I didn’t build a city.[1]


[1] I didn’t draw the roads. I didn’t paint any trees. I didn’t lay down pathways. Places for people to sit. Stare. Lust. Cry. I didn’t design their dreams. I didn’t set the horizon. I didn’t put in dogs, their snarls, needy panting, those hurled sticks, measures of obedience. I didn’t think about dog shit, and where Good People put dog shit in a Good City. I didn’t, but I could have. I didn’t allocate parking spaces, under- or overground. I didn’t install strip lighting to keep us safe. I didn’t stipulate disabled ramps at the right incline. I didn’t propose a walkway in the sky, Jurassic concrete hair rising from tropical heat. I didn’t control the weather. I didn’t position the sun so the shadows would make everything seem more real. I didn’t arrange stars in new astrological constellations. I didn’t, but if I wanted to, maybe I could. I didn’t put in skyscrapers. I didn’t select if they would be Miesian or New Asian. Intelligent or unfinished. I didn’t place wind turbines on top of their green roofs. I didn’t factor in urban farming, the needs of the victims of the end of the Industrial Revolution. I didn’t, but I should have. I didn’t suggest—with the use of an enormous scale-model made by Chinese hands—this is where people should live, this is how they will be happy, this is a community. I didn’t deploy troops, concrete barriers, emergency hoarding, chairs that can be used as missiles, children that can be used as collateral. That is how history will be avenged. I didn’t; no one asked me to. I didn’t raise the expectations of the Mayor or the President or the People in all their multitude and meanness and human magnificence. I didn’t print out all the plans and sections and photo realistic perspectives there to produce hope and profit and the profit of hope because I did not press the PRINT button. I wouldn’t, I should have? I didn’t submit my vision to the pale scrutiny of reality, the arbitration of Time: how cruel it can be, how fearsome and awesome it once was. Wasn’t it? I didn’t build the city. I kept it. For myself. I’ll keep it, until you arrive.

*

 Commissioned by Benjamin Reichen/Abake.

I want to invent this colour. Lord knows all and he knows I’m trying.

Samsung Wallpaper 2

Ideally it would *just* happen, but not just like *Just Jared*. You see, I dreamt a dream in which I manage to index every colour I’ve ever seen — acknowledged and not — and from this archive that, as far as humans know, does not exist in time and in space, I concoct a single colour. It remains unnamed. Partly because I shun the pseudo poetics of ‘Evening Lilac Shade’ or ‘Jam Surprise,’ affronts to colour’s innate gaiety. And do not get me started on their numeric counterparts. Faceless strings of digits the spawn of industrialization. Soon comes the day when we name people, our children of the future, after strings of numbers. The ones their skin most closely resembles. I want to invent a colour that started in that dream — and when you see it you will struggle to describe it too. I am not so immodest as to want to invent a new way of seeing. I leave that to the boys and girls of Silicon Valley and Seoul. I am writing to my old schoolteacher, Ms. Elceedee, a dowager now dwindling into senescence, who taunted me and told me I’d amount to nothing on this earth. I am writing to tell her about the colour I plan on inventing, most magnificent, beyond the limited scope of her punitive imagination, and that of my own heart’s sight. The hues will erupt in unison. Swans will bow. Mountains blush. Search engines will wither. Prisoners will find peace. The only oversight in this otherwise most formidable plan is not knowing its fucking name. A name that people — cultured, svelte, caring, fans of yoga — can drop into their polite dinner conversations in and around the topics of sky, coats, skin, sex, simulations and vacation. I’m going to invent this amazing fucking colour bitch — and by bitch I do not mean you, or any woman. I apologize, but, I just heard the phrase on a YouTube video that’s been trending rather well of late. The sound was so crisp. It boomed from this TV, the size of a small state or large child, which, when switched on by retina eye recognition + NSA verification, the screen lit up in an array of colours only ever cited by the lucky few who venture North to the Aurora Borealis. That impossibly smooth landscape of vaporous colour bleeding seamlessly into each other. Perfect gradients. Cries and whispers. This colour, which cannot remain so doggedly without moniker forever, dear Lord, this colour is the one I want to invent.

*

Commissioned by Adam Furman. 

Both

Here are the two cover designs for The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present, both rendered and designed by Wayne Daly. The one on the left is the Penguin UK edition (echoed in the German edition), which sets the title in a bespoke captcha font. What are captcha?

Don’t pretend.

You all know.

They’re the ever primitive looking warped writing used by computers to determine if you are also a computer or a human. They’re the machine version of the Turing test on us.

captcha_lots

At their very best — or worst — it does feel like only another computer could decipher certain captchas, leaving us effectively locked outside our own existential homestead.

impossible captcha

We assume that captchas belong to Web 1.0, to a clunkier, Netscapey era of the Internet. But they’re around just as much — in more or less sophisticated forms. In fact, they illustrate the way in which the Internet is ‘chronochaotic,’ suffering olde bits of technology in tandem with the swooshiest HTML 1000 PRO (I made that up. I think). During the design process for AOE, we therefore liked the idea that our cover would effectively be this machine-Turing test for the reader, as well as another kind of test whereby some people will recognise the allusion to captcha, and others, simply will not.

The cover on the right is for the US edition, published by Blue Rider (also part of the Penguin Random House Group). Here, an illustration entitled Luxury Melted Earth by Alex Mackin Dolan, originally sent in as black and white:

ALEX MACKIN DOLAN melted luxury earth

has been artfully colourised and then even more artfully placed on top of a holographic foil.

Luxury Melted Earth _ Alex Mackin Dolan

We always imagined the front cover of the book — a paperback with an identity crisis — to be a kind of screen, so, it was thrilling to be given the go ahead with the holographic foil by our American colleagues. The insides of AOE are strictly black and white, following the example set by Quentin Fiore in The Medium is the Massage:

p14-15

so, it’s important that the exterior has a chromatic, even tactile quality. The holo-foil is again both contemporary and also quaintly 60s or 70s, as if lasers and space travel have just been invented, and express the frontier of now. A time when Carl Sagan was our guide through the universe:

Carl SaganNotice the name at the bottom. Jerome Agel. Oft forgotten genius svengali who gave birth to some of the most important experimental paperbacks of the later 60s and early 70s, including the McLuhan/Fiore The Medium is the Massage:

Medium is the Massage

Outrageously, Agel’s name was not included on the original Penguin cover from 1967, but, the current re-print amends this, and says, “Co-ordinated by Jerome Agel,” which goes some of the way — but arguably not far enough. For that, I recommend the brilliant The Electric Information Age Book which restores Agel’s cultural and intellectual significance. It’s because of Agel that I’ve come to think of the paperback as a piece of always-new technology. A Papeback OS, as it were.

Doug’s simple request to Wayne was that the cover should “feel like a classic Penguin paperback.” And this time-travel logic continued in the brief for the insides, too: “Wayne, the reader should be able to open our book somewhere and it feels like 1967. Then open it elsewhere and it’s 2015.” Just like the bumpy contours of the Internet itself.

p228

We hope we’ve succeeded.

bitter lake

There’s a scene in Adam Curtis’ new history-essay, Bitter Lake, which made me turn away — and cry, and wait until the un-narrated scene was finished. It shows a young Afghani girl, maybe aged 6 or 7, sitting by her father. They’re in a hospital. In Afghanistan. Her right eye seems to have been gouged out, her left hand and both her legs are heavily bandaged, twisted. She’s the victim of a bomb. The camera films them face-on. She’s there, placid, damaged, no doubt confused, shattered. But silent. Her father and the unseen health staff are doing their best to elevate the tragic situation. He offers her a flower, a red flower, with a smile, a loving smile, as if this red flower, its intrinsic beauty, might take her and them and maybe even their broken land somewhere else.

Photo 26-01-2015 1 36 42 pm

After I opened my eyes again, I see a soldier. He’s in a grassy landscape. I’m assuming it’s Afghanistan. That after all is what Bitter Lake is ‘about.’ Close by, a bird. Also just sitting there, minding its avian business. The soldier reaches out to the bird, carefully, delicately — yet the bird doesn’t fly away. In fact, it responds affectionately. They commune. This footage is also un-narrated, a moment of irrational tenderness, perhaps just before another bomb is set off, and other small children will be maimed irrevocably, or that soldier will be killed, and that bird decides to flee Afghanistan.

We listen to the news and we may think we are informed. But footage that makes its way to us is usually there because it can perform shorthanded and spectacularly. But what about everything else? All the time and space between those newsworthy ‘money shots’? For lack of a better phrase, where actual life occurs?

Much has been said about the fact that Curtis has made his new 137 minute film available only on the BBC online iPlayer, so that he can go long-form, free-form. But I’ve always thought of his film-essays as single pieces, 3 or 4 hours long, subsequently sliced into hour long fragments, to fit normal TV schedules.

The difference in Bitter Lake is that the strongest, most affective — and perhaps most informing — sections are these long, uninterrupted sequences where Curtis allows us to see footage from the never-seen BBC Afghanistan archive in a primary, unrhetorical manner. He allows them to ‘speak.’

This is what I’m taking from Bitter Lake.

There seems to be two films encased together. The first is the more familiar Adam Curtis-esque quantum hidden history, how causes (in this case, Saudi Arabia) ricochet to make events and vice versa. But the second film, the one I’m grateful to see and hear, the one that’s made me flinch away and well with tears, is akin to what cameras would tell us if we asked them to tell us everything they saw and heard. Everything. The lilts of nothingness, wordlessness, and the violence that occurs beyond the frame of vision we permit violence to operate in and as. Video game or not. Reality TV or reality free.

At the start of Pierrot le fou, Godard’s 1965 film that makes margins into centres of cities and souls, we hear Ferdinand read from Elie Faure’s History of Art. It’s worth working your way to the end of this longish excerpt, for the very last word:

‘Past the age of fifty Velasquez stopped painting definite things.
He hovered around objects with the air, with twilight,
catching in his shadows and airy backgrounds…
the palpitations of colour…
which formed the invisible core of his silent symphony.
Henceforth, he captured only…
those mysterious interpenetrations of shape and tone that form a constant,
secret progression,
neither betrayed nor interrupted by any jolt or jar.

Space reigns supreme.
It is as if an aerial wave, sliding over the surfaces,
soaked up their visible emanations, defined and modeled them,
then spread them about like a perfume,
an echo of themselves,
a scattering of impalpable dust.
The world he lived in was one of sadness:
A degenerate king, sickly infantes,
idiots, dwarfs, cripples,
a handful of clownish freaks dressed up as princes,

whose function it was to laugh at themselves…
and to amuse a cast that lived outside the law,
in the meshes of etiquette, plots and lies,
bound by the confessional and remorse,
with the inquisition and silence at the door.”
Listen to this, little girl!
“A spirit of nostalgia pervades his work, yet he avoids what is ugly, sad,
or cruelly morbid about those oppressed children.
Velasquez is the painter of evening,
of open spaces and of silence,

even when he painted in broad daylight or in a closed room,
even with the din of battle or of the hunt in his ears.
As they seldom went out during the day,
when everything was drowned in torrid sunshine,
the Spanish painters communed with the evening.”
Beautiful, isn’t it, little girl?’

The following was published in a special issue of ART PAPERS guest edited by Robert Wiesenberger.

  1. HejduckBerlinBlacknWhiteI want you to know that by the end of this sentence, you may have lost interest. Why? Because I am about to write about losing interest.
  2. If you are still here: wow. If you’re not here: not-wow.
  3. People like to ask me what I studied. It’s one of those inescapable questions, like “Where are you from?” My eyeballs roll at both. The past is only interesting once you’ve sussed someone out in the here-and-present. Questions like this performed kinship purposes before. Now, they seem so retrograde.
  4. I answer, “Architecture,” and – before I verbally place a full stop after the last “e” – I’ve launched into a little narrative that was never really asked for. But you’re going to get it. Regardless. It serves you right for asking such a one-dimensional question.
  5. “I wanted to study Fine Art or English Literature,” I exposit, “but when, at the age of 16, I told my loving, caring, Bangladeshi, first generation immigrant parents about these plans – fueled, pretentiously, by reading surrealist poetry and looking at the paintings of Max Ernst – my mother rolled her eyes at me as if I’d asked them where they’re from. They dismissed my artsy ambitions straight away, for in the pantheon of professionalism, neither ‘artist’ nor ‘writer’ were proper careers. Next.”
  6. “After some research, I suggest to them, ‘Architecture?’ unsure what its study would actually entail. It’s met, surprisingly, with instant parental approval. Only years later do I find out that in much of the non-Western world, ‘architecture’ continued to signify ‘engineering.’ Something technical, based on science and maths more than flimsy art. I effectively stow away undetected in this slippage.”
  7. If you are still here: double wow.
  8. In my first week as an architecture under-graduate, I raid various departmental libraries and create a totem of books: The Phenomenology of Perception by Merleau-Ponty; Of Grammatology and Writing and Difference by Derrida; Writing Degree Zero by Barthes; etc. It’s 1993 and post-structuralism is still healthy (just) and I want to know what it’s about, maybe the way kids from New Jersey wanted to know what CBGB’s was like in the 1970s. The avant-garde. Crazy hair. Made-up words.
  9. For the next three years, I read whatever I want to read – philosophy, literary and film theory, Charles Olsen, Mary Douglas, Mircea Eliade, kinship theories – and insist it’s all relevant to whatever I’m doing. And no one rolls an eye. I’m happy. Nothing seems off-limits and I end up writing my dissertation on Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 feature film, Pierrot le Fou. Further studies would involve excursions into phrenology, Zizek, Henri Bergson, Laura Mulvey, Lost Highway, all those Semiotexte paperbacks. You get the point.
  10. Everything is everything is everything.
  11. Many years later, an astute friend will describe the study of architecture as a “psychic dustbin.” He says it’s a place certain kids end up because they come from families that – like my own – would never support the study of art and literature even though that’s really where the kid should be going. The study of architecture (I should add: at certain “elite” schools) turns out, however, to be a fertile holding pattern until the kid is old enough, or lucid enough, to go and do what it is s/he always wanted to do.
  12. Before the Renaissance, it’s arguable whether the term “architect” was really in use the way we use it today (even that is probably contentious). Medieval cathedrals were built through the concentrated circuitry of different crafts and economies. Someone oversaw it all and had enough knowledge about the constituent inputs to orchestrate their synthesis. We still don’t know the names of most of these medieval polymaths, but we start to hear names once the Renaissance “arrives.” Because, there’s a mirroring between the paradigmatic “Renaissance Man” – schooled in poetry, sciences, ethics, etc. – and the “Architect.
  13. This is what I am most grateful for in my long deviation at the tail end of the 20th century.
  14. Architecture’s role in the unfolding of the world (as setting, witness, crime scene, aberrant luxury) is analogically echoed in what happens to your brain when you study architecture. You’re more neurologically wired to see the interconnectedness of things. You’re more predisposed to ignore the sovereignty of disciplines. If you listened carefully during class, and you care, you will know a little about many things and that’s useful in the 21st century because that’s the abiding logic of time and space right now. To invoke Foucault – one of my stalwarts from that first week – we have to be Poets while the world acts as the ultimate Madman.
  15. And then I lost interest in architecture.
  16. I realized that this curiosity-generosity served by architecture’s academia is not only for selfless reasons. It is born from an ontological insecurity that goes back to the man overseeing the building of the medieval cathedral: “What exactly do I know and what exactly do I do that makes me unlike anything or anyone else?”
  17. The answer is at best fuzzy. At worst, it’s existentially a downer.
  18. David Byrne recently posted a piece where he outlines why he’s lost interest – love, even – in contemporary art. I won’t rehearse the entire argument, but it’s the same gist as Dave Hickey’s from 2012, when the irascible dealer-turned-critic declared he was quitting the art world because contemporary art has become one of the prime venues for the gratification of global capital. It makes contemporary art richer – but maybe uglier to some people like Dave and David.
  19. As a comparison, think about the venue of contemporary literature. Do you see Russian or Chinese oligarchs queuing to rub up against the latest feted novelist? It doesn’t happen. There are no Sotheby’s and Christie’s of writing. Books haven’t been 1% commodities since Gutenberg gutted the sacral quality of text. Today, literature may hold a gaze upon the bloated excrescences of 21st- century wealth but it doesn’t work the other way around.
  20. Art on the other hand is the orgy-on-a-yacht everyone wants in on.
  21. In this sense, art is catching up to architecture. Wealth, power, privilege always found their most boastful expression in buildings, which are portraits at a bigger scale. Architects – from Le Corbusier to Albert Speer – were just puny paper dreamers when they were not being backed by a bank or Benito Mussolini.
  22. Architecture without money is poetry and no one got rich from being a poet.
  23. Remember when there was a glaring difference between clothes you could afford on the high street and those you couldn’t in Yohji Yamamoto or Balenciaga? It seems so quaint now. High/low divisions, ha! The same thing’s happened in architecture. Corporate offices churn out their own versions of Zaha Hadid and Zaha Hadid’s office has grown to a corporate size.
  24. The only people who still use the word “avant-garde” are from real estate marketing. They, unlike poets, become very rich indeed.
  25. I’m in danger of providing an all too clear reason for my architecture apostasy. It’s more mercurial than late-blah-capitalism (one of today’s easiest alibis for shallow thinking).
  26. Other probable reasons are the computerization of space (also responsible for the banalization of Hollywood), the endgame of 20th-century aesthetic experimentation (why all painting and sculpture looks déjà vu), the true International Style as Amazoned by Flat Earth globalization, evil Google, Snapchat, the Islamic State, Ebola, the shitty iOS8 update, a history of slavery, bad feminists, Bashar al-Assad, Mark Regev, and kale. Mostly Mark Regev.
  27. Having said all that, it’s probably just me.
  28. Sidenote: I’ve been living in a very special piece of building made of squares, cylinders, rectangles, triangles. Shapes that are child-like or Platonic. Abstract or figurative. For the architect John Hejduk, probably both. Hejduk will be known to the academic architectural cognoscenti but not to anyone else. He built very little in his lifetime, not because he couldn’t, but rather, he chose not to. Instead, he drew scratchy drawings of carnivalesque objects wandering Europe. He wrote many, many poems. He constructed strange animistic installations. He taught. Lots. And yet, I’ve been residing on the 10th and 11th floors of a social housing block in Berlin which he architected, where each room exists in its own independent tower, linked to each other by short walkways. There are only seven apartments in total. It’s utterly irrational – no developer would condone it – and therefore utterly compelling. Finished in 1988, a year before the Berlin Wall, close by, came down, this piece of pure auteurship stands alone, apart, even from itself. Every day I wake up inside it, a spectral pulse runs through me, mediated by this odd, oblique entity I temporarily call home. It is enchanting and unnerving. It is the palpable strength of a strong idea.
  29. Without an abiding curiosity in the world – you die inside.
  30. Boredom is irradiation of the soul.

The below has been published by South magazine, which is based in Athens.

IMG-20140809-WA0001

Photo by Natasha Stallard, taken in Dubai 2014

ISIS – or Islamic State, or ‘Daesh,’ the term appropriated by US Secretary of State John Kerry as of today (12.12.14) – upturns the fundamentalist, antediluvian image of the fun-hating extremist (although Bin Laden seemed to co-exist with caves and TV cameras) to a socially media frenzied, Hi-def wielding, YouTube sensation, obsessed – it seems – with beheadings. $2bn capital reserve + a love of Instagram = the ability to recruit a different kind of young advocate to the kind that would have had to relinquish such earthly indulgences to save their soul.

*

Good Photoshop Skills Required

“I’m going to join the Islamic State.”

“You mean ISIS?”

“No. Islamic State.”

“You mean ISIL?”

“No. Are you deaf? Islamic State. The Caliphate. It’s new.”

“Define ‘new’.”

“Since June.”

“Technically, not ‘new’.”

The first man grimaces.

“Did they ask you to go?”

“I watched a video.”

“The video asked you to go?”

“They need people with ‘Good Photoshop skills’.”

“You’re serious?”

“I’ve never been more serious my whole life.”

“I’ve known you your whole life.”

The second man stays calm.

“A higher cause. Subhan Allah.”

“What if I said you’re misguided? Would you…”

“…behead you?”

The first man is without noticeable expression.

“I did not watch the videos.”

“I did.”

“I don’t need to see the videos.”

“I did.”

The second man has downcast eyes. 

“I have known you your whole life,” says the second man, “and loved you like a brother; and I am telling you, with the love of a brother, that you are misguided in every possible way. There isn’t scripture to defend you.”

The first man has not finished packing his suitcase. What will he need to take?

“Nation states are blasphemy.”

Blasphemy is blasphemy.”

“Don’t beat me with your Westernised words.”

“Don’t use my Wi-Fi to download Jihadist propaganda.”

The second man unplugs his router.

“You can come with me.”

“My Photoshop skills are non-existent.”

“Final Cut Pro?”

“Never heard of it.”

“HashtagendofSykesPicot.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Really.”

The first man had never heard of a hashtag until hashtagendofSykesPicot.

“It’s not too late.”

“For?”

“A change of heart.”

“Do not question my heart. My faith. My purpose.”

“Faith without questioning is not faith but a simple programme.”

“Sophist.”

“Will you force me at gunpoint to pay a tax for being a Sophist?”

“You’re not funny.”

“Exactly. Funny or die?”

“Die.”

The second man wants to laugh. He would love to be able to laugh it off. He can’t.

“So you’re coming?”

“Where?”

“The IS?”

Iz?”

“I told you. I-dot-S-dot.”

“You’re going now?”

Now.”

They do not move.

The earth turns.

IMG_4797.JPG

A few months after reading Morrissey’s thorny and diffident Autobiography, yesterday I come across Bernard Sumner’s own memoir. I’m surprised. As much as I was with Morrissey’s, and maybe even more. Because the two of them – hailing in their own ways from Manchester’s neighbouring territories – seemed to channel everything they had to say about themselves into their words and music. Not for them the torrid reveals in society pages. Bernard Sumner’s talking voice is as meek as he has always seemed to be, whose shyness dominated early performances as the reluctant lead singer of New Order. The sleeves said it all: Peter Saville’s mining of art history allowed New Order to vanish as personalities – until the shock of seeing them on Low Life, but, then, never again.

And now, I’ve just been to see 20,000 Days on Earth, the Nick Cave fiction biography, which compresses film formats with a flickering over excitement, yet protecting Cave’s insistent tour through landscapes, towns and his past. Again and again he credits memory as the subject and the engine of what he does. Who he is. His greatest fear, he tells Darian Leader, is the loss of memory.

Cave lives in Brighton, which is maybe as improbable as Nico turning up on the shores of council estate Manchester in the 1980s. Cave salutes Brighton’s sky, and roams time and space in an ageing Jaguar.

While I enjoyed the film – its fits of fantasy truth, Cave’s dogged meta-presence – it, and the books mentioned above, point to the simple fact that as they careen into their 60s, these pillars of pop iconoclasm have shifted or shuffled forwards into a reconciliation with the past, rather than an innate embodying of the extreme present. The present is still present but it’s just not as present as 1981 or 1989 was. It never will be. It never was in 1981 or 1989. Tru dat.

In the age of reveal, I something percent miss the obliquity of my heroes’ lives. I’m more privvy to them and that should feel good, it should quench some irreconciled urge to know more about them. But it does not do this. It humanises them by turning the capital of the present into the 3D render of the past.

Maybe it doesn’t matter and I’m just seeing my own anxieties. It’s possible because this business of ageing is never yes or no. Good, bad. It’s an unanswerable question. It’s not even a question. It’s intractable fact. Enacted upon us.

Higgs Boson Blues.

IMG_4609.JPG

Gerhard Richter did many of his most chromatic paintings with a squeegee. They flatten paint and turn it into flight. Here, I squeegeed the Earth – figuratively. The image, that index of space travel in the 60s, earthrise, Whole Earth Catalogue, speck, galactic spit, the blueness of the blue. Now it falls downwards. Digital striation. And I find it so tragically beautiful. Ultra vivid seen. I wonder what the drips on the floor look like.

There is a good chance this image will, in another form, play a major role in the book I’m doing with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Douglas Coupland, designed by Wayne Daly, and published by Penguin and Blue Rider in 2015, called The Age of Earthquakes. Watch (this) space.

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Came across this in an artist’s studio in Vancouver. She was using it as a tea pot holder, to prevent the wooden table top from scarring. She had clearly been doing this for a million years because the copy of October is now a fossil. It’s brittle and congealed and very very beautiful. It’s what we might look like in the future, that is if we had the longevity of paper. Of course we don’t. We are more like e-books, whose future form is no different to its current form: inessential, on loan, proprietary, ungiftworthy. Read me?

The below was delivered as part of the AA’s Summer program, Format, which I direct. The 2014 issue looks at four iconic individuals and how they renewed their worlds and ours with it. The first of these was dedicated to Kurt Cobain, 20 years after his death in 1994. I was joined by the brilliant Sophia Al Maria – who wormholed with her own moving letter to Kurt – and the equally brilliant Tamara Barnett-Herrin, who sang versions of ‘Been a Son’ and ‘Come as You Are.’ I’ll add the video link when it’s up.

*

KC 1991

You are seventeen years old. You are programmed to feel awkward, gangly, and angry. You wear anger like you wear hair mousse. Because you think it makes you cool; this despite the fact cool totally sucks. Cool is for the crowds. The corporate masses.

You are an individual.

To the horror of your South Asian parents, you grew your hair two years prior, down to your shoulder and you started shaving it underneath. Why? So that you can tell the world in the clearest possible way:

Me 17

I am not like YOU.

I am like me.

I am like Kurt.

Kurt Cobain is like US.

One day, you switch on the TV and you see this:

 

Your hair, Kurt, is long, bleached blonde and doesn’t seem to care about things that hair is meant to care about.

KC Hair

But everything in this song—like mulattos and albinos and mosquitoes and libidos—and everything in this strange video—like, where is this? High school in hell?—everything about it makes us care.

Why? How?

And what IS Teen Spirit?

You all assume it’s that anger or frustration or awkwardness you’re programmed to feel throughout your endless teens.

KC Rimbaud

If you were smart with words like the poet Rimbaud was when he was 17 you’d turn those feelings into art.

But you’re not. You’re you. You’re all just you. You need Kurt – and everyone like him, before him — to say what you can’t say, not because nothing is there. But especially because everything is there. Everything that hasn’t happened to you yet. But you hope will.

Teen Spirit deodorant

Many years later, when you are not 17 anymore, you discover that Teen Spirit was the deodorant Kurt’s girlfriend Tobi used to wear…

Kathleen Hanna Wall

… and Kurt’s friend Kathleen sprayed the phrase ‘KURT SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT’ on his rental wall. Oh well. Nevermind.

KC 2014

And now you’re 39 years old, sitting in front of an audience, twenty years after Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, killed himself, when he was 27 and you were 19.

Kurt Old

Is this what you’d look like now, Kurt? We will never know. Because you’ve been frozen in a Kurt shaped box that means even as the rest of us age — and look more and more like this picture — you won’t.

KC Anniversary Format

Since time is vast and the past keeps increasing in size, in depth, sometimes overwhelming us, we’ve invented tools to make time tangible to our minds and in our everyday lives. Without these tools, we’d drown in time’s gooey unknowability. Anniversaries are navigation instruments. They help you against the random accumulation of time.

KC July 8th

Here you are now, still the same age sitting in front of the same audience. Many of you were born between 1991 and 1994 and some even afterwards. You’re thinking what does this mean to me? You weren’t there. You weren’t anywhere — yet. But in 20 years time, you will be somewhere, and someone you never knew will have marked you and many other like you. Individuals. Crowds. And you might also wonder: why? How?

KC Exhausted conversation

KC Cardigan 1

Well. For a start. There’s your cardigan Kurt. That green-yellow-mustard Mohair cardigan you’d wear again and again. The lumberjack, flannel shirts made sense. They were from your hometown, Aberdeen, once known for its timber industry, then already in decline when you were born. But cardigans were from somewhere else.

KC Cardigan 2

Cardigans were not rock and roll. Cardigans were the opposite of leather jackets. Cardigans were what Morrissey once wore. An anti-uniform alchemised by sensitive types, with Keats and Yates on your side.

KC Angst

Then there’s the “angst.” And angst is great until someone tells you that you’re angsty. Doesn’t angst always sound better in a German accent?

Generation X Cover

 

Then there was that whole “voice of a generation” thing, which the early 90s was crazy about, as though history was rebooting itself, the century’s last hangover before it collapsed into pre-millennial anxiety. And here’s a generation — your generation? — steeped in… what? Postmodern irony? Consumer numbness? The end of history? You said you never chose to be this voice for this or any generation. But you were.

KC Feminist

You were also… a feminist? You never used the word, but, there’s this straightforward outright hatred for sexism and sexual violence that was not only rife everywhere but enshrined in the credo of sweaty, male American rock.

KC Read well

You read Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume 10 times and there’s even Camille Paglia in one of your songs.

KC Couple Format

A lot of this is down to the influence of your wife, Courtney Love, whose band Hole were as blistering and brilliant as your band were at the beginning.

KC Couple Sid Nancy

You were a girl-boy unit with an obvious precedent, but, somehow, amidst the clichéd trashing of Seattle hotel suites, there was an old fashioned romance.

KC Reality Format

You chose to not take a limousine to NBC’s studios for the Saturday Night Live gig. You kind of kept wearing the same clothes, the same cardigan, your hair changed colour a bunch of times, but you never got all nouveau riche. In the language of the time, “You kept it real,” and, for everyone who had no choice but continue to live out their lives surrounded by their reality, this mattered. I hope you know that it mattered?

 

In 1993, Nirvana do this MTV Unplugged gig, and, you’re sitting on a stool surrounded by lilies and candles. You’re funny and drink tea and are touchingly real. You only play one of your well-known songs. Many are cover versions of unheard of bands. You’re a portal to other music — The Vaselines, The Meat Puppets, The Marine Girls, The Pixies, Neil Young, Sonic Youth, The Raincoats, Beat Happening, Daniel Johnston. Your generosity also seems real.  You introduce and re-introduce forgotten music the way a friend used to make a mixtape for another friend or lover.

KC Death Format

Then on April 5th 1994, after several other attempts, you end it all, in a greenhouse with linoleum floor at the bottom of the garden.

Kurt death scene 1

You are Douglas Coupland, aged 33, the author of Generation X, and soon after this news, you write a public letter to Kurt Cobain, in which you say:

And then yesterday I heard Nirvana pulled out of the Lollapalooza Tour. And I figured something was up.

And now you are dead.

I was in San Francisco, driving up the 101 past Candlestick Park when the news came over the radio, LIVE 105 – the news that you had shot yourself. A few minutes later I was in the city and I pulled the car over and tried to figure out what I felt. I had never asked you to make me care about you, but it happened – against the hype, against the odds – and now you are in my imagination forever. And I figure you’re in heaven too. But how, exactly does it help you now, to know that you, too, as it is said, were once adored?

D.

 

KC Cohen quote

Yes Kurt. Does it help? Does it help that you are still adored? For maybe the wrong reasons? The same reasons that hover like a halo around other “tragic heroes”? Surely one of the worst things about not being alive is not being able to defend what happens to you in death. You’re resuscitated, cloned, egregiously mythologised, made to advertise detergent powder or credit cards, doomed to spent eternity on T-Shirts sold at Topshop. With no apologies.

KC Anniversary Format

You’re also sitting here, 20 years later, addressing an audience who think you smell like middle-aged nostalgia. But you want to explain that something happens to past time. New adjacencies emerge. Unknown causalities between unrelated points on earth and its people. Undiscovered ricochets. Not only is the world flatter but history is flat too. A month is 2.5 seconds eye-scanning. A year is scrolled through in a few minutes. The history of everything is a sequence of bullet-points. This distillation: new, strange, entanglements of retrospective destiny. Maybe it’s all happened before. We’re in the future looking back. Rest in peace. You’re lost. That’s OK. We are too.

Smells Like Teen_Cover

And you remember the time you sang Smells Like Teen Spirit it in a tiny karaoke bar in Japan. And you wonder: Do all great songs die with their singers and then die again and again as karaoke classics?

 

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