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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, October 01, 2004
    "Open the box, open the box / Open the goddam box!" sings Mark E Smith on The Real New Fall LP. A song I'd hoped I'd be hearing tonight at MES's gig postponed from February. But posters outside The Academy are telling passers-by and punters that he's put the show off again, reason unexplained. Not a wasted day, though, in the city, for The Biennial put on a seminar and discussion called Occupation: Unknown which opened a few boxes this afternoon.

    What is occupation? - something you do, a state of physical being in relation to place and land... exploring these themes were four speakers, two of them people whose work I've been interested in for a while - the Tel Aviv architect Eyal Weizman, curator of the banned exhibition A Civilian Occupation; and journalist Anna Minton who is doing a lot of work on the privatisation of public space, basing herself in Liverpool now after a productive time exploring the cycle of urban regeneration in Newcastle-Gateshead for her report Northern Soul.

    Weizman's work is mindblowing. His mission is to politicise architecture, which has, he feels, been in denial of its position as a tool of domination and control in his native land, and elsewhere. I blogged here about his current work, The Politics of Verticality, which shows starkly how the physical landscape of Israel-Palestine has been cut, sliced, revised by a conflict in which conventional concepts such as borders are insufficient to describe what is going on. "Israel and Palestine are not two different places," he says, "They are two readings of the same place."

    The West Bank is "a liquid frontier". Structures (such as Palestinian camps) are called "temporary", not in terms of time (some are forty years old) but in policy terms, so that they exist in a continuous state of emergency in which anything goes. In a return to biblical mores today's Israelis settle on dusty mountaintops again, this time to evade occupation laws which say the only areas you can seize are those you cannot cultivate. To evade and avoid enemy territory, settlements are linked by complex systems of roads and tunnels. The dense streets of Jenin have been widened, and the houses had ground floor outer rooms removed, creating overhangs just large enough to allow the throughput of Israeli tanks. "Cities are flexible entities," in the urbanicide of occuption Weizmann catalogues so well.

    Anna Minton's work is concerned with other zones of conflict, subtler or more hidden, and worryingly closer to home. In her illustrations about how space is being privatised a shocking first emerged about Liverpool. This is the first British city to agree to privatise part of its centre. The Grosvenor Paradise Project, covering 42 acres in the heart of the city, due for completion in time for 2008, is to be privately managed. Traditional rights of way will be replaced by 'public realm arrangements' policed by Grosvenor's own 'quartermasters' or 'sheriffs', in which beggars, skateboarders and protesters will be outlawed. Grosvenor will buy-in facilities like security and waste management, usurping the local authority's role in its own city centre. "We are now seeing a real urban renaissance. A new Agenda - A new urbanism," says John Prescott on the Paradise Project website.

    Minton outlined the consequences for such a shift; showing how "the rapid growth in the number of gated communities and the privatisation of shopping, leisure and office complexes in British towns and cities lead to exclusion and polarisation, as only certain individuals and types of behaviour are permitted within these enclaves." In the U.S. where these processes are more advanced fifteen percent of the population live in gated communities, and fifteen percent live in ghettos.

    A growing culture of fear drives these gated developments, says Minton, which is unfounded in an era of falling crime, but powerful nonetheless. But she remains hopeful that we can overcome polarisation and build balanced communities, she affirms that for every Dome there is a Tate Modern, for every 'tick-box' cultural project there is one founded on genuine local collaboration and assets, helping to make connections between those two polarised fifteen-per-cents.

    So, pre-MES let-down, it was very good to sit in a room full of internationals, in a building once a synagogue, the Unity Theatre which was founded as part of "a movement to make theatre accessible to 'the great mass of the people' both through production, acting, writing and as audience and to use theatre as a political instrument to bring 'new strength to the progressive struggle'." Good to know the place is still fulfilling its role, occupying a vital space in a time of urbanicide.