Saturday, 21 March 2015

Narrow Bandwidth: Life In Berlin's Walled Garden

Where I live in Berlin, I’ve met a lot of people who work on computers all day... and all night, too.  Many people in this city seem to spend both their uptime and their downtime watching online news, reading articles, searching for videos on YouTube and listening to mixes on Soundcloud. 

In defiance of the usual stereotype of techy types, most of these twenty, thirty and forty-somethings seem to have great social skills: a sense of humour, an eagerness to chat about world events and street smarts.  In my mind, that sets them apart from the earlier generations of computer nerds. 

But they also seem to have a greater sense of apathy than those earlier generations did.  Many conversations that I have with them (or overhear) come back to the same point: the world is falling apart and there is nothing they can do about it. 

Sometimes, just for fun, I ask them why they feel that way.  

‘Well... what can I do?’ they often demand with a dismayed expression on their face.  It's like they think I'm nuts for crediting them with self-determination.  Or like I'm nuts for suggesting that their feeling of resignation is just that - a feeling.  To them, it's a fact: people are as incapable of changing the world as they are of breathing underwater unaided. It's just the way it is. 

Which is kind of funny when you think about it, because nothing is changing the world today so rapidly as people.  You, me, the beggar on the train and the head of the IMF... all of us are responsible for changing it in some way.  Usually in a bad way, and usually without even realizing that we're changing anything.  We're too preoccupied by our thoughts about the changes that we want to make, to reflect on the unwanted changes that we're making every step of the way towards our goals.  

The disposable coffee cup that we drink and then toss as we're rushing to a big interview.  The flight that we take to attend a career-changing conference.  The tuna that we eat to get smarter and/or healthier and/or skinnier. The made-in-China product that we buy to save money for something 'more important'.  These are all bad, tangible changes that people make every day, in their pursuit of a fantasy of being 'better'.    
Of course, certain people have always felt that we are unable to change the world. 
Apathy is probably the oldest form of self-deception that there is; it's been a documented phenomenon since the very earliest empires.  You might even say that the very earliest empires couldn't have existed without the first apathetic subjects (but which came first?  The chicken or the egg?).

But traditionally, apathy has always been the preserve of the defeated, the middle-aged, the under-educated and the very deprived... whereas, today, it seems to be the preserve of the young, the well-off and the educated, too.  In fact, since the dawn of the 21st century, apathy seems to have spread to all levels of society.  Even the activists that I meet these days seem to be motivated by bloody-minded stubbornness, more than the hope of making a change for the better.   

The question is, why?  Why do people living in a well-connected, well-informed society like ours feel so disempowered? Apathy seems to growing almost as quickly as people learn about their world via their smartphones and laptops.  Isn't knowledge supposed to be power, though? 

Perhaps it has something to do with the medium through which people are learning about the world: the internet.  A huge proportion of the  news reports, studies, photos, statistics and sound bites that people get all come through this same, basic channel.  Could there be a connection between the medium and the mentality of the people using it? 

Online, people can learn about an endless variety of radical new ideas, events and news.  They can explore endless alternative styles of music, dress, speech, writing, and ideologies.   The internet can provide us with an alternative to everything... except for the internet, that is.

Perhaps our sense of being unable to change the world is somehow linked to the limits of this medium.  After all, it is a format that we are physically unable to engage with... to change.  By contrast, 25 years ago, a person could only access such a kaleidoscopic range of facts by accessing an equally kaleidoscopic range of media.  Many of those media were hands-on.  In addition to the television, radio and internet, people also picked up new information from newspapers, books, pamphlets, magazines, fanzines, collages, patches and buttons... even gigs, raves and festivals played a role in distributing info via the music and personalities present.  In the past, information was embodied in an array of physical shapes that encouraged people to react to it in a very physical, personalized way.  

Today, it's expected that we will only interact with the information that we get in our minds. We will think about it and push some buttons, and that's all, folks.  But in the past, it was possible to touch information, hear it, smell it, dance it... engage with it and change it, via every sense.  Being informed was an interactive experience.

When information moves online, it becomes physically inaccessible to us, taking on the form of disembodied figures etched in flickering light, on an ethereal 'site' that we cannot reach no matter how fast we walk or run. 

The effects of this ethereal medium on society are already becoming noticeable.  Members of Generation X, the last pre-internet generation, are fond of complaining about how glassy eyed and unresponsive members of Generation Y are.  Supposedly, Generation Y people supposedly fail to exhibit any sense of urgency when they're at work; they fail to show a palpable reaction to the world around them, when they're at play.  I don't know how true that is, but the younger people that I've met do seem less aware that the physical world can be used as a medium for their ideas.   

Given how many ideas are now only found online, floating in a disembodied ether, that attitude is kind of understandable.  What's worrying is that over time, people seem to be coming to the conclusion that the real world is incompatible with the flow of information.  It's slower, more obstructive and cumbersome... that it gets in the way of the pure informational realm they inhabit online.    

This is a fallacy.  We are naturally designed so that our thoughts flow into words and feelings flow into action, via our bodies, without any interruption.  Yet many of us have been raised in a way that inhibits us from using from using our hands, feet or voices as a means for self-expression.  

Many of us have experienced years of negative feedback from bullies, sexists, racists, bigots, thugs, parents and authority figures... as well as unrealistic standards of behaviour that are depicted in advertising and the media.  That may be why so many people feel that the internet is a freer space, with greater possibilities than the real world.  It's a space where they are unburdened by any sense of being physically 'substandard'.   

But what is so liberating about the internet is also what makes it a prison.   In a way, people who spend too much time online are acting like a bullied kid who stays indoors all day to avoid a bully.  By doing this, she is turning herself into what the bully wants her to be - what he'll allow her to be - instead of who she really is.  Aren't the bullies in our world - the politicians and police and extremists - who are currently shaping the physical world doing the same thing, when they force us to live our lives online? 

Online, we're impotent.  We don't even have a sheet of newsprint to clench in our fists when we read an infuriating news item.  We can’t even turn to the person next to us and say, ‘You won’t believe what I just saw’ because that other person will be glued to their own screen, their own private information flow, designed to circumvent all physical impediments... including friends and partners.

Meanwhile, the physical world is quickly becoming the kind of mindless, consumerist place where ideas don't fit in, because that's what the bullies want it to be.  An alien, super-tactile landscape of funky streetfood, neon fashions, nonsensical catchphrases, random clashes of sound that have no deeper meaning except to add to someone's status.  This seems like a reflection of the fact that very few people are using the material world to share or exchange information anymore.  Why bother?  They've already shared and exchanged it all online. Where it's safe.

In order to engage with other people online, we are expected to detach our ideas and feelings from ourselves, post them somewhere and leave them sitting there, in suspended animation, for hours, days, weeks or months before they get a response. Getting nothing back at all is considered an acceptable outcome.  Unlike a real-life social gathering, where people react to you just for being there, no one can guarantee that they'll get a response anymore.  I can't decide what's more disempowering: being ignored, or being unable to do anything about it.  Perhaps that's why it's becoming more common for people to ‘say’ something online that's so extreme, the others can't ignore it.  Perhaps the internet is fuelling our polarized social extremes, as well our apathy.

A lot of the people that I meet in Berlin these days seem to feel trapped behind walls that that they cannot see - walls lined with shelves of information.  But those are the walls of the internet.  They are not our walls. 

Maybe, because people cannot actually see them, they have actually started to confuse those walls with their own limitations.    

Maybe that's why,
when someone asks them why they don’t stop watching the world and try to change it instead, they stare and say, ‘Change it?  What can I do?’  

The answer  to that question is the same as it ever was: believe in yourself.  It’s the only way that anybody has ever changed anything, in this generation or the last ones.

We Aren't the 1%

Berlin 2014

As part of my end-of-the year reflections, I've been thinking back to some of the political events I took part in during 2014, like the Silent Climate Parade in Berlin, in September.  It was a fun, somewhat-inspiring event.  The headphone-wearing masses, dancing in the streets to a DJ set only they could hear, did draw some amusing looks from passers-by while shimmying in surreal silence.  The speeches were angry and funny at times, as well.  The human tsunami some 10,000 people long was almost awe-inspiring - an illustration of what coordinated action can achieve in microcosm.  Yet, the sad fact remains that the parade failed to change anything.  Half a million people participated in Flood Wall Street-style demos worldwide at the same time that the Silent Climate Parade was happening in Berlin, but the officials at the climate summit in New York City barely took any notice.

I shouldn't be surprised I guess - a similar fate has met most of the globally-coordinated actions that have happened in living memory.  Occupy, Make Poverty History, the Climate Chaos Coalition, Stop the War... I've seen them all, done them all, watched them all fail... one huge, record-breaking event at a time.

Does this mean that the “globalised” model of activism is a failure?  Well, yeah.  If your idea of 'success' is to get a new piece of legislation drafted... or an apology from some guy in power... then this model is as unsuccessful as can be. 

The deafening, embarrassed silence which invariably follows these massive actions also suggests that the organizers feel that they've failed.  Going to a massive protest like Flood Wall Street
may make an impression on hundreds of thousands of people, but not on the people who these events seem to be targeting: the people who matter.  You know: government.  Big business.  The 1%. 

Once they've failed, the organizers of these events may repeat their action a few more times to see if the message gets through to the powers-that-be but, eventually, the medium is abandoned… the game plan is rethought... and the revolution postponed.  A new, bigger and more all-encompassing objective is thought up.  It's like as if the organizers think that by being big enough they will finally catch the gaze of the 1% (whose self-regard is far too monolithic to be affected by any protest, anyway, no matter how large).  And then... and then what?

It's as if the organizers and groups involved are waiting for a sign that the 1% is going to 'do something’ to make things better.  Until that 'something’ happens, they seem quite content to cool their heels and wait with bated breath, for their dreams of radical transformation to begin.  But why?  Is there any sign that this has ever happened in the past?  Actually, no.  There really isn't.

It seems ironic that the modern, globalized model of demonstration, enabled by Twitter and deriving its power from 'the people' and 'online democracy', relies so heavily on  the 1% for a measure of its success.  Surely the point of being part of the 99% is that the masses already have the power isn’t it?  But the organizers of these global actions don't seem to have figured that out. Or if they have, then they haven’t figured out how to use that power yet.  Well, there are plenty of precedents out there that they can look towards, and I will link to some of them throughout this post.  (They aren't the only ones - just those that I know of personally).

In the meantime, I worry that many protesters won’t begin to feel like they can use their power.  That they will ignore it... thereby invalidating every action that they undertake.  As the old adage goes, “When good people do nothing, evil prevails." Or maybe that should be, "When the 99% do nothing, the 1% prevails."

Attending the Silent Climate Parade, I was struck by how disconnected many people there seemed to be.  No local eco-groups seemed to be present, or vegan groups, or recycling shops... all of which there are many, in Berlin.  In fact, few Berlin-specific statements were in evidence on the placards; the slogans all around us referred to the generalities of climate change rather than the specifics, the personal side, the individual viewpoint.  Where was the outrage about Merkel’s expansion of the coal energy sector, I wondered?  Where was the indignation of the asthmatic who's got to live with it?  Or the determination to preserve the temporary garden in the abandoned lot next door - of which there are hundreds in the city?  Why weren’t we occupying those abandoned lots in protest?  Where was the awareness that the environment is something that we all have access to - and power over - every day?  Maybe it was waiting with bated breath, for the moment when ‘something' changed, when the 1% gave the go-ahead to begin transforming reality. 

But again, this is something that the 1% really aren't known for doing... and activists really are.  

You may be wondering what I was doing at this rally.  Well, aside from dressing as a tree I generally went along with the flow to see where it all went... which has since changed to 'seeing where it went wrong'.  This retrospective is intended to help find ways of making things more effective next time, for myself and others.  Hopefully, that's how it will be taken.  But also, I am using the Silent Climate March as an example of a tendency, which I know it isn't solely responsible for.

I've come to think of these globalized demonstrations as ‘top-down' demonstrations. It's not a very inventive term, I know, and it's probably been used a few times already to describe movements like Occupy.  Top-down demos are a modern form of non-activism that is akin to ‘slacktivism’ (‘slacker activism' e.g. liking Facebook pages, using Twitter hashtags and signing e-petitions).  People seem to know that this kind of activism doesn't change anything, but they pretend it's going to anyway, just because it’s simpler than coming up with a new way of doing things.  It's the way they've been conditioned to ‘get things done.’  Filling in a form or a placard, and waiting for government to deliver the outcome via the post.  That's what ‘working towards change’ means.  At least, according to the 1% it is.

It never seems to occur to some activists that they’ve been told that this is how change has to happen, precisely because it’s ineffective.  Believe it or not, even protest was generally illegal many years ago.  We don't demonstrate today because it's a legal form of protest, as many think.  Demonstrating only became legal because the government couldn't physically kill or jail everyone who did it.  The same principle applies to all forms of direct action, however radical or mainstream. None of them are well liked, respected or even listened to by the powers that be.  So why do we do it then?  I'll try and answer that question...

ll activism is a process of learning about what produces change effectively (and safely) without asking for permission.  This is not unlike what we all have to do to survive anyway: being alive, too, is a never-ending process of adapting to random & evolving circumstances.  The world does not stop spinning for us; time does not stand still and the climate doesn't wait for the government to stumble into a good fiscal position where it can begin sorting out CO2 emissions.  

The system is failing precisely because it was designed to operate in a static and unchanging vacuum, and any movement that functions in the same way is basically doomed.
‘Top-down' organization may be a boring term (still) but it is just so apt as a way of describing what's happening both in government and activism, these days.  All the global 'days of action' that we've seen lately are metaphorical trees of resistance growing downwards from the branches & leaves, toward a grassroots level that is never, ever reached (let alone the underground from which the roots should have sprung).  The 1% won't let it get that far... as far as it needs to go to really matter. The system won't let it.  The 1% hasn't figured out how to make its policy make sense on the ground, either, and it doesn't want to be bested in a fair fight.

As they are growing downward (and backwards) these growths of activist resistance can be undone by a strong gust of wind; in some cases, all it takes is a bit of vocal grumbling from passers-by about the pavements being blocked  to drive the
protestors off of the streets and back behind closed doors.  This is where the lack of roots becomes a glaring problem.  Because the protesters haven't made any clear changes for the better, as far as the locals can see, no one jumps up to defend them.  Since they haven’t made any changes for the better, they can't even defend themselves.  Why not go home?  they think.  I haven’t created anything here... some guy's chucking a beer can at me... ah, who needs the hassle anyway?  Let's go home & drink some Chianti.  (Middle class stereotype alert).

Sometimes, I feel that these 'top-down' organizers are really drawing their inspiration from the enemy.  Their tactics emulate the branding strategies of major corporations, where image is all that matters, and sticking to a consistent message matters more than evolving does.  The 'international day of action' is executed as a sort of PR exercise, an advertisement for a cause.  It uses a highjacked media lens to try and counteract the ads of its rivals: Big Oil, Big Finance, Big Agriculture and Big Pharma. The organizers start to get hung up on that inhuman ideal of perfection themselves and when the campaign fails, it gets the axe like any other failed marketing strategy, with participants left out in the cold like they're getting the pink slip.

But if these types of activists are working against the laws of social physics, maybe it's because they feel they have to adapt to the prevailing model to survive.  But  the thing is: we've already got the prevailing model, and it doesn't work.  Who needs more of that?  

These are all questions that have been asked in the past; previous movements have really struggled to answer them.  There aren't any easy answers, just experiments with possibilities.  Perhaps this is frustrating but the fact is, it's life.  There aren't any shortcuts, even though the 1% may pretend that there are... and they usually involve money.  

Since people have stopped asking the above questions, the alternative has reverted to being just a slightly different shade of the norm.  The alternative is that moment when thousands of diverse individuals and causes unite in an unplanned, unstoppable quest towards a shared, common goal.  As it snakes its way along an unplanned, grassroots course, it clears away the mud of the tainted, industrial foundations we all share, breaks through the asphalt of ingrained conformity and transforms our reality.  No one ever knows what that will look like.  Trying to put a label, or brand, on it too soon can only stifle its potential.  As long as a movement liberates every member from whatever weighs them down as people, not just as political operatives, it can be called a success. 

"The role of the activist creates a separation between ends and means: self-sacrifice means creating a division between the revolution as love and joy in the future, but duty and routine now."  From 'Give Up Activism by anonymous J18 participant.

Global demos have now become a prototype of how to not to do activism, but it wasn't always that way.

When the first global 'days of action' were organized in the late nineties, the general idea was to use the internet to connect pre-existing groups that were all reacting to a common problem: globalized capitalism.  The J18 and N30 protests in 1999 are often singled out as the first examples of successful, globally-coordinated actions against this problem, but if you look at them closely, you'll see that they weren’t organized from the top-down.  I am lucky enough to have been able to do this, being that I was at J18, as well as having been part of several  groups that were tackling other problems caused by globalization.  Those groups may have grown together over years, at unifying global demos, but they had all started out as separate & local.  The big picture that we are left with today, of an ‘anti-globalisation movement’, is something that is only became visible at a distance, where the complementary colours within the causes could be seen as a pattern, from above.  

Picture thousands of groups expanding along the grassroots level throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as they tried to keep ahead of the damage done by a globally-spreading capitalism.  They’d been trying to rein it in in any way they could: reducing heavy traffic flows through cities and towns via handmade barricades so their kids could play in the streets;  occupying parks that were being cleared to make way for investment properties; filling roads with bicycles when the urban planners refused to make dedicated lanes; boycotting chain stores; unionizing workers in fast food joints; by shutting down battery farms; and so on.  When these causes had spread far enough to meet each other, the anti-globalization movement was born.  It was like touching a match to a planetary pile of brush.

There had been international demos attempted before 1999, but these ones grabbed the headlines by accident, when the media descended (as always) to get shots of some people who were smashing windows... a handful, out of the tens of thousands who were there.  But these actions weren't meant to target the media.  They targeted society.  The message was intended to be broadcast to the masses directly, via approachable interactive events that could intrigue and lure them in; the media lens was there to be ignored and tolerated, not  highjacked.

As a tool for changing government policies, J18 was pretty useless... but then, that wasn’t what it was trying to do.  It was trying to change people, and that was what made it memorable, if not a total raging success.  By bringing together expressions of anti-capitalism that had been translated into housing, food, music, art, clothing, literature, films, festivals, street theatre, transportation, drugs, as well as all the usual activist outlets... many things that already existed, basically... it provided something for everyone. 

Try as they might, the authorities were never able to stuff the countercultural genie freed by these protests back into the bottle, again.  It had taken on a multifaceted format that was impossible to criminalize.  All they could do was to try and commercialize it, and thereby claim credit for it, so that they could one day dismiss it as a passé fad.  At this, they would eventually succeed.

The organic stains of that culture of dissent remain on the wheels of capitalism today, in the form of ‘hipster culture’.  The DNA from that culture might even mutate into a new strain of radicalism one day; who knows.  But that'll only happen if only people wake up and realize that they were responsible for making it in the first place.  The so-called 99% have been, and still are, capable of making a more peaceful, autonomous and effective society than this one with their bare hands.  If only they'd stop waiting for the 1% to 'do something', then that radical transformation might begin.

Anyone who believes that the 1% can deliver bigger or better changes than the 99% has already lost their most important battle.  They’ve bought into the myth of a system that can make change happen.  And it never has… it’s always been the people. The system just took credit for it.  Every time that we look to them to ‘do something’, we're handing them more credit that they don't need. 

London 1998

Friday, 23 January 2015

Protest is a process, not a product

Last spring, I had a dream that there was a new craze sweeping Berlin: people would dress up like trees and stand in a field near the Bundestag every month, holding a vigil for all the natural spaces being destroyed by mankind.  I went down to check it out so I could write about it for this blog (yes: even in my dreams, I write a blog). And of course I wanted to take part... but not the same way that everyone else was doing.

Everybody at the vigil was dressed as evergreen trees. To save time, a lot of them had cut down actual pine trees to wear.  I thought that was a bit wasteful... but then I saw the sincere looks on their faces and thought, “Well, at least they’re using the trees to say something that they care about… that’s more than you can say for a lot of the waste that people create.” 
I held back my criticism, tried to appreciate the fact that they were spreading a message that I believed in, and watched from the sidelines.   

A few weeks ago, this dream popped into my mind again as I was stepping around another  massive pile of discarded Christmas trees in Berlin.  An entire forest of baby evergreens seems to get cut down each year to supply the people in my kiez with the right mood for their holy nights.  But this year there seem to be so many more.  People were casting away symbols of eternity to make space for their manmade presents.  How paradoxical is that?  It almost seemed like a symbolic sacrifice of the idea of permanence and regeneration - a bizarre leap of faith into a mechanized, manmade future.

My annoyance about the annual tree cull primed me to go to the ‘Wir Haben Es Satt’ demo a few days later, a protest against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (or TTIP) and for sustainable agricultural practices in Germany.  The pine trees had been cleared from most of the kerbs by then, but at the demo, I saw people dressed up like trees standing outside the Bundestag, wearing branches and leaves, just like they had been in my dream.  The difference was that the branches they were wearing looked like they’d fallen off a tree during a recent windstorm.  The people wearing them didn’t seem the type to go and wantonly hack down pine forests, either, so the similarity to my dream ended there… so I thought.

My friends and I delved into the crowd of people wearing fun-fur onesies, rabbit suits, bee costumes, beekeeping suits - there were even a few caricatured farmers with big straw hats.  It was a bit like being at a Fasching party, except with lots of angry signs about battery farming and dystopian Monsanto products penned in red, slashing ink.  Drums were playing here and there, smoke was rising from the beekeepers’ metal censers, pink and green, mass-produced banners fluttered along with a few handmade ones.  Bright, industrial swathes of fabric in manmade colours flapped at us from every angle.  The message of the event had been painted in synthetic hues, mocking the plastic appeal of a TV advertisement.  Either that, or they were mimicking it, in hope of having a similar, mass-market appeal. 

With so many prefab options at the demo, all we had to do was look around, ask ourselves, ‘agree or disagree?’  and if we agreed, we could just grab a banner or a pin and become another carrier for the message.  For the cause - the brand - ‘Stop the TTIP’.  I was tempted...

... but then I pictured the people wearing those outfits going home, hanging up their rabbit suits, laughing about them.  Putting their banners out on the balcony and not talking about Monsanto or TTIP again until the next protest came around. But maybe that's the point.  After all, dressing up as a furry animal isn’t about representing what you really are, is it?  it’s about putting a playful façade between you and the world, feigning naive simplicity.  Maybe the point of these outfits is to try and impart some of that simplicity into the environmentalist message, making a daunting prospect seem accessible. 

In the commercial world, animal costumes are used to draw shoppers into computer stores and car dealerships but never into grocery stores or bars... maybe that's the same reason why they're used to draw people to demonstrations about the environment. 

Plus, it is easier to jump in to a demonstration when there are ready-made banners and placards waiting there, ready-made, in the hands of your furry environmental mascot. But buying into one protest on the basis of a costume or a banner does not rope you into continuing with it. It’s not like buying a pair of shoes.  With activism, that commitment comes from seeing the issue as part of an ongoing theme in your life.  It's got to be personal.
Successful movements are able to engage with people on an every day level, to make them return for every action.  That may be why the three-ring circus known as the International Socialists (or whatever they’re called now) has thousands of dedicated members.  They have an answer for everything... literally.  If you belch in the middle of one of their meetings, they can provide you with a Socialist Perspective as to why you did it. 

Getting back to the TTIP demo in Berlin, though: my friends and I really should have come there more prepared.  We should have come with our own props... or dressed up... or organized a little direct action to do while we were there... but a few of us had hangovers (well, all of us did).  Which may be why I started trying to find some way of blaming the demo for our lack of enthusiasm. ;-)

It was hard to fault the organization of the protest though.  They did an amazing job of bringing a huge number of people together.   Nothing was done wrong, compared to any of the other mass demos I've been to.  But, like almost all of the mass protests that I've been to, I felt like I had to be prepared to give any input.  It couldn't be a spontaneous thing.  If I was just jumping on board at the last minute, my options were limited to something prefab - a banner, a chant - all arranged by the organizers.  This format can certainly attract a certain type of protester - the consumerist type, or those in NGOs - but it leaves out the passers-by who may expect more out of their activism than a souvenir or a photo op.   Creating a free space for people to express their personal reaction to the issues at hand would probably give them a stronger impression to take away, anyway... a sense of input, which is what protest is all about. That's just an observation from someone who has been to dozens of similar one-off events.  A friendly suggestion for next time, if any of those organizers happen to read this.

A phrase from 'Amusing Ourselves to Death' by Neil Postman came to mind: "The medium excludes the content."  And I thought about how a new medium of protest was needed to take activism to the level where it changed people's lives, and not just the way they looked, or the headlines, for a few hours...

 Monsanto is a tad more evil than this installation suggests
Dazzled by bright colours, smoke from beekeepers’ torches and drumming, we walked and walked.  People were staring up ahead, not left or right or behind. Where were we going?  I asked. My friends shrugged.  But being coaxed along like this, it gave the impression of some sort of a big finale up ahead.  No one was stopping and, the few times we tried to, we were nudged along by the slow-motion tide of people.  Toward the end we were herded past a ‘slow food’ stall.  Then we looked around and realized that we had been siphoned in an open space in front of a stage.  This was the critical role we’d been given: playing the part of an audience.

On the other side of the stage, a tide of people was now moving out, over the footbridge towards the Hauptbahnhof.  To join them and go home seemed like a cop-out after all this build-up so we stuck it out there, in the cold.  Just stopping for the sake of stopping, the same way that we had been moving for the sake of moving during
the rest of the demo.  Where else to go until someone listens, but around and around in circles?

No choppers were wheeling overhead but a sense of having our movements coordinated from above was strong.  Being channeled through a pre-arranged pattern laid out on the ground.  The pattern of the city; the pattern of a route; the pattern of activism that is inactive in its execution; all we need to do is turn up and fill in blanks designated to us, a paint-by-numbers march.  All that we can do is turn up and fill in the blanks, if that's how it's designed. 

It’s not as if social change is a point that we can reach by walking towards it, anyway. Even if we ran, it would still elude us.  In a time of constant, robotic movement toward ‘growth’, ‘profit’ and ‘progress’ it seems the most powerful thing anyone could do would be to stand still, rethink everything from scratch instead of flowing along the same old lines. Stop confusing motion with production and size with progress.  Those lines once led outward, but now they have joined up and  lead back in on themselves, an endless loop that gets a little more ground down with each cycle around the planet, searching for another source of untapped potential. But the last, real untapped source of potential exists in our minds.  And, as long as we keep moving forward without stopping, finding bigger and bigger outlines to fill with more and more identical, oversimplified goals, then we’ll never figure out how to exploit the power of the individual.

In the end, I couldn’t silence the inner voice that kept insisting that this protest had left the flawed behaviours that got us here, untouched. 
Like in that dream that I had, about activists cutting down trees in order to save nature - it was just harnessing the wrong impulse for the right purpose. 

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Father time is running out...

Christmas has ended, but when did it start?  By now, you've surely heard the tale of how the early Christians decided to nab the date of the winter solstice from the pagans and use it to celebrate the birth of Christ, some 2000 years ago.  They allegedly did this in the hopes of making their new holiday seem a little bit more appealing to the snake-worshipping maypole dancers haunting their local forests... and maybe even persuade them to put their clothes on once in a while and go to Church.

We're not averse to snake-worship
here at Unscene Berlin, really
The problem was, there was some confusion in Rome (the birthplace of organized Christianity) as to what date the winter solstice actually fell on.  They celebrated it on the 24th and 25th of December, whereas other European pagans knew that it fell on the 21st of December (as hundreds of precisely-aligned monuments like Stonehenge can attest to).  The Roman calendar was approximate and flawed, but the establishment wasn't so willing to accept astronomical tips given by outsiders... even less so if they happened to be naked and worshipping snakes.  Like all bureaucracies, Rome preferred to trudge on with a dysfunctional, antiquated system that was utterly out of sync with the cosmos, inflicting it on whatever unfortunate peoples they conquered until it started to break down... their system, that is, not the cosmos.

To the ancient Romans it might have seemed like the cosmos was breaking down when they woke up one morning and realized that the season didn't match the date on their calendars anymore.  Surprise!  Turns out their inaccurate, pre-Julian calendar had required regular inter-calculations by the people in power to keep it in sync... and, since most of those people in power were politicians, "this power was prone to abuse: a Pontifex could lengthen a year in which he or one of his political allies was in office, or refuse to lengthen one in which his opponents were in power." (Source: Wikipedia)

Year after year the dates were fudged - sometimes for convenience, sometimes out of sheer confusion about what date it really was.  The last years before the introduction of the Julian calendar were, unsurprisingly, called 'Years of Confusion'.  The pencil pushers of ancient Rome had switched the dates around one too many times to maintain the illusion they were in control, but no one could figure out when to harvest their crops without knowing the exact time of year.  Finally, Julius Cesar was forced to introduce the Julian calendar which didn't require constant maintenance.  It was still flawed, though; for one thing, the solstice was still calculated to the 25th of December and the year was 11 minutes off.  By the 16th century the dates had fallen out of sync again and, after calculating the dates for the new calendar, the Church discovered' that the winter solstice should fall on December 21st.  It decided to keep schtum about this discovery - possibly, Church officials were picturing angry pagans shrieking, 'I told you so' all across Europe, when they found out.  Christmas stayed on the 25th of December, and the Romans saved face.  Again.

Like those confused citizens of ancient Rome, I am looking out my window right now and wondering why it's spring in the middle of December.  But this time it's not the calendar that's out of sync, it's the seasons themselves.  The cause of this modern chaos is, however, the same as it was 2060 years ago: politicians fudging facts on the state of things, so they can maintain the illusion of control.

So why the Hell am I talking about this in a post about New Year's parties, anyway?  I guess I'm just trying to sum the year up and.  To me 2014 was a Global Year of Confusion because, at the end of it, no one knows what to expect from the climate (will things get worse?  What are we going to do about it?).  No one knows whether the people that IS has kidnapped will ever be returned, or whether police will be allowed to go on bullying the public, or whether Mexican governors will be allowed to get away with murder, or...  Throughout 2014, governments everywhere just seemed too busy to deal with any of the heaviest issues that were weighing on people's minds.  So in 2015, I reckon the only way to move those issues forward will be through alternative channels.  Because let's face it: counting on results from this system is as futile as trying to time your harvest to a calendar that keeps changing.

Villa Curiosum
The first event on my list is 'alternative' and free, and it has parallels to the ancient world (well, to the Renaissance world).  Villa Curiosum has taken over Ausland in Prenzlauerberg, where they will be putting on a series of random events for fans of the weird and exotic.  In the event blurb for Alltagskammer IV they say they're influenced by the Renaissance concept of a 'Wunderkammer':

"a collection of curiosities representing the world: stuffed animals, weird weapons, exotic souvenirs and unique early automats.   We believe that the 'real' miracle can only be found in everyday life!"

From now until December 28th these guys and girls will be painting, sewing costumes, printing with silkscreen, making weird hats, and drinking cocktails in a place called the Cunt Lab with sound installations playing in the background, everyday between 4 p.m. and closing time (and as we Berliners know, closing time does not actually exist).  Basically it's your run-of-the-mill creative orgy.  I think the ancient pagans would have approved...

The next Alltagskammer events are the Blac Blob Sound workshop on 26.12 and a Variété show for Beauties and Beasts on 27.12 which will "present unusual characters in their distorted realities" (basically, people like you and me).

Also on Boxing Day is Santa raves harder with the Cerebral Chaos dark psy crew (Chester's Inn, Kreuzberg).  I'd go just to check out what his beard looks like under the black lights, ha. It's 5 Euros to get in.

And then there's MagDalena im Exil at Dublex (Ostbahnhof) on Boxing Day, too, which will revive the sound of the defunct Maria club - one of the original alternatives of Berlin. 

And also also on Boxing Day, there's the Kiwimanjaro X-mas special, which lists its music style as 'independent', making it ideal for anyone who hates, er, dependent music.  It's also 5 Euros in.

In R19 on December 27th, Virus brings us a techno-goa-dinner party.  It's only 3 Euros to get in and that includes free food as well as the standard tunes and cheap drinks.  With all that on offer I wonder if there's any reason to even leave the place. Mind if I move in...?

To round off the year on December 31st in alternative style, there's Alway's the Hard Way. It's first on the list because of its Captain Obvious name... no questions about what you're getting when you go there!  Or are there?  A glance at the party blurb and it starts to sound as if someone has put all the dregs of the Berlin party scene in a blender and hit the 'chop' button.  What did they come up with? "Costume + Freakshow + BODY-SUSPENSION + Live ART + Vernissage + Club closing."
Sounds kind of avant garde, until you look at their T-shirt model >>>

Can prolls can be avant garde?  I have no idea but you should go to this party if you want to find out!   This one-of-a-kind event will take place at Spirograph, a club that I never even realized existed until now.  The turnover of clubs in this town seems to be speeding up...

For guaranteed quality techno there's Hyte Day 3 at Arena club with Carl Cox, Chris Liebing, Tobi Neumann and all the rest of the older, tougher techno crew.  Worth the 35,00 + price tag if you know exactly what you want and don't want to mess about.

There are also the usual secret location and one-off masqued balls etc. that happen every New Year's in random rented industrial venues around Berlin, but without knowing who's doing them or where they are, they're a bit of a lottery.  But if you're an adventurous type then that's probably music to your ears.

That's it for now but I will be posting last-minute event tips on Twitter @UnsceneBerlin, so keep checking back.  

See you in the alternative new year!

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Misandry: It's a Big Deal. Not.

Spot the victim: almost all of the above images are from mundane, every day ads on magazines, billboards and news sites.  Some are indistinguishable from images of true violence against women (bottom, center).  Ads like this tap into the misogynist's fantasy life and whether we share that fantasy or not, we have to admit it's riddled with violence and hate... which means that society is, too
I've been reading about the recent Gamergate debate(s) on Twitter - which I've still not got my head around, and am unlikely to, now that the number of tweet accusations flying around has reached critical mass.  But one thing that stuck with me after reading a few threads was the shocking blitheness with which guys on these threads bandy the word 'misandry' about.  They seem to have decided that the word 'misandrist' can be used to refer to any woman who says or thinks negative things about men. 

Is being negative about sexist men such an innately wrong behaviour that is somehow amounts to a real, actual prejudice, though?  And are men such super special beings that they never make mistakes or bad judgements that need to be criticised?  I don't think so. Any man who would suggest such a thing probably needs to get over himself.

When feminists criticise a man's behaviour as sexist, it's like when a colleague says to him at work , 'Just because you're good at your job doesn't mean that you can ask me to make coffee for you.'  The man in question may be doing well in every other respect, but if his behaviour is unconsciously and unfairly burdening another person, then that other person is entitled to criticise. This also applies to misogynist women, by the way.

But even if there are women out there who are just saying unfair, nasty things about men for the hell of it, I don't see how that is in any way as bad as beating up on men; yelling at them in the streets because they're not paying enough attention to us; rubbing up against them on crowded trains; raping them; tailgating them because we assume that their entire gender doesn't know how to drive; paying them too little or no money for their work; trafficking them; renting or buying them like commodities; refusing to treat their illnesses because it's 'all in their head'; and otherwise preventing their ability to live full, equal and safe lives, using the power that an unfair system has granted us over them. 

Let's face it: misandry simply lacks the same opportunities to manifest that misogyny has manufactured for itself, over the last dozen or so centuries.  If misandry exists on a large scale, then it mostly exists in the heads of females who hate men.  Misogyny, on the other hand, exists right out in the open where everyone can see it, where its random targets cannot avoid it, and where bystanders are desensitised by their exposure to it.  It even exists in the system.  That's why women cannot expect protection from misogyny, ironically enough... it's too ubiquitous. 

The restrictions misogyny places on us changes from country to country but they're ever-present, the deadening weight of prejudice embodied in flesh, steel and stone.  Sometimes, it just seems safer just to stay home, quit our jobs and squish ourselves into whatever tiny role the misogynists condone for us.  Indeed, it takes a force of will not to do that, even nowadays.  Any man who'd equate such immediate, physical oppression with the effect of some poorly-chosen words, is only showing how out-of-touch with women's reality he really is.  He would do better to stop and think about what the reality behind a woman's words is actually like to live in, before flinging the word 'misandry' out there as a defense against his wounded pride.  Misogyny is not just another virtual debate in which words are the only component; plenty of actions are involved in it too.  But maybe this point is lost on people who spend more time online than they do in the real world.

If feminists don't want to fight for the man who feels he isn't getting all the respect he deserves from every woman on the planet, it's just because they're already embattled on that front and many others.  They might feel that man's pain, sure, but their own pain is a bigger threat to their immediate existence.  All feminists, and the vast majority of women, do know how it feels to be shamed and snubbed and condescended to... but they also know how it feels to be threatened, groped, injured, shouted down and ridiculed by men who have too much power over their lives. 

So if you think that you're a good guy who doesn't deserve to be tarred with the same brush as all the other sexist guys out there, then that's great.  But it doesn't mean that you have the right to ask feminists to make sure your feelings aren't getting hurt. We have our own work to do too, you know.  

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

A cause with 100,00 faces

With the Flood Wall Street protests filling the news and Twitter feeds today it seems like a timely moment to reflect on climate movements through time.  Reclaim the Streets, Climate Camp and Occupy were the three big ones that happened in my lifetime.  I suspect that these urban invasions of green-painted, animistic protestors dancing to drums all owe their existence to London's Stop the City protests (1980s) and before that, the Reclaiming movement (1970s) and possibly even the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

All were omnibus movements that brought together countless small, grassroots groups and individual activists from the countryside and suburbs, and took to the big city streets to confront the real sources of pollution and corruption head-on, in its faceless inner-city fortresses. 

In the extract below, you can read what the scene was like at one such demonstration in London in June 1999.  Called J18 it was part of an international day of action aimed at ending environmental, financial and social breakdown, similar to the international day of protest last Sunday that aimed to send a message to the UN Climate Conference happening in New York City today.

But first, here are some great images taken from famous pavement-stomping marches around the world... 
Climate Camp staged a never-ending sit-in in.  London 2009

Reclaim the Streets 1995: demonstrators bought this car & trashed it

Idle No More (above/below) marched on Canadian capitals in 2013

Solstice demonstration by Reclaiming movement in San Francisco

Seattle's N30 protest against the WTO in 1999

Stop the City in London 1983.

The story is taken from my new novel Vote Tekno Party - and you can read more of it by following this link!
Occupy protestor in NYC in 2011

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Berlin's Urban Monsters - A Virtual Tour

You may not realize this, but the human residents of Berlin don't just share the city with rats, wasps, sparrows and dogs. They also share it with a raft of fantastic and frightening creatures; quasi-mythical beings that lurk on secluded walls throughout the city. Born out of the primordial soup of artistic imagination, they silently broadcast sinister visions to the world without any input from it. Though they're made of the same stuff as other street art, they creep up on the viewer or shock him in a way that ordinary grafitti does not. They are the city's urban monsters.
Berlin's most famous urban monster, Molecule Man, is a metallic colossus that juts out of the Spree near An den Treptowers bridge, like a knife pinpointing the spot where art breaches the mundane surface of the city.
Yesterday, I found out that the area around An den Treptowers is a veritable wildlife sanctuary for other forms of urban monster too. While walking along the water below it, I spotted several deformed creations creeping along the abandoned shell of an old park WC.
Next to it, a small shed was wrapped in Gothic line drawings:
As I kept walking I came across a red-faced troll waiting under An den Treptowers bridge ...
...and a two-headed troll guarding the rail bridge.
It wasn't long before I realized there were urban monsters all around me. If you were just passing through, you would never know that there are monsters living on the flipside of the bridge's blank facade. They have to hide from their natural predators: grafitti removers, builders and city planners.

I have come across other manifestations of Berlin's subconscious since coming here. There was the abstract crane in Landsberger Allee... this complex mural in Friedrichshain...
...neither of which still exists today. The area around An den Treptowers seems to have been a safe haven for urban monsters for some time, if the age and complexity of its works is anything to go by. But that time may almost be up. When I was there yesterday, the air was full of the clanging and crashing of construction work which was taking place all around these buildings. If you look closely at the building below...
...which has had most of its facade stripped away for demolition / renovation purposes, you can see the sad remains of yet another painting in the centre.
This maimed urban monster is a stark example of what happens to art that finds itself in the path of people with more money than imagination.

It's possible that new urban monsters will be born and flourish on the new buildings but once the old works are destroyed, the gene pool of the previous art generation will be lost forever. A city which wipes out the old to make way for the new without connecting the two things can't hope to evolve. It can change but it can't evolve. I think that city planners the world over confuse the meanings of those two words.

Any act of creation deserves respect. If the city is a mechanical entity - like a body - then street art is the voice of the spirit at its helm. The phrase 'soulless metropolis' isn't just a figure of speech, it's a distinct possibility in any culture that doesn't treat its art with proper respect. A city without creative outlets is one where people only exist to serve the city's needs: efficiency, development and profit. Ironically, urban monsters are one of the things that can save a city from becoming a nightmare to live in.

It looks like those urban monsters are here for a limited time only, so if you want to view them in their natural habitat, do it soon!