Tuesday, 12 August 2014

WIlderness Incorporated

Wilderness Incorporated.

I’ve just returned from Wilderness Festival. I should probably be spending the day scraping all the tangy black portaloo slurry off my action sandals and eating the remaining crumbs of last night’s service station pastie out of my cleavage but I’m writing this instead. For those who don’t know, Wilderness Festival is a ‘boutique’ festival in the Cotswolds where the headline acts are Michelin starred chefs, and which offers spa sessions, Shakespeare, a Laurent-Perrier Champagne tent, Cara Develigne’s ‘Mulberry Bag Launch Picnic’ (apaz!) and a host of other ridiculously posh gigs (all at an additional charge, natch). 

So yeah, I always knew it was going to be a few million miles along the leylines from drinking mushy brews out of chipped cups with gurning jumblies in lost-it blankets around a fire built entirely from carrier bags and white lightning bottles... But but but…. it was called Wilderness and it was a festival, so I remained cautiously optimistic that, come Saturday night, there might at least be a few teenagers rendered paraplegic by ketamine, dragging themselves through Babylonian rivers of piss like giant grinning slugs, or I dunno, even just Ray Mears and Ben Fogle wrestling naked inside the rotting carcass of a wild boar… Something…

The name Wilderness drips with notions of the uncultivated, the unkempt, the untamed. Sometimes barren and always undomesticated, the wilderness stands outside and in distinction to the (re)productive register of the capitalist metropolis. That certainly chimed with all my previous experiences of festivals [disclaimer – I may well be a massive hippy]. But maaaaan! This was a festival unlike any I have ever encountered, where the sound of music was secondary to the noise of bleeping barcode wrist bands and the incessant kerching of tills ringing; and where dance floors were less populace than the snakes of endless, objectionless queues for six quid artisan hot dogs. ‘Wild’ was just not what I was feeling, to the extent that when I got back from the festival I actually googled the definition of wilderness. Just to check.

      A drone in the skies above Wildnerness Festival. (I give you no words only my tears)

So, according to the online dictionary, the word wilderness comes from the Old English wildēornes, meaning 'land inhabited only by wild animals', from wild dēor 'wild deer' + ness, which definitely works with the idea of a festival as a sort of pop up utopia where herds of young bucks and doe eyed girls can gather together and get their antlers out (shush Kate shushhhhh). Anyway, because I’m a massive geek and I just LOVE the internetz, I then extended my google search to read up on Cornbury Park, where the festival was held, and discovered that the site, as a royal hunting facility, has indeed been inhabited by many wild deer over the years (at least since the Domesday book). Result! Cornbury Park = Wild deer ness = Wilderness. Totally get it now. Loving your work Wilderness dudes… But but but…

But what I found most fascinating and relevant in my little delve into the history of Cornbury Park was that in 1665, the owner of the park, Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, built one of the first Ha-Ha walls in England. And suddenly everything began to make sense...

A Ha-Ha wall is a hidden boundary – an invisible sunken border – designed to give the Lord of the Manor and his posh mates an uninterrupted view of the vast expanse of his land, whilst keeping the wild animals (and their expensive-shoe-wrecking-shit) out. The ‘Ha-Ha’ part is that, because the boundary was hidden, anyone who believed that they were in some sort of uninterrupted plenitude with the wilderness surrounding them could accidentally walk right off the edge and drop down into the ditch. Ha-Ha! (be gentle on these Restoration era toffs though – they didn’t have You’ve Been Framed to be fair)

Drawing of a side view of a Ha-Ha wall by Felix Kelly

Essentially, Ha-Ha walls were designed to give the illusion of wilderness without all the, you know, wild-deer-ness. So basically alienation masquerading as liberation. And this, of course, is precisely what the organisers of Wilderness, and so many other festivals these days, are trading in.

The Ha-Ha wall at Wilderness festival is surely the outrageous price tag, augmented by the fact that almost every attraction – from skinny dipping to bushcraft lessons to, well, pretty much everything– must be pre-booked and costs extra £££. This keeps the ‘wild animals’ (trans.: poor people) and all their shit out, and, crucially, also keeps the ‘revelers’ locked in, both economically and libidinally. The apparent negation of the distinction between a supremely capitalist, consumerist situation and the wild wild wilderness it is selling - this sort of Wilderness Incorporated – made me massively depressed all weekend. I was overwhelmed by a sense that all our experience, our thought, our whole world was being flattened out into a one dimensional spectacle, robbing us not just of our 'Hard Earned Cash', but also, more profoundly, of a vital, and much needed, sense of a 'beyond'.

Festivals like this trick us into forgetting that between us and the wilderness is a great big fucking ditch. They tell us that freedom and liberation can be bought for the price of a feathered headdress and a dynamic yoga class. Ha fucking Ha. Maybe this is massively old news (it is). Maybe I’m just nostalgically longing for the pre-Blair conviction that Things Can (Only) Get Better of my youth (I am). Maybe I was just on a massive comedown during the festival after a beautiful time on Steven’s boat and London (I was). And yeah, like, the Supermoon is MASSIVE... But whatever. I still can’t help but feel that if we do really want to get to the wilderness, to true liberation, we’re gonna have to be prepared to swim through some pretty filthy rivers of Bablyon. But we can do it naked and at least we won't have to pay for the privilege and book in advance.

Then again, who needs revolution when the food is THIS good? <chomps onto Best Burger Ever> #nomnomnom #Ha-Ha

Friday, 21 March 2014

Yes, Facebook nomination crazes are lame. But do we really have to use the ‘N’ word?

Wednesday morning was like every other morning. I woke up, kissed John, bid good morning to my children, reached under my pillow for my phone and dabbed my finger onto the blue and white F on the touch screen. Ok I didn’t kiss John. Or say hello to my children. I basically did what I always did and jumped straight onto Facebook, getting my first fix of the day before anyone realised I’d woken up and I’d be forced to get involved with the pre-school run hunt for shoes, reading diaries and an ever elusive clean school jumper. I scrolled through the feed to see a couple of selfies of my friends looking a bit paler/younger/older/cleaner/sadder/happier than they normally do, nestled in amongst an alarming number of posts ranting about the N word: Narcissism.

This was day 1 (in my feed at least) of the #nomakeupselfie craze that has filled up most of our Facebooks for the past 48 hours or so. The craze – in which women post pictures of themselves wearing no make-up and urge their friends to text BEAT to 70099 to raise £3 for cancer research – follows hot on the heels of the recent #necknomination phenomenon, in which people (mostly male, mostly young, mostly not middle class) were nominated by their friends to down a pint of booze in one, and nominate their friends to do the same in 24 hours. I have, much to the horror of many of my friends I’m sure, gegged in on both of these daft scenes, just as I geg in on pretty much all the wonderfully meaningless (and of course narcissistic) opportunities for ersatz connection that facebook affords. You post a petition? Oooh lemme sign that!; You get a year older? HPYBDY DUDE!; My kid farts? Here’s a pic!; Ooh a CiF article on student fees? Sharing that bitchesssss!; You die? RIPing and weeping right here for ya bbz!

But I’m an unusually social person stuck in rural exile and I can’t drive #soalone #prayforkate

However, this isn’t some elaborate exercise in justifying my participation in any and all of the lameness that is life on Facebook (honest). What has been bugging me today is the difference in the public reception of the #neknomination and #nomakeupselfie crazes, and in particular, how that reception has been framed by a troubling, gendered discourse that circulates around the issue of narcissism.

‘Narcissistic’ ‘martyrish’ ‘Pathetic’ ‘needy’. These are some of the words that have filled up my FB news feed in these past few days of the #nomakeupselfie. These are harsh, contemptuous words. Words that have been used time and time again to insult, demean and pour scorn upon women. Words that have a very deep and profound resonance in the historical representation and experience of women under patriarchy. Words which have been borne and lodged under the sign of ‘WOMAN’ for centuries as testament to our inherent passivity and our inferiority to our ‘actively’ creative male counterparts. The well-worn trope of female narcissism feeds into bullshit ideas about the passive nature of female desire, it infantilises us, and it justifies the continuing objectification of women in western visual culture.

"Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at." (John Berger)

                                    Helmut Newton, Self Portrait with Wife and Models 1980

The difference between the reception of the self-representations of women and the self-representations of men can be seen clearly in the history of art. When men make art using their own body, when they perform naked and use their own flesh as their material, they are invariably understood to be saying something unspeakably profound about the human condition. When women artists do the same, particularly if, God forbid, they happen to be attractive?
Well, they’re being totes narcissistic innit.  

Above: Vito Acconci, Trademarks, 1970

Left: Hannah Wilke, S.O.S. Starification Object Series, 1974-82

“She is a narcissist. And Vito Acconci, with his romantic image and pimply back, is an artist.”  - Lucy Lippard

Forty years on and the reception of the creative display of the male and female body performed in the #necknomination and #nomakeupselfies on Facebook has played out in pretty much exactly the same way. It will be of no surprise to anyone thay the N word was completely absent from my feed in the discussions following the #neknomination phenomenon, despite all the hench nudity, the self-aggrandizing behaviours, the arrogance and the evermore desperate and competitive performances of spectacular virility displayed in the videos. But as I say, the #neknomination craze was a predominantly male phenomenon so, rather than reaching for the vocabulary of narcissism, lazy tabloid journalists turned straight to the section on ‘hackneyed tropes of white working class young men’ in their thesaurus, and squealed in age old moral panic about the ‘dangers’ of this ‘extreme’ ‘challenge’, this ‘deadly game’ that ‘was out of control’ and threatened to ‘claim another victim’. All the posturing, showing off and peacockery of these young white lads has nothing to do with narcissism oh no! It’s their wildness, their daft laddishness, their untutored, disaffected, un-productive, insufficiently middleclass MASCULINITY writ large, leaking out all over the internetz and threatening to destroy society. And of course it had to be stopped. But narcissism, nahhhh. That’s just for the girls spending 30 seconds posting a selfie in no make-up for cancer research.

I get that posting a selfie on Facebook is pretty narcissistic. Just as necking a pint of Blastaway naked in a stream and posting it on Facebook is too. But dudes! Facebook IS narcissistic. It is self-serving and self-aggrandizing and needy. All of it. Look what I signed! Look what I ate! Look what I read! Look what my kid did on the potty! Narcissism is as essential to Facebook as the desire for an illusion of communalism in an increasingly atomised society is. Calling out a bunch of bare-faced women for being narcissistic in the interminable sea of MEEEEEEEEEE that is Facebook is, by my reckoning, pure projective identification (and, as I say, a bit sexist).  So rather than wringing your hands about female narcissism and #nomakeupselfies, move on, sign a petition, post a picture of your cat and then, you know, text BEAT to 70099. 
Peace x