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Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century, By Francisco Bethencourt: Book Review

The Independent, Friday 17 January 2014

A survey of racism from across the centuries reveals a phenomenon that repeats itself

Bulgarian benefit tourists, Romanian criminal gangs, the alleged abduction of a blonde, blue-eyed child by Roma: anti-immigrant hostility is more pronounced in Britain than any time in a generation. With it have come a raft of questions about race and national identity that were once confined to the fringes of public debate. Is Britain full? Is our way of life at breaking point? Is it racist to raise such points? And come to that, what exactly does racism mean in a modern, multicultural nation like Britain anyway?

Answers, especially to the last question, often prove elusive. That’s because racism is often treated as a subject too charged, too sensitive to address head-on. It’s easier to see it instead as an ugly but inescapable fact of life, a failing common to all nations when different groups decide they can’t get along. But history also offers examples of societies where intolerance, unchecked, has triggered horrifying consequences.

Ways of Curating by Hans Ulrich Obrist: Why curating is vital part of the arts today: Book Review

The Independent – Friday 14th March 2014
What does it mean to be a curator? Talk of “curating” is everywhere right now, but over-use has left it largely worthless as a term: restaurant guide Zagat “curates” its listings; actress Blake Lively is starting a lifestyle company to help people “curate” their lives; the American Personal & Private Chef Association would like you to know that “chefs are among the most important cultural curators of our time”.
The task of curating used to belong exclusively to the arts. It described the work of the keeper of a cultural heritage; someone responsible for archiving and displaying works in a museum or gallery collection. But as our lives have got denser with information, curating has become a synonym for almost any act of selection. DJs curate music festivals. Social media strategists curate content. Fashion stores sell curated collections of clothes.

Moscow’s New Art Centres

FT Magazine, 15 March 2013

A tour of the hotspots of a creative renaissance that could lift Moscow’s profile as a cutting-edge destination

Despite its weighty historical reputation and the sheer fact of its scale as the second-largest city in Europe, Moscow does a poor job of wooing visitors.

It is expensive, traffic-choked, and can be pitilessly cold, but Russia’s capital is also in the midst of a creative renaissance. In the two decades since the end of communist rule, runaway commerce has been the city’s galvanising force. Now its contemporary art, design and architecture are starting to make the running too, with new arts centres and creative hubs helping to raise the city’s ambitions.

Around 4.5m foreign tourists travel to the Russian capital annually. That’s about the same as Prague, but is a long way behind London’s 15m international visitors or Paris’s 8.5m. Moscow’s city authorities are determined to change that situation and have set a goal of 10m annual visitors by the end of this decade. Reaching that target would catapult Moscow into tourism’s premier league and establish the city as one of the top 10 travel destinations in the world.


Avalanche! How lasers and wind tunnels make mountains safer

Wired, October 2012

Avalanches travel at 130kph and kill 300 people a year. That’s why, deep in the Swiss Alps, scientists are turning to lasers, CT scans and wind tunnels to understand snow better

At 9.30 on the morning of 17 August, 2008, a British former pro-snowboarder turned cameraman was shooting footage in the Southern Alps of New Zealand near the 3,754-metre Mount Cook, the country’s highest peak. Johno Verity had been hired by a UK TV-production team making a show, Gethin Jones’ Danger Hunters, about extreme sports. His job that day was to film Austrian snowboarder Eric Themel in action, keeping pace beside him with a camera as Themel arced on his board through deep snow.

For the previous three days heavy snow had fallen, making a planned ascent into the mountains by helicopter impossible. But on the 17th, the team woke to better weather. “It was epic,” says Verity. “Blue skies, light breeze, perfect light snow. You couldn’t ask for better conditions. We were brimming with excitement.” Themel, Verity and a local mountain guide boarded a red-and-white Eurocopter AStar 350 and touched down on an unnamed peak deep in the range. Following standard back-country safety procedure, the guide shovelled a metre-deep hole in the snow, exposing the numerous layers of snow that had built up over the past days, and checked for any weak layer that signalled avalanche risk. more

Welcome to Beardlandia

Esquire, September 2012

Facial fluff used to be a signifier of anti-style. Then, a few years ago, men in hipster enclaves around the world threw away their razors and allowed their stubble to run riot. Now beards are everywhere. But this is more than just a fashion statement. The return of face fuzz says much about the state of contemporary masculinity.

After decades of shame; after decades when it signalled a shucking off of libido and a decline into sexless middle age; after decades when it seemed like the exclusive choice of socks-and-sandal wearers, the beard has returned to claim a place of honour among men.

Look about you on the streets of Hackney, Williamsburg, Silver Lake or any of the other neighbourhoods where the image-conscious gather and you’ll see them in abundance. The popularity of the beard has been gathering pace since the turn of the decade. But 2012 surely marks the point when it has
leapt from cult choice to mainstream standard. This is the year we’ve seen beards on the Croisette in Cannes (Ewan McGregor, Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gerard Butler), in catwalk shows (Vivienne Westwood, Casely-Hayford, Gant Rugger, Engineered Garments, Hixsept), in ad campaigns for high street fashion brands (Carhartt Heritage, Urban Outfitters, French Connection, Original Penguin), on the football pitch (David Beckham, Thierry Henry) and in the dugout (Andre Villas-Boas, Pep Guardiola), and on the faces of a multitude of musicians (Will Oldham, Ghostpoet, Bon Iver).

In years to come, when they make movies or write books about this time, the beard will be used as a definitive visual shorthand for the early 21st century, as the moustache is for the Seventies and a pair of mutton chops for Regency England. more

Hip-Hop: So now what?

Esquire January 2012

In the early Eighties, a breathtakingly original new music genre burst out from the ghettos of the Bronx and captured the world’s imagination. Having achieved an unimaginable success, acclaim and influence, hip-hop’s popularity is now in sharp decline, while its globe-trotting superstars seem ever more removed from their audiences. Is their mid-life crisis nothing more than a blip or is it the beginning of the end for the greatest pop-cultural movement since rock ‘n’ roll?

Thirty years ago two singles were released which marked the end of the beginning for hip-hop. The Message, by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force came out in 1982. Although both only charted modestly, they set a new standard in artistic ambition for hip-hop that proved hugely influential. For the nascent music form that rose out of the block parties and housing projects of the Bronx and Queens during the 1970s it was a signal moment. Critics had dismissed earlier releases, like the Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight and Kurtis Blow’s Christmas Rappin’, as novelties.

Now came the breakthrough, the  first significant steps from ghetto subculture to global cultural force. In the decades since then hip-hop has established itself as the most exhilarating music of modern times with its stars a compelling presence in popular culture, commanding ten-times-platinum record sales (Eminem), marquee name movie celebrity (Will Smith) and fallen rock idol status alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain (2 Pac, Notorious BIG). In tandem, hip-hop has become the lingua franca of urban youth across the world, its sounds and styles adopted by legions of followers in virtually every conceivable location on the planet from Johannesburg and Tokyo to Tehran and Jakarta. more

The Art of Flight

Financial Times, 16 December 2011

A taste of high-altitude snowboarding three miles up in the Himalayas, with nothing in sight but snow and rock

On my last morning snowboarding in the Himalayas, the Bell 407 helicopter set us down on a narrow mountain ledge at 4,800m. As it departed, huge gusts of snow stirring at its ascent, I was struck by how very far we were from any sign of civilisation. Even on remote off-piste slopes in the Alps you’re never too far away from an abandoned ski pole or chocolate wrappers borne aloft in the wind. But here, at roughly three miles up in the sky – the same height as the summit of Mont Blanc – there was nothing in sight other than snow and rock. Row after row of ­jagged mountain peaks stretched into the distance, the world below invisible beneath layers of cloud. more

Black Power Mixtape shows rebels in a new light

The Telegraph, 15 Oct 2011

With the release of the documentary Black Power Mixtape, interest in the Black Panthers is greater now than at any time since the 60s

Forty years ago, the Black Panther Party was the most reviled and feared political organisation in the United States. Party members took part in dozens of shoot‑outs with the police, leading to injuries and deaths on both sides. Hundreds of Panthers were on trial or in jail for crimes including murder, extortion and drug racketeering. J Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, declared them “without question, the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”.

Riven by internal conflict, the party fell apart in the late Seventies, officially closing in 1982. But in the decades since, a remarkable turnaround has taken place in perceptions of the organisation to the extent that today, cultural and critical interest in their image and beliefs has rarely been higher. more

The return of right-wing retro

Port, 16 May 2011

Is 2011 a repeat of 1981? Two weeks ago, Britain celebrated a royal wedding with an enthusiasm and patriotic fervour that almost matched the betrothal of Charles and Diana. And today, as then, we can also see a creeping right-wing retro revivalism – an embrace of conservative style, status symbols and values – spreading across British culture.

That’s not to say that 1981 was an inherently conservative year. Sure Thatcher was in power. But it was a time of bitter division: of 2.5m unemployed, riots in Brixton, IRA hunger strikes and the Militant Tendency as a serious force in the Labour party. But if the country was split socially and politically, then it found some solace in the embrace of fashion trends and brands that espoused a traditionalist, un-modern and anti-urban concept of Britishness. This was the age of Laura Ashley dresses and Tricia Guild wallpaper, the Sloane Ranger and the Young Fogey, the Aga as a symbol of enduring tradition. more

Now Playing – Arthur Russell

Arthur Russell “World of Echo” (1986)

I fell in love with Arthur Russell years long before I  ever knew his name. I’d heard the sparse, hypnotic ‘Wax The Van” by Lola on release in 1987 and been mesmerised by it. I’d adored Loose Joints’ “It Is All Over My Face” and Dinosaur L’s”Go Bang”, to a similar extent. But it was only much later that I realised the same person was behind all those records. And that Russell himself was so much more than the creator of minimal disco. An artist of haunting brilliance.

Now Playing – Alice Coltrane

Alice Coltrane, Journey In Satchidananda (1970)

So many black visionaries have headed into outer space – Sun Ra, Samuel Delany Jr, Parliament. Alice Coltrane’s greatest journey was to inner space.

The art of protest

Port, 18 April 2011

Can art change the world? Ekow Eshun on the total politics of Ai Weiwei

Politics has been a desperately unfashionable subject in art for the past decade or more. That’s roughly the length of time of the last art boom and it’s telling that the big hitters of that era – among them Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst – produce art that is glossy and expensively finished but which raises few questions or hackles. In its absence of dissonance, a Koons giant inflatable bunny or a Hirst spin painting has become a perfect status symbol for moneyed classes around the world from investment bankers and hedge fund guys to Russian oligarchs and Gulf state sheiks. more