Exiting the news purdah

A month ago today I saw the exit poll results and turned the news off. I haven’t turned it on again.

I’d embarked on an unplanned news black out. I stopped watching TV and I avoided Question Time, which is really just a middle class version of Jeremy Kyle anyway. I stopped listening to the radio, apart from Radio 3, which only has news once an hour and pirate radio, which has news never.

What’s done was done and it was going to be bad for anyone unlucky enough to be poor or incapable. There was nothing I could do about it, so I switched off.

Social media was also off the agenda, because I knew that most people I knew would be raging into the echo chamber of Facebook and Twitter and that felt disheartening and pointless. I averted my eyes from free newspapers when I was working in town and avoided conversations about politics.

Some news filtered through early, mostly from the far-off land of my teenage son, but mostly I spent the last month vacuum-packed, protected from unsightly post-result posturing and jostling. I only found out Michael Gove was Justice Secretary last week and immediately wished I hadn’t.

My news blackout posed an interesting question: what happens when you’re not being enraged and distracted by the minutia of the daily news grid?

The answer is that unsurprisingly, it gives you back a lot of time. It also focuses the mind on what you can do rather than what you can’t. Cabinet ministers waft into the distance when you don’t see them every day, remote and shapeless as smoke, and local problems pop into focus in their place.

The last month of national radio silence has made me want to connect locally. The main thing now is rediscovering our individual and collective impulse to do it ourselves, to find opportunities to volunteer, and to strengthen ties with the communities we’re already part of through location or background or interests. We need to make alliances outside of our usual friends and family. And then, who knows what might emerge?

We don’t have the same collective impulse as Spain, which makes it harder for a phenomenon like Podemos to occur, but we do have a long-established tradition of DIY culture. If the mainstream isn’t providing, we’ve filled the gap with grassroots responses, whether that’s pirate radio or punk. We’ve also, thanks to a useful bit of local democracy, now got new neighbourhood forums that give communities legal rights and powers to shape new developments.

So that’s what I’m saying: DIY and do it local – and don’t let the news distract you.

Image: Jon S


The Art Party Conference 2013

The Art Party Conference was always going to be a lot of fun, not least because of the delightfully irreverent call for attendees to create portraits of Michael Gove. These were the best-looking protest banners I’ve ever seen, a colourful exercise in the democratic right to say what you think humorously, and often very beautifully. Most were funny, some were a bit mean, but they all conveyed artists and art practitioners’ righteous anger at the downgrading of the arts in education – and the impact this will have ongoing.

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The day-long event at the Spa Centre, Scarborough was organised by artist Bob and Roberta Smith, whose outsized flags you might have seen on the Southbank over the summer. He was so outraged by the impact of Michael Gove’s educational reforms on the arts that he made a painting called Letter To Michael Gove. This became a singularity which, when expanded, became The Art Party Conference: a gathering of art teachers, kids, curious locals and artists including Jeremy Deller, Cornelia Parker and Richard Wentworth for a day of curious actions on the north eastern coast of England.

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In a room looking onto the steel-grey sea there was an impromptu opportunity to do life drawing of surfers with easels and paper already in place. Around the corner, there was a Michael Gove lookalike in a bad suit, pushing his way irritatedly through the crowds at the Goveshy where crowds lined up to chuck stuff at the (beautiful, hand-crafted) plaster busts of the Secretary Of State For Education. Up the stairs, nestled in a corner was a nail bar where you could have images of iconic female artists applied to your nails and where the real art was in the conversation that the artist was curating between nail technician and recipient. There were all kinds of transactions going on and very few involved handing over cash. You paid your fiver entrance and everything was free, bar the normal commercial transactions of tea and bowls of chips that reminded you that we were indeed at a conference centre. Plates of home-made chewy cookies and lollipops were freely available on artists stands, alongside beautifully-printer A2 posters from Pavel Büchler, Ian Bourne and Bobby Baker. We were citizens in the free state of the Art Party and it felt like a participatory version of Carry On Up The Situationists.

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It was also neatly democratic. We went up to see what was happening with Roger Clarke’s Record Player Orchestra and ended up doing our own performance which involved choosing a tone on a record and playing it whenever you wanted along with nine other people doing the same thing. It was strangely comforting, the hum of electricity and the drone sending us all into somnambulance. This also led to another discovery: spending an hour playing pure frequency makes your eyeballs buzz.

turntable orchestra

And finally, we stumbled upon curator Lynda Morris’s talk, titled Drinking With Gilbert and George. This was a real highlight and could be compressed into ‘we got drunk/ we made art’. She finished her talk with a hearty ‘cheers!’ and played out the pair’s singing sculpture, which became our theme tune as we wended a happy way back the Travelodge, which like everything else, now looked like a piece of art.

James Blake, The Mercury and the future

Yesterday I heard a pundit talking about who might win the Mercury Prize. He mentioned James Blake in passing, not as a ‘proper’ contender like Bowie, but he said something interesting. Blake’s music could only have been made now, he observed. If you’d heard this music twenty years ago, he said, it’d have sounded like the future.

And that’s the thing. There’s great music all over the place –  Kwes or Goat or the riotous gloaming released by Blackest Ever Black to mention three off the top of my head. Naturally, there’s also a tonne of music that is just repeating what’s been done before, like a legal high with a molecule or two moved around. But something has changed.

I remember Martyn Ware talking about artists looking backwards instead of forwards. Imagine, he said, if Human League had made music that sounded like it came from two decades before – music from the 1950s? They’d have been laughed out of Sheffield. Everyone was looking ahead, using new technology and making sounds that propelled them out of their reality into something more adult, something further ahead: the future. The future was shiny, bleepy, better.

But is anyone making futuristic electronic music now?

No. Because there’s no point. There’s an understanding, even if we haven’t clocked it overtly, that the future is going to be worse than the past, or at least more complicated and probably more difficult and that’s not the easiest thing to turn into a tune. Futurism was about transportation and a belief in eternal growth, not reality. Derrick May and Juan Atkins made electronic music as a spaceship, a transporter, a time-machine that could move them forwards and outwards.

Congratulations to James Blake on his Mercury, and to everyone making music that doesn’t sound like the past or like the an outdated version of future. Forward the Now-ists!

Eine Kleine Musik

My friends at RBMA Radio have been locked away in a Berlin back room for over three weeks now, serving up ten hours of radio every day. I’ve come for the last two weeks of the pop-up radio station, which has turned a Kreuzberg Italian cafe into a musical magnet of sorts.

Berlin has become the central location for a  generation of artists who sit broadly within the descriptive realm of electronic music – which means a lot of local treasure. Even if it’s a lot of highly internationalised local treasure.

First day I was here I met Morphosis, aka Rabih Beaini who runs a label called Morphine. He is reissuing the work of a musician called Charles Cohen, who was one of the few people who used very early synthesisers, particularly those made by eccentric innovator Don Buchla. This was music made for experimental dance or theatre performances, but it sounds an awful lot like the music that Detroit musicians like Mad Mike, Jeff Mills and Derrick May would make some years later. Even the titles resonate with those of classic Motor City techno. Dance Of The Spirit Catchers is a Charles Cohen piece, but is interchangeable with UR titles like Hi-Tech Jazz or Journey Of The Dragons. The music is gorgeous.

Young Turks did a takeover of the station for the last two hours of the day, and included an interview with FKA Twigs. The music has a quality that marks her out as an innovator: it doesn’t sound like anyone else. Much is made of her distinct visual flair, which like the music, is confident, beguiling and seriously original. This is well worth a listen.

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A couple of days later we had a two hour special from the Hotflush label, who brought along one of their artists, Recondite. He’s a seriously serious man, both sartorially – all blacks and greys and minimalist glasses – and sonically. We played some of his music and talked about it, on air, in-between plays. On one, he described the music as coming from the perspective of a hawk, circling high up, seeing everything. He makes lovely music but should also be writing hard-edged, brutalist nature novels, like a Berlin-drenched Knut Hamson or Cormac McCarthy.

Leisure System, or more specifically Ned Beckett, came in yesterday. They run parties here in Berlin and have morphed over eight or nine releases into a record label, too. The thing they do really well is breadth, bringing together musicians as superficially distinct as Objekt and Gold Panda, and picking up brand new artists like Hubie Davison, like musical Manta Ray, scanning the ocean floor for buried treasure.

The final entry is for some music of the mouth. Yes, I got myself some classic Berlin fast food in the shape of gemuse kebap from Kottiwood, just down the road from where I’m staying at Kottbusser Tor. Yes boss!


Back to school

It’s back to school week for thousands of British children and young people, as well as all the teachers and support staff who work in our 24,000 schools and colleges. Uniforms are being pulled out of bedroom corners. Folders are being dusted off.  The first hints of autumn are being carried in the air, even if we’re still being embraced by the longest, sunniest summer in a decade.

All of which makes it the right time to post this video of Ken Robinson speaking at the RSA earlier in the summer. I squeezed in right before they closed the doors. It was a delight to hear him saying that creativity should be embedded into every school – especially as that’s at the heart of Thomas Tallis School in Greenwich, where I’m proud to be a (relatively new) school governor.

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It’s worth watching the whole video, but here’s a taster of what he said.

Why, he asked, do we ‘do’ education? His answer came in four parts: economic, cultural, social and personal.

Education, he said, has powerful economic purpose, contributing to health, vitality and sustainability. We want to make our children economically independent – so what does industry want? An IBM report from 2011 of 1,800 leaders in 80 countries said they wanted adaptability and creativity.

The world is complicated and increasingly conflicted. Value systems are knocking against each other head on.  We need forms of education that respond to and reflect culture  – that allows you to see your own identity and to understand others’.

He points to evidence of political disengagement. It’s important we take part in civil engagement. You do this by having a culture of participation – and schools are a vital part of this.

And finally, it’s about people.  “Anything not nuanced to diversity will increase alienation.”

His belief is that change needs to come from the ground up. “We need policy makers to think differently. They appear to believe that you improve things by issuing directives. It’s a false consciousness of how education actually works. If we do something different, government will respond.”

“You cannot improve education,” he said, “by vilifying teachers.”

Too right!


End Of The Road review 2013

Mostly, festival reviews are a bit pointless for those who didn’t attend. So I thought I’d try and do a bit of a round-up that makes sense, even for people who didn’t make it down to Larmer Tree Gardens for the loveliest weekend of the year.

It’s a good time for girls in bands

From Deap Vally to Warpaint to Rachel Dadd, female musicians were everywhere – and not just playing bass or singing. It seems that finally, it’s normal for women to play drums, or indeed whatever they want.

I had an interesting conversation earlier in the year with electronic music producer Patrick Pulsinger on this subject. He thinks that it’s the best time ever for girls to make music, and that this shift will be great for music too. His take is that the fact girls can just buy kit online, and can work it out for themselves without having to be embarrassed or intimidated by blokes in kit shops or music shops, is revolutionary. I think I agree.

Here are Warpaint playing a new song at EOTR on Saturday night.

Talking Heads songs sound great with a brass ensemble behind them

David Byrne did a headline set with St Vincent, playing the gorgeous songs they released on Love This Giant interspersed with some Talking Heads classics. The show was equally gorgeous, with the songs set to charming doll-dance choreography which saw Byrne and Annie Clarke flanked by a line of brass players. Even the Euphonium player was dancing, which must have been some feat. Naive Melody, aka the greatest love song ever written, sounded particularly beautiful in a Wiltshire field.

I couldn’t find any YouTube clips of this show, probably because the crowd heeded Byrne’s show opening exhortation to put down the devices and dance. But here’s one from elsewhere on the tour.

The food was almost as good as the music

I ate a blackcurrent and honey frozen yoghurt from the Hedgerow Deli that was like Bo Ningen on my tastebuds. Honestly, I know what John and Greg are on about now. Then there was the maple-smoked pulled pork and beans, and the two types of paella. I could actually do a whole festival review just on the food. Mmmmmmmmm.

Bo Ningen 

You can tell how amazing they were because no-one filmed them on their phones and put it on YouTube. OK, so that might be an exaggeration and no doubt untrue but that’s how it felt. The 15 year olds at the front lapped it up, as did the 50-something couple standing in front of me who declared it ‘completely awesome’. A very cool-looking middle-aged lady went up to the lighting guy afterwards and congratulated him on how he lit up the stage. She was right. When Yuki descended into the crowd and played his guitar upside down, or when Taigen swirled his guitar around like a hawk-handler might swirl meat, lighting guy was right there, picking out the best bits. They’re playing again soon. I advise you to go.

Here they are earlier this year at the 100 Club.

People who go to End Of The Road are proper music fans

EOTR is populated by proper music fans, whether they’re teenage kids or a fifty-something lady in a Patti Smith T-shirt, or festival regular Big Jeff who everyone seemed to know from bands on stage to kids wandering past the Rough Trade store. They’re all equal because they’re all into it. It’s surprising how surprising this is.

I’ve already got my ticket for next year.

Creat_ED ‘unconference’ at The Barbican

Some things I learned from the Creat_ED ‘unconference’ at The Barbican.

1. Creat_ED exists because of an absence, that of Learning Without Frontiers. When the latter was cancelled, Creat_ED popped into existence in a foundational example of doing. You can read more about the genesis of the event here.

2. An ‘unconference’ is quite like a conference, but more democratic. In the case of Creat_ED, this meant a room up on the fourth floor of the Barbican, looking out into the jungly centre of the conservatory, where we were encouraged by host Eylan Ezekiel to comment, share and do.

barbican conservatory

3. The opening speaker Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino made an interesting point that learning. It is, she said, ‘a community’ and spoke about some of the people who’d schooled her. It made me wonder: is it possible to curate your own teachers outside of the people you encountered at school? If I think about the people who really taught me something I’d include my dad, my Primary School teacher Mrs Skinner who got us dissecting lambs eyes (it was the ’80s, you could do stuff like that), and the music editor at Select Magazine who took to me to one side and explained exactly why my album reviews weren’t really working.

4. Deschamps-Sonsino also introduced us to her lovely Good Night Lamps. These are internet connected lamps that comprise a big lamp and little lamps. When the big lamp is turned on, the little lamps turn on, too. They’re designed to allow families, particularly those that live in different countries, to keep in touch, and it’s a very cute idea. Harpist and music educator Stephanie, who was sitting next to me, pointed out that the lamps would equally be useful to people who collaborate remotely. Musicians, for example.

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5. She rocketed through a number of other very cool items that could be described as part of the internet of things. These include the Little Printer which dispenses you cute receipt-sized, personalised printed content from your friends or through the apps you’ve selected on your phone and Molly, which gives you a gumball every time you get a retweet.




6. Fred Garnett was one of the people who spoke up after Alexandra’s talk. He said we needed to move away from pedagogy – the act of teaching – and into heutagogy and andragogy. This involved some furtive googling on my part. The former means ‘self-determined learning’, the latter is about how to engage with adult learners. Follow Fred @fredgarnett to find out more.

7. Second speaker was Simon Raymonde, founder of Bella Union records and one-time bassist with Cocteau Twins. Frou Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires remains one of my favourite records ever, but that’s beside the point. Raymonde started his talk with a tune by Bella Union’s John Grant, ‘GMF’. It’s safe to say that the average conference doesn’t involve playing songs which have a prominent use of the word ‘motherfucker’.

He told the story of how Midlake nursed John Grant back into physical and musical health through the making of his album Queen of Denmark and went on to cover the digital transformation of the music industry, and why people should be asking themselves ‘did I do something today to help a creative person?’. Then he ended on John Grant’s ‘Glacier’ which played all the way through to the final resonant note.

8. Stevyn Colgan was the third ‘provocateur’ or speaker. He joined the Met police after drunkenly signing a bet with his dad that he couldn’t last six months and ended up staying 30 years, eventually as part of the Met’s Problem Solving Unit. He told a though-provoking story about an estate in Scotland which had two football pitches for the kids, on either side of a dual carriageway – one of which wasn’t being used, and one of which had become a magnet for problems. He and his colleagues realised that there were actually three sets of kids – small kids who just wanted to kick a ball about, medium-aged kids who didn’t want to play with the small kids, and older kids who wanted to do their own thing. They solved the problems by spending £25 on white paint and creating two smaller pitches. Crime went down accordingly. The police, he said, are always focused on solving crime, when they should be focusing on the prevention of crime. “The people who know why a problem happens are the people who are causing the problem but no-one will talk to them because they’re the ‘bad guys”




9. The Wall of Do was a space to share thoughts and requests, and had some good ideas on it. These included taking students out to Fab Labs and MakerSpaces, asking how to inculcate learning habits and loads more that escape me, but that fed into the afternoon’s workshop sessions.


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10. Creat_ED was all about risk, agility and making connections. There should be more like it.

Up The Woods with Caught By The River

I’m very proud to be part of Caught By The River and very proud to be part of their summer festival events. Usually we’d all be heading down to Cornwall for Port Eliot but this year the good people of St Germans are taking a break. Instead, we’ll be at the new Open East festival at the Olympic Park and I’ll be hosting a panel on London’s influential pirate broadcasters.

I’ve also been writing a column for them on my mission to learn about trees. It’s called Up The Woods and you can read the first two here and here with lovely illustration from Matt Sewell. Column #3 coming next week.

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Litefeet NYC

It’s Friday afternoon on Union Square, NYC. There’s a guy in a gold crown holding a crappy handmade sign inked with the legend ‘Butt Man’. He makes half-hearted attempts to engage with the tourists and with the school kids zigzagging around with their backpacks but it’s no use. Something much more interesting is happening on the concrete flat that divides the street from the tree-dappled heart of the park: two dozen dancers have magnetically appeared, drawn by the power of a new Kid The Wiz joint barking out of some speakers and the impromptu Litefeet cypher that’s popping off.

Litefeet is a dance that was born in Harlem and the Bronx in the mid 2000s and is part of a family tree that includes the real Harlem Shake, the Chicken Noodle Soup and popping. Over the last few years it has been adopted and adapted city-wide, and there are Litefeet outposts in Conneticut, Virginia and Florida. It’s spread internationally, to London and to Tokyo where the XYZ Boys run battles and shows under the slightly mangled tagline: ‘Since 2010, Litefeet 4 ever!!’

I’ve come down because of a conversation I had at the screening of rare hip hop documentaries at the Sunshine Cinema. One of the films was Dian Martel’s awesome ‘Wreckin’ Shop Live From Brooklyn’, which shone a light on hip hop and house dancers including MOPTOP and Misfits, whose freestyle moves added extra swagger and verve to ’90s hip hop. Where’s that swagger and verve now, I asked panel member and MOPTOP founder Buddha Stretch. “Litefeet,” he said, suggesting I might find dancers riding the D train, or perhaps on Union Square after school. The former sounded a little unlikely– this Londoner reckons MTA subway experiences come to you, not the other way round – so I headed up to Union Square mid-afternoon on a sunny May Friday.

And there they were, hanging out on the southerly edge. The first five dancers I randomly collar all turn out to be YouTube fairly-famous. There’s Boy Aero, 18, from Brooklyn, Sha Smoove, 19, from Far Rockaway, Queens, 17 year old Lady Slic, 18 year old Sonic from The Bronx, and 19 year old WAFFLE crew founder Goofy (it stands for We Are Family For Life Entertainment). They all have water-tight rep online, particularly the latter, who also appears in mini doc ‘Getting Lite Under New York City’ and who just performed the original Harlem Shake at MoMa. “There might only be five or six crews,” says Goofy, “but there are hundreds of dancers. And there’s a lot of history behind us.”

Naturally, there’s bespoke music. Ruling producer Kid The Wiz makes ultra-raw tracks designed to provide sonic architecture for litefeet moves. Tracks like ‘Dark Gospel’ share a drilled down tuffness with grime or ghetto house whilst ‘Beverages Are Needed’ speaks to the comic side of Lite. “We have our own producers,” says Sha Smoove. “Adele, she got ‘Set Fire To The Rain’. We got our own version. We got Kid the Wiz, Tykestar, Krypto. We working with geniuses in the making.”

They dance, one by one, with the incrementally-growing circle providing vibes. There’s buffered popping and locking, balletic toe sweeps, contortion and cartoonish facial expressions. Dancer tip-tap their bodies, they slide and lunge forwards, dropping 1930s jazz moves and even tiny slivers of what looks like strobe-staggered vogueing. It’s a unique, beguiling combination of athleticism, physical comedy and serious groove.

“Lite feet is hip hop dance,” says Sonic. “It is hip hop.”

Litefeet dancers have a mean line in hat and shoe tricks, where outer apparel becomes part of the show. Dancers slide a sneaker down their chest like it’s on string, or catch a baseball cap on a perfectly-posed elbow, tricks honed as part of dancers’ sideline busking on the subway (there are thousands of clips online). “We’re getting more recognition,” says Goofy. “A lot of people are taking notice. Us being on the trains, it gets the whole city to know us.”

It’s a proper self-sufficient culture of dancers, producers and DJs, teams like WAFFLE, Brotherhood, 2Real Boyz and Teams Rocket and Demon, as well as YouTube entrepreneurs and community leaders who have created a vibrant and evolving world around impossibly wavy moves. And as ever, the dancers lead the way for new musical hybrids: like house, disco and jazz before it, this is music rooted in a rich conversation between feet and ears, dance floor and DJ booth, dancer and producer.

Back in Union Square, there’s an old dude watching as the dancers fall away and the circle reshapes into groups of teens just hanging out. I ask him what he thought of their skills.  “Got to keep the wheels on the wagon,” he says gnomically, and walks off.

This post appeared originally on the RBMA site as part of their New York stories series.


Oooh, this is lovely.

I can’t decide which is my favourite diagram from Scott Christianson’s new book, 100 Diagrams That Changed The World.

This gorgeous image of the phases of the moon made in 1016 by Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni

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or Moses Harris’ colour wheel, from 1766.

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Thank you to Brainpickings for the tip.

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