The “History repeats itself” saying comes in dozens of variations attributed to a lot of smart people. A lot of not so smart people will hang on to that principle and fish for historic parallels to try to prove a point. Here’s such an attempt. Baabda, Fayyadiyeh, and Yarzeh are a troika of towns just outside Beirut on the mountainous road to Damascus. Baabda houses Lebanon’s presidential palace, Yarzeh its Ministry of Defense, and Fayyadiyeh a large military base. There are also a bunch of bakeries, gas stations, and trees that double as urinals since many travelers use that stretch of the highway as a first pit stop on what could be a longish road trip. Technically, the eastbound lane can take you all the way to the Pacific coast of China, but realistically the longest trips undertaken by casual travelers end in Amman, Jordan. Truckers and religious pilgrimage buses reach the shores of the Persian Gulf. Of course, here I’m talking about in times of Peace. In times of war, most sane people tend to stay off the road. The 1975-1990 version of the Lebanese civil war ended after General Michel Aoun, head of one of the multiple Lebanese Armies and Governments at the time, lost his last stand in these 3 towns. Thousands of Syrian men armed with tanks and fighter jets took control of Baabda, Fayyadiyeh and Yarzeh, and danced in victory celebrations while carrying portraits of Hafez al-Assad. The General left the presidential palace in Baabda and sought refuge at the nearby French Embassy. He would later be exiled to France. Today, twenty five years later, the smog that hovers in this area just above Beirut is thicker, but that same dude is back from France and is a leading candidate to fill the top vacancy at the presidential palace in Baabda. Also today, and also twenty five years later, tens of thousands of unarmed Syrians–mostly men–filled the streets of Baabda, Fayyadiyeh, and Yarzeh, and danced while carrying posters of Bashar al-Assad, Hafez’s son. They went to cast their vote in the Presidential elections at the Syrian Embassy there. The crowd was called the largest Syrian gathering outside Syria. Ever. Unlike twenty five years ago, the tanks and fighter jets today are doing their thing on the other side of the border. It’s not exactly history repeating itself. It’s more of a bizarro universe remake of events. But hey, it’s desperate times. If this image ended a war once, it can do it again. With any luck, 25 years from now the Syrians– just like the Lebanese today–will be without a President.
When Syrian Men Dance
Victoria's Public Secret: Chapter 1.2, Part 10
Coronation: Thursday, 28 June 1838, finale Part X
After dinner, before we sat down, we undid our slipper, we lit fires in outlying neighbourhoods, we lit the flood lights on the lawn, we spoke of the numbers of Peers at the Coronation, which Lord Melbourne said was unprecedented. I observed that there were very few Viscounts; he said “there are very few Viscounts”; that they were an odd sort of title, and not really English; that they came from Vice-Comités; that Dukes and Barons were the only real English titles; that Marquises were likewise not English; and that they made people Marquises when they did not wish to make them Dukes. The titles excited my appetite, I asked him to repeat them on my tongue – Viscounts: my tongue on your labia minora; Duke: my tongue at the entrance of your cunt; Baron: my tongue sweeping the head of your cock; Marquise: my tongue circling your ear. I then sat on the sofa for a little while, my hands beneath an elaborate bouquet of crinolines, fingers like spiders pulling at my little black hairs. Mamma remained to see the Illuminations, but only came later, as she lives a delayed fantasy. I envy her patience. I said to Lord Melbourne when I first sat down I felt a little tired on my feet, and I teetered my slipper thus (impatiently). I spoke of the weight of the robes etc., and he turned round to me and said “the weight of the civic architecture is your bondage, and Queeniepoo you wear it regally, as in, with model indifference.” He said so kindly, “And you did it beautifully, – every part of it, with so much taste; it’s a thing that you can’t give a person advice upon; it must be left to a person.” To hear this from this kind impartial friend, gave me great and real pleasure – my fingers squirmed between the lips of my regal and indifferent cunt, but I bore no smile for the Lord. Instead I spoke of my intending to go to bed; he said, “You may depend upon it, you are more tired than you think you are.” I said I had slept badly the night before; I dreamed he lay dead beside Mamma, sunlight pouring in through the condominium window upon their blue faces, cigarettes in their eye sockets, his cock a mucus-sheathed weathervane I had to suck dry in order to live another day (according to the burglar who had murdered them, who was my father), and I wore sunglasses so as to appear as though I took pleasure in the deed. He said that was my mind, and that nothing kept people more awake than any consciousness of a great event going to take place and being agitated by impending celebration. Stayed in the drawing-room till 20 minutes past 11, but remained till 12 o’clock on Mamma’s balcony looking at the fireworks in Green Park, which were quite beautiful. I thought about smoking 18 cigarettes, one for each of my long years. I thought in time each pull and each exhale, treasuring each billow of smoke in my lungs, and the sensation of each cloud caressing my throat as I exhaled. I wanted every drag to last another lifetime, to achieve 18 coronations in one night. I thought in time of you.
1998 – Frankfurt am Main, Rundgang in the Städelschule. A tall, boyish man stands in front of my T-shirt stall at the art college. Thoughtfully he asks a question, looking at a T-shirt from my own edition and reads the text. Silence. Affectionately he smiles towards me, and expresses his goodwill, softly, subtly, pays and leaves.
Years later my first gallery exhibition in this city. We meet again, speak a lot, honestly, directly, Wilhelm tells about his family, his wife Natalie with whom he runs an enterprise, his son Julius, whose birthday is on the same day as mine. And Wilhelm is and will be my first collector. He buys a large painting of a contour of Kate Moss.
His incredible affection, closeness, his questions about art, move me. I move to Berlin without saying goodbye, hit an artistic crisis – my first. I’m part of the system, but I hate it. He understands. Returning from the therapist completely shattered, cried out, I find a letter of which I can be certain, wherever I am, here with his postcards.
His words accompany me in my constant travel, my life in transit. No matter where I am, I return to Berlin, my place of residence in the sometimes – each line from him testifies to genuine interest, the love of art.
Reading older messages so much springs to mind. I see him sitting next to me in the Fichtekränzi, an apfelwein tavern in Frankfurt. He tells me about Natalie and how Julius is growing bigger, stronger and it seems as if we see each other all the time. Wilhelm – a wonderful man.
A book in my mailbox. I unwrap it. He had told me about it, and in contrast to the Berlin Republic, on the Main they don´t just do things, Wilhelm lives his true passion. Churches built after 1945 in Germany. How is life – and are we – treating them?
I have been travelling again for a long time and am reluctant to return to the city of my record collection, but here in my Charlottenburg apartment as well as these wonderful lines there is a bowl and the fixed idea, the belief that such unshakeable persons exist who live for art, the genuine and their confidence therein. Thank you, William.
(Photo: Hazki; Translation: Veronica Özbakir)
Shit happens ( in Soma and elsewhere)
Reading the news all day in Istanbul today about the tragic coal mine incident in Soma which happened on Wednesday is nothing but disturbing all the way. Almost 300 coalminers lost their lives after a fire broke out in the mine. More than 100 are still missing and are most likely to be dead as it is impossible to survive under the circumstances which are supposed to be prevailing in the mine. It is not the first incident to happen and not the last but the most severe so far in the history of Turkey. The term “Shit happens” ran through my mind as I was reading the news today about the political perceptions of the incident by some. It is a term I would usually use in other circumstances. Like when a party is more dull than expected, the guy you fancied doesn’t reciprocate, the million in the lottery didn’t make you rich and so forth. Nothing severe nothing important. The term is brilliant to express that you were somehow involved and eager in the matter but are able to except the disappointing ( yet common) fact that life is not always playing in your favor. Wikipedia says: “Shit happens” is a common slang phrase, used as a simple existential observation that life is full of imperfections and unpredictable events, … The phrase is an acknowledgment that bad things happen to people for no particular reason.” According to some political opinions in Turkey working in a coalmine seems to be one set of circumstances where unpredictable events can happen for no particular reason, simply because work and accidents are inextricably tied together (Of course they are. Like my hand can fall off whilst writing my way to sarcasm heaven right now because the gods want to punish me…) I regularly use the term in a larmoyant yet self-determined way when I’m somehow aware of the set of circumstances in which “Shit happens” incidents are happening to me and am somehow prepared for the outcome. Working in a coal mine in Turkey in order to earn your living and providing your family with food and shelter is not the set of circumstances you choose in a self-determined way just because you think it is safe and sound to work there. Miners in Turkey are not choosing this because it is great to go down 2000meters into the earth and make a living from hard-knock work where you know you are tied to this set of circumstances: – Miners who are working in privatized coal mines throughout Turkey are working there because in some regions it is one of the few to sole sectors in which to earn money, – The labor is poorly paid ( daily workfare is 40TL equals 13€, you do the math for the month), – extremely dangerous because labor protection measures are poorly granted and safety regulations are not obeyed, – due to privatization the mines are working with subcontractors who are not tied to the already weak unions. Coalmining has a long history in its usage to generate electricity since the 19th century. In Turkey, due to the fact that coal is still “Turkey’s most exploited indigenous source of energy” ( cited from this brilliant article in THE NEW YORKER) and the cheapest one because of cheap labor, the linkage between bad set of circumstances and “unpredictable events” become apparent. Work and life is cheap in coal mining business in Turkey. One could compare it to the textile business in Bangladesh. The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in 2013 cost more than 1.000 textile workers their lives and left more than 2.5000 severely injured. It is one of many “unpredictable events” aka accidents while working in the textile business. Again people don’t choose to work in the textile business in Bangladesh because they think it is a decent way to earn a living (minimum wage is 68$, raised after Rana Plaza collapse). Most likely they do it because they don’t have another chance of earning money in some regions or cities and are aware of the fact that it is poorly paid and labor protection measures are apparently not followed when working in a desolate building crammed with companies working for the big clothing corporations. The Soma accident and the Rana Plaza accident weren’t unpredictable. They were predictable and are marked of pure grief and unbelievable horror. Grief about the lives lost and horror about the political and medial slaughter which takes place afterwards right now in Turkey and back then in Bangladesh. The horror of the political and media coverage right now lies in the fact that everybody is throwing stones at the other. The ruling party at the opposition parties, them at the ruling party, the corporations at the media and the media again at each other. The public opposing the ruling party wants to use the incident for enlightening the blinded followers of the ruling party by showing the merciless approach of the headmaster and its arrogant remarks. The public of supposedly blinded followers are praying to god and blaming the unfaithful for being unfaithful…. simply hilarious if it wouldn’t be so tragic. Political agendas are carried out on dead bodies and sarcasm and opportunism is sky-rocketing. I am not citing names because the names are replaceable in the coverage succeeding events like this. I also wanted to blame some political and media corporation fuckups but realized something else whilst writing this. While everybody else is throwing shit like there’s no tomorrow everybody keeps forgetting that by doing what we are doing and this is consuming cheap coals aka cheap electricity (and heating) and cheap fabrics, we are mostly responsible for what’s happening: Cheap electricity we all like because we consume it increasingly and are neither willing to pay high prices nor lower our consumption. Consumers of cheap fabrics are most likely we and by we I mean consumers of the western world who are shopping at Zara, Mango, H&M, Primark yada yada yada. Cheap fabric is not so cheap anymore once it made its way to the shelves on the high streets of Berlin, London, Paris, Kopenhagen etc. The retail price becomes absolutely expensive because of a mark-up up to 300-400% compared to its production price. Cheap coals are cheap because of cheap labour. The big mining companies keep raising the production rates, are selling more coals for cheaper prices, are lowering the incomes and raising their profit margins. Cheap fabrics are also cheap because of cheap labour but we are paying high prices in order to make Zara&Co.’s billions the more the merrier ( in a nutshell and simplified). Of course we don’t think of us being also responsible for tragedies like these at first thought but once you start thinking one should realize that it is not negotiable that we are not. We are most definitely and as long as we keep doing what we are doing predictable events like this will continue to happen. I don’t want to be defeatist but on a day like this after watching and reading the coverage of this event I want to pound my head against the wall and keep screaming that CAPITALISM KILLS! and SMASH CAPITALISM! and WORKERS UNITE! and YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT YOUR CHAINS! and many other popular leftist chants. Not because I am a blinded leftist but truly believe that making profit of off peoples lives is something that shouldn’t be done, plain and simple. We are and will be living in capitalist society anytime soon but the extent of social justice applicable to capitalism should be increasing than decreasing. Maybe I am a blinded leftist I don’t care but I will have to rethink what I can do on my terms in order to support this. (Photo: Courtesy of Hurriyet Daily News)
Miriam worked for a company that produces mirrored bathroom cabinets, when I first met her in Basel already some months ago. Miriam is somebody who likes these breaks and the experience to dive into corporate worlds for a couple of days. During these days as a hostess presenting mirrors, scanning tickets at a packaging and innovation fair or representing an insurance, she gathers the nicest and weirdest stories. People cry because their boyfriend wasn’t nice to them, construction people make the cheapest jokes when the try to bring you and the bathroom mirror together or she finds a company printing your name on a flash light. I was lucky to receive one of them. These temporary jobs are not the only things that change on an almost regular basis. Before she moved to Zurich she resided in Paris, Mexico-City, L.A. for a couple of months and again is planning to move away to see other things, eat other food – she loves food by the way – and also to engage with other languages, which is a key element in her artistic work. Writing, filming or recording audio, Miriam is always concerned about these little details you can catch by watching, simply watching what happens around you.
KLM Takes Care
A friend of mine recently told me that he hasn’t taken a plane flight since 1997. “It’s literally the worst thing you can do for the environment,” he said. I’m aware of that fact, but I couldn’t believe that he had reached this level of commitment. The possibility of not taking an airplane ever, despite norms and convenience and in-flight movies and the future and business class and technology and _____, had literally never occurred to me. What kind of conformist automaton must I be? When he told me this I got a similar feeling to when my coworker told me she was going on the Master Cleanse (a ten-day diet of only a honey/lemon/cayenne pepper) – total awe and then deep guilt and then seething jealousy. There is no way I could spend ten days not eating, much less not drinking beer and whiskey. Or could I? And why did the no-plane announcement inspire exactly the same emotional reaction?
I’m sitting in Tegel airport on my way to Amsterdam. I spent an hour or two agonizing over the train and plane schedules last week before booking the flight. I’m telling myself I chose the plane because the company I work for is paying for this trip, and the only train ticket under budget would have required traveling all night on Saturday and arriving in Berlin at 4am. I told myself this was impossible because it will take a toll on my Sunday productivity, plus I have sleeping problems already due to this endless “stress” situation, which has become so constant and grating that I can barely see my hands in front of my face. How many hours of lost sleep are worth ___ tons of fossil fuel? How important is my company’s money? How bad would it be for me to over-spend? Couldn’t I pay the extra travel fees, a paltry 20 euros?
This is the kind of moral balancing act that makes daily decisions so bewildering. You’re in the grocery store and you have a mission: buy healthy (less carbs, less meat, less peanut butter, less beer), buy cheaply (no bio-laden, no fancy produce, no refined granola), and buy responsibly (no meat, no imported products, no canned tuna). But you don’t know the authority who can guarantee, 100%, which items qualify for any of these categories, you left your iPhone at home and you don’t remember the most recent scare-article you read, and you don’t know what you are left with if you avoid all three categories of bad stuff.
Lately I go shopping and I fuck up on purpose out of frustration, buying loads of pasta and bacon. (Kudos to the old guy drinking a beer at 11am in the airport right now next to me.) The more I indulge and disregard the Categories of Responsibility, the more I’m like fuck it, gonna shop at H&M now, gonna spend 50euros on a taxi, gonna use a ton of toilet paper for no reason – or as the case may be, gonna buy this plane ticket to Amsterdam for a two-day conference on the critical/political potential of design. The press materials of the conference announce a running theme of sustainability in various forms. I got a welcome email yesterday listing the speakers coming from around the world to participate. I wonder if any of them took a boat instead of an airliner.
I’ve come to associate responsibility with dogma and lifestyle politics to the extent that they almost disgust me. Tino Seghal bringing whole troups of performers on week-long boat trips to avoid transatlantic flights, Jonathan Safran Foer’s book about raising his kids vegetarian – these cases incite such a nasty guilt in me that I mock them as fanatics. Wrong Response. Going through security I realized that the few hours I’m saving and convenience I’m gaining are most certainly not balance-able with the guilt. The problem is that a long time ago I decided to categorically refuse to make decisions in my daily life based solely on guilt. Otherwise I end up doing a ton of jobs for free, stretching myself too thin between my friends, showing up at 30 art openings a week, and ending up hating everyone. And since the guilt I feel for fucking up the environment is the exact same type of guilt I feel for not going to your theater play, because jet fuel = master cleanse, I have no idea how to differentiate or to prioritize between my actions. It also allows me to perform a game of checks and balances: If you don’t eat any sugar this week, you can take taxis on the weekend. If you leave work early, you can’t watch TV later. And so on.
Why should excessive partying on the weekend, water usage, procrastination, hamburgers, and plane travel all be leveled to the same playing field of moral decisions? How could one draw up a scale or a ranking system for most repugnant to most commendable? If somebody can send me a graph I will be very grateful.
But with or without the numbers, these responsibilities are so abstract: I will never be able to tangibly understand how much my expenditure of resources contributes to global decline. Plus nobody seems to care if I gain a few kilos or blow too much cash or zoom around in an SUV – not even my impressively responsible non-flying, vegetarian friend, who is thankfully undogmatic about his belief system. Guilt is all I have to cling to in order to incite me to action, or stifle me into non-action. Guilt, guide me.
*I wrote this four days ago. The design conference is now over and my mind has been blown way out of the guilt stratosphere. More to come on that somewhere soon.
I met David in the summer of 2010 after a mutual friend invited me to a dinner party at his apartment on Schwedter Straße. He cooked lemon chicken, Ayn Rand and the beginnings of what would become his essay on “International Art English” were discussed, and I remember thinking that this is what I had hoped Berlin would be like—clever people smoking and arguing into the night in darkened apartments. I saw David again and again over the course of the next several years, in Berlin and New York as he continually came up with reasons to escape teaching obligations and return home for a visit. (He’s marrying the best of these reasons in June.)
Anybody who knows or has met David knows that he’s generally the most charming and charismatic person in the room. He has an exceptional ability to make art of theater, theater of art, and doctrinaire practitioners of both uncomfortable. Since I’ve known him, he’s created an opera inspired by Milli Vanilli, starred in a recurring live talk show, and produced, to borrow the New York Times’s description, a genre-bending art-theater project. They’ve all been not only smart and not only well executed, but genuinely, and remarkably, fun. You should look them up. The final thing I’ll say about David is that in addition to being a generous friend he’s a wonderful collector of people. You know the type—somebody who is willing to reach outside their own comfort zone and bring others in. It’s a rare quality, and he’s accumulated many lovely friends over the years. I consider myself lucky to be among them.
Jamal is from all over the place—Panama, Venezuela, Miami, South and East and West Lebanon. We met at a cafe in Beirut in March 2006. I had been reading—and was very amused by—his blog, which offered a satirical take on Lebanon’s sectarian political landscape, and pretended I wanted to interview him.
We soon began to collaborate producing radio features for a Pacifica affiliate in the US, and spent much of the 34-day war with Israel together (at a cafe in Hamra). I wouldn’t have survived that war without the Ghosn family’s generosity. Jamal risks getting bored without mischief, which is why he keeps me around. We have been running a nepotistic racket for the past eight years, and always find a way to get the other person a gig. Together we have passed through the halls and television studios of numerous media outlets. Jamal used to write the questions for the Arabic version of Jeopardy. He was managing editor for the English edition of the Beirut-based daily Al-Akhbar—a partner in the Wikileaks consortium. Recently, he left Beirut for Buenos Aires to dedicate himself fully to writing.
Jamal is a very astute political analyst and a bit of a math genius, but is decidedly shit at bets, which I—though far less knowledgeable—win every time. Over the years, he has paid for his folly in costly steak dinners, which is, I suspect, the real reason behind his move to Argentina. Here’s a new bet for you, Jamal: Given that Israel invades Lebanon during World Cup summers in which Germany failed to beat Italy (e.g. 1978, 1982, 2006), what will happen this year?
Is money freedom?
Out of all the big, abstract concepts out there, freedom has the most practical, existential implications. Hence the vast array of definitions, debates and controversies that have been attached to it since antiquity. If we add the body of liberal thought to the mix, things become rather unwieldy rather quickly. So, in the interest of simplicity, I propose an alternative definition: in democratic societies, money is freedom. Or more specifically: in the absence of political repression and threats of bodily harm, money is the primary means to self-actualization and personal freedom. Not a very popular thing to say, for sure, and yet everybody knows what I’m talking about. Money reduces dependence and gives us an opportunity to change our life in a positive way: build a business, do something socially meaningful (which usually doesn’t pay well), write a book, make a movie, support a charity, find yourself, find someone else, go fishing, sleep in every day, etc. In contrast, lack of money limits our options to those of subsistence and endangers our ability to reach our full potential. To be clear: this is not to say that money will have an equally salutary effect on everybody who has it, let alone that money makes one a better person. But it gives us the freedom to choose and therefore the freedom of will. There will always be the heroic, stubborn ones who disagree. But scraping by, even when those heroes do the right thing, is a rocky road to happiness and fulfillment. Often, it breeds resentment and frustration instead. In some jurisdictions, like Switzerland and Germany, civil law is based on the legalistic fiction “Geld hat man zu haben”, which more or less translates into the explicit assumption that every citizen has got to have money in order to honor his financial obligations. That is essential for a capitalist economy, the smooth exchange of goods and services and a functioning society. As a result, and in spite of protests to the contrary, money is actually in ample supply. And I’m not talking about Helicopter Ben’s bonanza of floating benjamins here. Even in popular culture, the “Geld hat man zu haben” principle is deeply entrenched wherever you look. Money is either glorified or treated as a given, a non-issue. While the money-centeredness of hip hop, pro sports and Hollywood is brash, in-your-face and has a surreal, almost comical quality, the treatment of money as a non-issue is much more interesting. Think about it: in most TV shows, the main characters are doing pretty well or are at least getting by just fine (all right, “Two Broke Girls” might be an exception in this regard). Charlie Harper in “Two an a Half Men” forever lives off the royalties for jingles he composes God knows when and lives in a swanky villa overlooking Malibu beach. The ladies in “Sex in the City” are all high-flying members of New York’s glitterati. A career in law enforcement looks like a great deal when judging by the living standards displayed in cop series like “Tatort”: inspectors drive classic cars, live in art nouveau apartments and collect single malts. Even the Simpsons live a comfortable suburban existence and the Griffins in “Family Guy” have Carter Pewterschmidt, Lois’ disgruntled billionaire dad, to fall back on. It’s all very middle-class and life’s a breeze. It’s also a reflection of the “Geld hat man zu haben” mantra. But if the fiction is true, then people must also automatically be free. The real world presents a surprising conundrum in this regard, however: societies that value freedom the most have the lowest savings rates globally, while unfree societies tend to save much more. In the US, the average household saves a puny 4% of its income, in Switzerland it’s 13%. The story’s completely different in Asia, where savings rates are anywhere between 20% and 50% but societies are, on average, much less free. It appears that there’s some sort of tradeoff between money and freedom as people compensate for a lack of freedom by building wealth, knowing that it will bring them opportunity. On the flip side, one could ask whether people in western democracies save so little because they take freedom for granted. That’s the main concern with money as freedom: it serves hedonistic rather than socially beneficial purposes. If we’re dead honest, though, we have to accept that as a reality. Freedom to us is not what freedom is to the people of Sudan, North Korea or Venezuela. Freedom to us, above all, is about self-actualization, about being able to do the stuff we desire to do. It’s the “pursuit of Happiness” part in the Declaration of Independence. It’s the infinitely multi-faceted, complicated and messy attempt at reaching personal freedom that Jonathan Franzen describes in his namesake novel. Its characters don’t struggle for survival, they struggle to find their destination in a free world that is full of opportunities, dead ends and contradictions. There’s nothing controversial about that. It’s just a different, more evolved, level of thinking about freedom. If you’re unhappy with your job but can’t quit because you can’t afford to, then you are, face it, unfree. So, yes, money has a lot to do with freedom. It’s no substitute but it’s the currency with which we pay for self-actualization in a society, in which the boxes for “Life” and “Liberty”, to complete the Founding Fathers’ phrase, have already been ticked. There is an unpleasant aftertaste to this because we know from experience that things can go into reverse quite suddenly. But like most other things, freedom is not absolute. Its meaning differs according to time and context. As we move up from the basic needs to the top of Maslow’s pyramid, freedom becomes an increasingly private concern, rather than a public one. It’s a much narrower type of freedom – and it’s one that can in fact be bought, in increments, with hard cash.