synths, was loud enough in parts to make the speakers ay my local Odeon rattle.

The cityscape of the future LA it envisions is truly frightening, forever shrouded in a bleak, dusty haze and almost unrecognisable as a human habitat. Ecological devastation is a standard trope in pretty much all dystopian sci-fi, to the extent that it would look strange to picture a future Earth not covered in smouldering rubble. What was was interesting about this film was the foregrounding of non-human characters who are navigating the decaying planet: it’s the film’s replicant characters who are asking what it means to be human in a world that looks decidedly inhuman.

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Thematically, the film develops a lot of the core ideas of the original. In particular, the exploration of the inner world of replicants hinges on questions of desire, love and reproduction. Going beyond the question of whether androids dream, the film asks whether androids can love, and whether they can make babies. This is also the key fault line underpinning the social order the LAPD so perilously polices: if replicants are able to reproduce, do they threaten to supersede their human creators?

But it’s here that it becomes hard to overlook some of the movie’s central flaws, particularly its pretty dubious gender politics. Let’s take the film’s six main female characters. The first, Joi, is a virtual girlfriend, who can literally be switched on and off at will and whose primary function within the narrative is to provide reassurance and the simulation of physical intimacy, to Ryan Gosling’s character, K. The second, Mariette, is a prostitute who repeatedly comes to K’s aid. Ana Stelline, meanwhile, is a memory maker, potentially one of the film’s most interesting characters, though unfortunately she is barricaded inside a glass cage for the entirety of the film. The character of Rachel from the first movie, is briefly brought back to life only to be executed a point blank range a minute or so later.

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The two more realised female characters are K’s chief Joshi, played by Robin Wright, who attempts to seduce her younger counterpart, and Luv, the badass replicant enforcer. Both of these characters are eventually violently dispatched, and there is a sense throughout the film that women, human women that is, might no longer be necessary in the future. And there’s never any doubt that it is men who are in control: a female replicant who comes spluttering to life in a traumatic ‘birth’ scene is promptly stabbed in the stomach by Jared Leto’s, prophet/inventor/father-figure character Niander Wallace, a brutal reminder not to get too many ideas about asserting her own autonomy.

There were moments when I thought this might be explored in depth, that the film might offer an interrogation of what a patriarchal society, built on slave labour, might look like when advanced virtual reality has become an affordable commodity and man’s destruction of the natural environment has reached its natural conclusion. But there is never any great exploration of these themes, despite the film stretching out to almost 3 hours in length. Objectification of women is taken as a given: one of the film’s most visually arresting images is of a giant naked holographic woman coming on to K.

And then there’s the fact that this supposedly futuristic LA (whose current population is around 10% African American, 10% Asian and almost 48% Latino) features only minimal speaking parts for people of colour. Edward James Olmos, who played Deckard’s partner Gaff in the first movie, makes a brief appearance, as does Lennie James, as a foreman of a scrap yard utilising child labour. Like the original movie, which was daubed in Japanese/East Asian aesthetics while simultaneously having no major Asian characters, Blade Runner: 2049 gestures at a polyglot future (Russian is heard frequently throughout the film, there are signs in Hindi, and K even seems to understand Somali, as he manages to converse with a market trader called Dr Badger, who, not in any way stereotyped, tries to sell K a goat) without giving any depth to characters that are not white males. Even back in 1999, the producers of The Matrix were able to countenance a future that was markedly multi-racial.

For a film made in 1982, the lack of attention paid to issues of representation might have been just about excusable. But for a film made in 2017, where debates about gender, race, social equality and reproduction are raging, the treatment of these issues feels negligent, and it’s pretty disappointing given the potential offered by the scope of the film.

It’s curious that the film has been released at a time when the work of Philip K Dick, who wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the book on which the original movie was based, has slowly been seeping into the mainstream: Channel 4 is currently showing a series based on his stories called Electric Dreams. In the fractured world that we live in, there’s clearly an appetite for storytelling that’s able to explore the weirdness of the future we’re very rapidly sliding towards. It’s a shame that the producers of Blade Runner: 2049 weren’t quite brave enough to part with some of the worn Hollywood tropes that meant a more nuanced human, or post-human future, could be explored in depth.

 

 

Supersonic Festival 2017 Review – Saturday Hightlights

[Originally written for The World is Listening]

Despite celebrating its 14th year, Birmingham’s Supersonic Festival is still a bit of an anomaly on the UK festival circuit. Maybe that’s down to its small size, its location, or the esoteric line-up it puts on each year, that has few headliners most people would recognise. And maybe it’s no bad thing either: commercial considerations are largely left aside, leaving space to explore some of the most forward-thinking, experimental and plain weird new sounds from the UK and beyond in the company of others who genuinely appreciate doing the same.

Curated by Lisa Meyer and the team at Capsule – who promote alternative sonic and visual arts from their base in the Custard Factory – Supersonic has long championed independent artists in the fields of metal, noise, electronica, alternative folk and hip hop, as well as sounds that transcend genre boundaries altogether. Its open-mindedness is also reflected in the relatively gender-balanced line up, which features a significant number of pioneering female artists.

The first of these that I see as I enter Wild (one of the three venues for the festival, along with adjacent Boxxed and The Crossing) is Jessica Moss, a member of Canadian post-punk band Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra, who has branched out on her own with the aid of her violin, a loop pedal and a bunch of effects. The drones and harmonies she creates feel orchestral and ominous; her violin playing is stunning, weaving a gothic tapestry which is occasionally overlaid by her gentler vocals. Her set also introduces two themes that run throughout the festival: unorthodox uses of instruments, and an emphasis on drone and texture rather than on ‘songs’ in the normal sense.

After that I get to see Big Joanie, a self-described Black feminist punk band, and a welcome interjection into a festival space that, despite its open-mindedness, is still predominantly white. Big Joanie bring an overtly radical political stance to the event, a consciousness of the need raise the profile of marginalised groups within the punk scene. But rather than the loud, confrontational sound I was expecting, their sound is a lot warmer, drawing just as much from grunge as from hardcore punk.

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In a lull between performances, I wander around the main hub of the festival and have a peek at the Black Metal Life Drawing class that’s taking place. People are earnestly sat at tables, sketching a model posing in an Alice Cooper grimace. This feels like a hint towards the festival’s early days where metal bands were a central component. But it also shows the light-hearted and friendly side of the festival, where there’s none of the hedonistic excess you’d find at a lot of similar events. Despite some of the extreme music, overall it’s a very civilised affair.

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The weirder sounds that were hinted at by Jessica Moss come into full force during the The Seer, a collaborative multimedia performance orchestrated by film-maker Conny Prantera which features several other visual artists and musicians. The piece is centred on the mythological figure of Cassandra, and while frantic violin playing, wailing and the clattering of drums emerges from the stage, several cloaked figures creep through the audience, leaving offerings at a makeshift shrine at the front.

But I only catch the first 15 or so minutes of this, as I’m drawn by the gnarlier, more violent sounds emerging from Boxxed, as Italian avant-metal noise renegades Zu make their way on stage. Their ferocious set is an incredibly precise and intricate lesson in sonic destruction, which brazenly tramples over genre boundaries and time signatures. Bassist and electronics wizard Massimo Pupillo does things I’ve never heard anyone do with a bass. For several minutes, he induces ear-drum rattling blasts of noise, some of which he summons by taking out his jack lead and whipping it. This is the festival at its most intense, and for the unprepared, probably its most alienating, but it’s the peak performance of the weekend for me.

The theme of using instruments in unpredictable ways is taken up again shortly afterwards by monstrously talented saxophonist Colin Stetson. Using a mixture of circular breathing, multiphonics (producing more than one tone at the same time) and mic-ing up the keys of his sax to project their percussive sound, he transforms the main auditorium of The Crossing into a hypnotic, trance-inducing reverie of cyclical rhythms and undulating melodies.

Saturday’s final act is Zonal, A collaboration between Kevin Martin (better known as The Bug) and Birmingham’s own Justin Broadrick of Godflesh, it’s a coming together of noise, mutant dub and metal. I’ve been to enough of The Bug’s shows to know ear plugs are an absolute necessity, and it doesn’t surprise me when the bass emanating from the speaker stack sends plastic cups jumping an inch off the bar. It’s another bruising sonic adventure, of sludgy beats rumbling beneath sheets of distortion, and at time it feels like the room has been paused in the start/stop motion of strobe lighting.

At this point, I bump into a Mancunian record store owner who’s down from Glasgow. She’s maybe had a few, and she’s berating the ‘white sausage fest’ of an audience for not dancing. She’s got a point: the audience, at this gig at least, is predominantly white and male, and not moving very much. While there’s definitely truth in what my intoxicated friend is saying, I wouldn’t write the festival off completely: in terms of its lineup and its dedication to exploring music at the fringes, the whole event is of a very high quality and one of the most sonically interesting festivals I’ve been to in a long time.