Thursday, 28 April 2011

Spreewald als Urwald

Spreewald: a strange paradise south of Berlin

Araschnia levana happened to be sitting next to me as I ate my lunch

Less than 100 km south-east of Berlin, in the German state of Brandenburg, lies one of the most important ecosystems in Europe. Designated as a UN Biosphere Reserve in 1991, Spreewald (meaning “Spree forest” after the river Spree), consists of nearly 50 square kilometres of forests, marshes and farmland. The reserve is divided into four zones ranging from zone 1 which consists of agricultural land, the cultivation of which is closely overseen to protect the unique landscape, to zone 4, or the so-called “core areas” that cannot be entered. Much of the heavily forested landscape is criss-crossed by a dense network of streams interspersed with canals so that many localities can only be easily reached by boat. The area is also home to a Slavic minority — the Sorbs — who speak their own language and have maintained their cultural identity over many centuries.

Earlier this week I visited Spreewald and braved the mosquitoes to enter this strange "wilderness". There are dense stands of alder, birch, oak and other trees and thick vegetation often gives the illusion of solid ground across the marshy landscape. There is birdsong all around — cuckoos, woodpeckers and many others I cannot identify — and frogs and snakes abound. Above all, this is an entomological paradise, especially for beetles which thrive on the vast array of dead wood at every stage of decay. If we were to seek out a pocket of “primary forest” or Urwald in contemporary Europe this must come pretty close even if it cannot match the vast scale of Białowieża in eastern Poland. Of course many of the large mammals that once roamed this landscape have long since gone: bears and wolves, for example, are no longer to be found.

But what is the draw of “primal nature” in the twenty-first century? For me it is undoubtedly a mix of romantic and scientific fascination to be immersed in such a place and find some rare or beautiful things and in some small way also contribute towards the still incomplete knowledge of the reserve’s biodiversity. What though is the pretext for protecting biodiversity? Utilitarian arguments tend to rest on features such as medicinal properties or the potential development of eco-tourism. Intrinsic arguments call for nature to be valued irrespective of its human use. In a sense both these arguments are somewhat misplaced: the utilitarians end up relying on some tortuous version of cost-benefit analysis to stake their claim whilst the intrinsic or ecocentrist arguments seem to cut off nature from culture or history (despite the human origins of such philosophical conjectures). A different and avowedly anthropocentric position might be that nature is worth protecting simply because it enriches human life in the same way as art or music.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

From Forbrydelsen to Copenhagen

Inside Copenhagen's City Hall: still some unanswered questions about the death of Nana Birk Larsen?

Mural in Christiania, Copenhagen: no photos allowed!

Ørstedsparken, Copenhagen

Copenhagen's Central Station: homage to Dan Flavin?

Jean Arp Concrétion humaine sur coupe ovale (1948) in the Louisiana sculpture garden

It’s strange to arrive in a city you already “know” yet have never visited. What brought me finally to Copenhagen this week, and to Denmark for the first time, was The Killing [Forbrydelsen], an extraordinary twenty-part TV drama which delves deep into the psyche of its main characters and is played out against a grey November skyline. Like the depiction of Baltimore in The Wire, the portrait of Copenhagen in The Killing explores many elements: the inner landscapes of grief, the spectre of racism, political chicanery, and above all, an emphasis on the complexity of human relationships.

On my first morning in Copenhagen I headed like many other visitors for Christiania, the alternative city within a city, that was established in a cluster of abandoned military buildings in 1971. This alternative community of 500-700 people — with its own decision-making structures — has had a turbulent relationship with the Danish state. A government decision to forcibly remove the settlement in 1975 was rescinded in 1976 following a wave of public sympathy. The commune has repeatedly struggled to prevent outsiders from using the site as a base for drug dealing: their semi-autonomous status being taken advantage of as a safe haven for crime. My first impressions of the rather shabby and commercialized cluster of shops and stalls by the main entrance is that this could be London’s Camden Lock Market. The “real” Christiania lies a further five minutes walk away where prettily decorated self-build homes and small gardens back onto the city’s canals. The urban sociologist Cecilie Juul tells me that the state is now trying to win their battle with Christiania by stealth: instead of taking the land by force they now propose to sell properties directly to their residents. Such a move undermines the possibility for shared ownership and will lead to a gradual “normalization” of property relations. As the original settlers from the 1970s die or move away the differences between this enclave and the rest of city will eventually fade away.

To the west of the city centre there is an interesting park called Ørstedsparken: the varied and naturalistic topography is reminiscent of Alphand’s Buttes-Chaumont or “the ramble” of Olmsted and Vaux’s Central Park. At the centre of the park is a lake encircled by fine trees and statues of mythical figures. The Ørstedsparken is interesting because it marks a changed relationship between the state and gay men: the role of the police has changed from that of harassment or entrapment to the protection of park users from homophobic violence. This is interesting because it underlies the “right to the city” in an inclusive way that signals an enlarged conception of the public realm as a shared space that encompasses many different interests. If the Ørstedsparken really is a heterotopia for sexual subcultures, in the Foucauldian sense of radical difference and social experimentation, then does the state’s role in protecting the park as “a space of difference” suggest a more complex relationship between “inside” and “outside” in contemporary societies?

A short distance north of Copenhagen lies the Louisiana gallery and sculpture garden. Clearly in an “art mood” as I waited for my train in the city’s central station I noticed that some fluorescent lighting on the station platform resembled a Dan Flavin installation. Louisiana is just a few minutes walk from the small town of Humlebæk and enjoys a perfect location next to the sea. How beautiful to see all these sculptures outside, nestled among trees, and within earshot of the waves below; each small clearing in the park brings surprises, every detour something different. Works by Jean Arp, Louise Bourgeois, Henry Moore and many others are gathered together in this magnificent setting. To see sculpture in this way is a remarkable experience that plays on all our senses and where distinctions between architecture, landscape and sculpture melt away.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Fairer voting: arcane psephology or better politics?

On May 5 there will be a referendum on the British voting system. The proposed Alternative Vote method in which candidates are ranked in order of preference is only a minor improvement on the current system — it is not true proportional representation — but it is an acknowledgement that the existing “first-past-the-post” system does not produce parliaments which accurately reflect the national proportion of votes cast for political parties.

In a recent article in The Guardian, Vernon Bogdanor suggests that AV would have had only a limited effect on the outcome of British general elections. Drawing on research at the University of Essex he suggests that only five elections since 1945 may have had different or significantly modified outcomes. Yet if Labour had indeed won the 1950 general election then Britain’s most progressive government ever elected under Clement Attlee would have had a full second term and built on its remarkable achievements such as setting up the National Health Service. Similarly, in 1992 if the Conservatives had not gained a working majority for a fourth term of government then highly problematic policies such as the privatization of rail services may never have occurred and better still, the dynamics of the Labour Party may not have veered towards Tony Blair and the catastrophic New Labour project. And in the most recent election of 2010, research by David Sanders and his colleagues at the University of Essex shows that if AV had been used, the Liberal Democrats could have formed a coalition with either the Conservatives or Labour.

Worries have been expressed that extremist parties might benefit from a change in the voting system but the main beneficiaries are likely to be the Green Party or the Liberal Democrats. The possibility of a so-called “traffic-light coalition” would become more likely with a concomitant marginalization of the political Right and their financial backers (who are bankrolling the “No” campaign).

I am not suggesting that AV is a perfect voting system, or that politics can simply be reduced to the act of voting, but this is a rare opportunity for improving the British democratic process. There are, of course, many other critical issues that should also be addressed such as weak parliamentary scrutiny of legislation, the impact of tax evasion on public finances, the distortion of the public interest by corporate lobbying activities, and the long-term neglect of manufacturing industry. A more representative and responsive parliament doesn't magically solve these problems but it does make a better politics more likely.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Throne up

The artist and designer Lydia Leith has come up with a very handy invention for the upcoming royal wedding on 29 April: a sick bag. The issue is not whether Prince William is a “nice guy” (as opposed to his idiotic younger brother with his predilection for historical fancy dress) but whether a hereditary head-of-state is defensible in the twenty-first century. The problem for Britain is that an obsession with royalty, and celebrity culture more generally, infantilizes public life and reinforces divisions in society. Lacking a modern constitution renders us subjects rather than citizens so that real political change becomes subsumed in an obfuscatory swamp of tradition. The failure of the last “progressive government” with its huge parliamentary majority to complete its reform of the House of Lords is a case in point. The recent revelations of vast tax avoidance by the rich with their multifarious offshore holdings at a time of tightening fiscal austerity exposes the chimera of a unified national culture willing to clutch ice creams and flags in the spring sunshine.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

An urban transect: the Regent's Canal, London

The Regent’s Canal cuts through London like an urban transect. Walking east from Islington through Hackney towards Stratford yesterday I encountered a succession of changes in buildings, landscapes and other spaces. The back gardens of grand Victorian terraces gradually give way to light-engineering factories, film studios, lock keepers’ cottages and other spaces that have now been converted into luxury dwellings. The proximity of water in the post-industrial metropolis has fostered an accelerated set of architectural and cultural transformations yet remnants of the past remain.

The thriving canal-boat community of the Kingsland Basin is now encircled by new developments and the roar of construction activity. A mixed, socially inclusive and low-income London is being displaced, “decanted” or driven out to create a new kind of city.

Large swathes of social housing next to the canal have been removed or await their elimination. The Haggerston Estate, due to be demolished, has a poignant art installation in place, depicting former residents in their windows. The project "I am here", by Andrea Luka Zimmerman, Lasse Johansson and Tristan Fennell, was in part a response to the negative characterizations of tenants which served as a pretext to enable the “redevelopment” of the site and the capture of waterside settings for wealthier Londoners

Monday, 4 April 2011

La Vallée (Obscured by Clouds)

The British Film Institute recently screened a new print of Barbet Schroeder’s classic depiction of exploration and self discovery set in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. The film La Vallée (1972), also known as Obscured by Clouds, concerns a group of hippies who set out to discover a lost valley. The expression “obscured by clouds” refers to those areas that have never been cartographically surveyed since they are always blanketed in cloud.

Schroeder himself attended the BFI screening and referred to the film as “borderline, fiction, borderline documentary”. For Schroeder, what is interesting is not the final destination — which they never reach — but the journey itself as a symbol of dissolution for 1960s counter culture. He cited TS Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”. In La Vallée the idealistic travelers become confused and disoriented: some of them imagine that they have found an understanding with nature and pre-modern culture but this proves to be a touristic chimera that provokes dissent within the group.

My interest in this film is not purely coincidental. Whilst studying geography at university I was sitting in a pub — I think it was the Eagle in Cambridge city centre — and a colleague mentioned that there was to be a research expedition to Papua New Guinea but one of the team had to drop out due to ill health. Without a second thought I said I would go. Some ten weeks later I was tramping through cloud forest — a distinctive kind of rain forest to be found at higher altitudes — and I remember the strange stillness of the moss-covered trees. One morning, just after dawn, I emerged from my tent and the cloud had temporarily cleared: there was ridge after ridge of green forest stretching out to the horizon.

The thing that I remember most vividly about Papua New Guinea was not the landscape, however, but the violence. Having stayed a few days in one of the villages some of the women began to tell me how terrible their lives were: the constant threat of domestic violence, the risk of rape while washing clothes by the river, and the perpetual state-of-war between different communities. Having been steeped in neo-Marxian literature at the time I realized that capital can only provide a partial explanation: questions of gender are of parallel if not greater significance. For the final part of my journey I went on alone to visit the Trobriand Islands off the coast of New Guinea, which proved to be a very different world. This was a matrilineal society based largely around farming and fishing. The men often wore hibiscus flowers in their hair and the aura of imminent violence was absent. It seemed clear that human culture could develop in any number of possible directions and that there is nothing innate about gender relations at all.

First Comma of spring

Comma, Polygonia c-album, London, 3 April.

Yesterday morning I came across the first Comma butterfly of spring sunning itself near a busy road in north London. The Comma, Polygonia c-album, gets its name from a small white comma-shaped mark on the underside of its wings. Apparently first described in 1710 by the naturalist John Ray in his Historia Insectorum it was known by various names in the eighteenth century including the Silver, the Pale and the Jagged-wing.

Formerly very widespread in Britain during the nineteenth century it had by 1913 retreated to a narrow strip along the English-Welsh border. It then staged a dramatic and on-going comeback. One factor is undoubtedly a switch in larval foodplant away from hops — the cultivation of which declined steadily in the latter half of the nineteenth century — to the ubiquitous stinging nettle Urtica dioca to be found at the edge of fields, disturbed ground and almost anywhere where there has been human activity. Other factors may include climatic fluctuations but scientists remain perplexed about the full explanation.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Cave of forgotten dreams

Painting from the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave

Werner Herzog's latest film is a documentary about the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in the Ardèche region of southern France. The cave, first discovered in 1994, contains what are believed to be the oldest human paintings ever found, dating from over 30,000 years ago. The walls of the cave are festooned with intricate depictions of animals that would have roamed the glaciated landscapes of southern Europe at the time including bison, horses, lions, mammoths and rhinoceroses.

The film is visually spectacular, not least through the adoption of 3D technology to enhance the contours of the cave walls. The excellent cinematography enables us to look very closely at the remarkably preserved paintings along with the strange accretions of crystals and other geological features. The overall aesthetic effect is at times, however, rather bombastic or even operatic: Herzog’s own commentary begins to occlude the archaeological insights so that the documentary ends up being more about him than the cave itself.

Herzog’s work is marked by a tendency towards cinematic machismo. In one above-ground scene he mocks the spear-throwing ability of an archeologist that would have been no match for his distant ancestors (we can infer that Herzog rather fancied his chances of survival in the Paleolithic era). His mode of interviewing is marked by the use of leading questions — perhaps to a greater extent here than in his earlier documentaries — as he steers assembled scientists towards more speculative and metaphysical themes. The paintings, intones Herzog, represent nothing less than the origins of the human soul.

The film is also marred by an idiotic postscript featuring albino crocodiles inhabiting a giant greenhouse that uses waste water from a nearby nuclear power plant. With this final lapse into self parody — we also meet some of Herzog’s beloved reptiles in his recent “remake” of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant — the documentary seems to lose its way and we are left with the director’s rambling insights into the human condition.