Monday, 29 June 2009

Michael Jackson - My own memories

It’s been a couple of days now since Michael Jackson died, but even now when I watch some of the news coverage, I still can’t quite believe this is all really happening. It’s as if his entire life was some amazing, epic and tragic novel. His death is like a fitting final chapter to the story, and even then there’s still so much more to come!

Since I was a kid I’ve always been a huge Michael Jackson fan, but up until the last few days, I never realised how much. Watching the BBC news on Friday morning I was amazed to find a few tears building up as I watched the reports. The same thing happened later that evening as I watched the video of Beat It on You Tube, which is my favourite Jackson video. I never imagined I’d ever feel that way about any singer or celebrity.

I’m one of those people that have always viewed and separated Michael Jackson the singer/performer from that of the man and celebrity. I know there’s some overlap, but for me it was always first and foremost about his music, his singing and dancing, no matter how bizarre, strange, and worrying his personal life was, I never forget what made him famous in the first place.

Earlier in the year I was reminded of his talent when I bought a triple CD box set of Motown records to celebrate their 50th anniversary. There was a track on there called ‘Got to be there’. I wasn’t actually familiar with the song, but I instantly loved it. I looked inside the CD sleeve to see what year it was made, and what I found amazing was that he must have been about 10 or 11 years old when he first sung it. He managed to convey so much soul and emotion into the song I thought to myself:

‘You’re like 10 years old, but yet you’re singing about love, romance, and relationships like you been through all that sort of stuff.

I said to my mate that when I was 10 I could barely articulate my feelings about anything! The song just reminded me of what a child prodigy he truly was.

It feels as if Michael Jackson was always part of my life, he was always there. I think my earliest memories were staying up to watch the video to Thriller when it was first released. It was round at my aunt’s house, and me along with some of my extended family all gathered around the TV to witness this event, and that’s what it was, a real event. Although I was very aware of music and different artists, there had never been so much build up about one singer that I was aware of.

The video itself was like a mini film; it was about 15 minutes long, part horror film part music video, as a 7 year old it was really exciting, and a bit scary. Following other singles from the Thriller album like Beat It and Billie Jean I considered myself a Jackson fan.

After the success of Thriller, you wanted to know how he would follow it up. The period waiting for his next album from about 1984 to 1987 seemed like an absolute lifetime as a child. When the single and video for Bad was eventually shown on terrestrial TV for the first time, it was again a major TV and musical event. I wasn’t disappointed and I remember thinking that I wanted the album as soon as it was released.

I eventually got the album for Christmas on cassette. (There’re probably kids out there today who have no idea what tape cassettes are) It was the first proper record I ever had, and it was probably another year or so before I started buying records for myself. I loved the album, with Smooth Criminal being my favourite track. It certainly got plenty of rewinds on the little tape recorder I had.

Looking back, the years following the release of Bad were the ones in which his strange private life began to become as big a story as his music. His face and skin colour began to change significantly from how he looked in the 70’s and 80’s. I again wanted to focus on the music, as when he appeared on stage he seemed to be more ‘normal’ than when off it.

In 1991 he released the album Dangerous. Again, I got this for Christmas. I like the album, although I always thought half of it was very good, and the other half a bit so so. In terms of his music this album was really the beginning of the end for me.

At the time I never imagined that he would never produce a record again that I would not want to listen to, but the fact is that’s how it turned out. The last 15 years have been such a disappointment for me, as his music, talent and influence took a back seat, whilst the scandals, private life, and facial changes became ever more prominent. By the end of the 90’s I would look at photos of him and think:

‘What have you done to yourself? You look terrible’

When I finally got round to buying the album ‘Off the Wall’ (Still my favourite album) I was a bit of a shock to see this black man staring back at me on the front cover! The plastic surgery that he had, went to such an extreme that I look at it as almost self-mutilation. I wished he’d stopped it all towards the end of the 80s.

Over the last 10 years of so he’d become a sad parody of himself and of celebrity culture in general. I was always a bit sceptical about the 50 date London tour that he announced earlier in the year.

Did he have anything to really offer? A few weeks ago I’d begun to hear rumours that the physical demands of such a gruelling tour might be too much for him and that certain excuses where already being lined up for him to pull out. Last Thursday when I first heard he’d been rushed to hospital, I didn’t even bother to find out more about what was happening, I thought it was so unsurprising!

Like many people I've been reminding myself over the last few days of just how good some of his music was. I’ve loved watching videos like Beat It and Smooth Criminal and I’d forgotten just how good a dancer he was. Some of the choreography is amazing! It was so ambitious and on such a grand scale, it still dwarfs much of what you see today on MTV.

As I said earlier, he hadn’t really done anything of note since the early 90’s but I started to think that his peak was so great and so significant; that there was nothing else he could really do to top it! I can’t think of any singers who start their careers off in their 20’s and 30’s and then achieve their commercial and creative peak in their 40’s and 50’s, so maybe it’s understandable that his musical output was virtually non existent over the last 10 years.

I always hoped he’d perhaps make a real comeback and remind people what made him such a star in the first place. I thought it would have been great if he could have hooked up with producers such as Timberland, The Neptunes, or Kanye West. For me that would have been such a winning combination, but it’s not going to happen now.

Jackson’s music will always be a big part of my life, and his career is still an example of what can be achieved with amazing talent, ability and hard work. Unlike many people today who dream of being famous for the sake of it, I’m glad I grew up in the 80’s dreaming of being able to sing or dance like Michael Jackson and have some proper talent. Even today I haven’t given up the hope of being able to do a decent ‘Moonwalk’ it would be like my own little tribute to a true musical and cultural icon.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Michael Jackson is dead!

According to reports Michael Jackson died earlier today at the age of just 50 from a cardiac arrest. One of my best friends called me up this evening, at what I thought was the unusual time of 11:20. I didn't answer but he left a message saying:

'I told you there wouldn't be a happy ending'

I was already aware that Jackson had been rushed to hospital, so I knew immediately what he meant. For years he'd been telling me that the Michael Jackson story would eventually end in tradegy. It seems he was right along.

Straight away I rushed downstairs to my living room to watch Sky News and the BBC News channel who were reporting his alleged death.

If this is true, and at the time of writing it does appear that he has died. I just have this really strange feeling of both complete and utter shock, but also one of not being that suprised that's it's all ended this way. I know this is a contradiction, but that's exactly how it feels!

At the moment I can't think of a bigger musical or cultural icon that has died in my life time! This whole story is huge. I can't believe it!

It seems Twitter does have its good points after all!

Last month I wrote a post entitled ‘Not convinced by Twitter’ in which I spoke about how I couldn’t understand the point of Twitter, and why people would make any real effort in following people’s tweets.

You can only write 140 characters in your message, so just how interesting can it really be in following such comments?

Well I have to admit that following the recent elections and political demonstrations in Iran , it seems I may have been too quick to dismiss Twitter, as it appears to have come into its own as a way of challenging the political establishment.

During the demonstrations many protesters began using Twitter as means of communicating to the outside world, what was actually going on in the country.

This is such an interesting development. With the Iranian authorities restricting access to the Internet, and other communication outlets, and international news organisations struggling to report what was happening on the ground, Twitter stepped up to the mark to provide quick and instantly updated commentary on what people were doing, and how they felt about the situation.

Not only this, the constant messaging also provided a way by which protesters could organise and mobilise themselves in their protests against their leaders.

I suppose it should be remembered that many of the people sending the tweets were not acting as journalists or reporters in the traditional sense. They were not there to report the facts in an impartial journalistic way.

I can imagine that in such a situation many of the tweets being written were nothing more than rumour or gossip on what was taking place. I suppose the challenge for traditional journalists and reporters was to figure out how they could gather together the various tweets and try and makes sense of them all. By doing so, they could then hopefully be in a position to provide some form of context and narrative of the events taking place.

The Iranian authorities soon began to realise the potential dangers and advantages of Twitter themselves. They set up and started sending their own decoy Twitter tweets to try and trap the protesters, and also to put out false information in order to control the demonstrations.

It’s going to be interesting to see how in the near future, authoritarian and semi-democratic regimes such China and Iran deal with the development of media technology and social networking sites like Twitter. Modern media technology has shown that it has ways of avoiding censorship by governments, and providing news and information to the outside world.

Of course authoritarian governments will still go out of their way to control and suppress information . China is still very adapt at doing such things.

The problem that these governments face, is the increasing challenge of sharing the same media technology as the West, which their young media savvy populations desire and want to share in; but in doing so they are creating future problems for themselves, as they do not have the democratic freedoms and ideals that accompany such media in the West.

This inevitably creates tensions, as seen in Iran, whereby the movement of information is increasingly used to share and formulate ideas in ways previously unseen, which authoritarian regimes cannot or don't know how to control.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Despite Andy Murray, we’re still rubbish at tennis!

Wimbledon begins to today, and the whole country is waiting to see if Andy Murray can become the first British men’s winner since Fred Perry in 1936. With Raphael Nadal pulling out through injury, he’s now got an even better chance, but you’ve got to say that Roger Federer is still the overwhelming favourite. Even if Murray does manage to win, it isn’t going to change the fact that we’re still rubbish at producing world-class tennis players in this country

I know that every year before Wimbledon the same discussion is raised as to why we fail to produce top level tennis players. The ridiculous thing is, I’ve been listening to this debate now since the first year that I ever watched Wimbledon, and that was back in 1985 when a 17 year old Boris Becker won the title for the first time.

It means that in period of almost 25 years, we’ve only produced two homegrown players that have looked like they could seriously win Wimbledon. At the moment it's Andy Murray flying the flag, before him it was Tim Henman. Overall that's a depressing statistic!

For sometime now I’ve thought this country’s attitude to tennis is slightly bizarre anyway. For 11 months of the year nobody really cares about tennis, it's essentially a minority sport.

Then for one month of the year tennis suddenly becomes almost our national sport, with everyone following Wimbledon, kids stop playing football for while and start playing tennis on the streets and in the parks.

A week or so after Wimbledon finishes, everyone moves on, and our interest in tennis comes to an end for another year.

Surely one of the main reasons we’re not successful is that if we're being honest, we’re just not that bothered about tennis. We certainly don’t have enough people playing the sport, particularly at junior level, but then most kids only opportunity of seeing tennis is at Wimbledon once a year.

I’ve always been typical of most British people in the sense that watching tennis has always mainly been about watching Wimbledon, and maybe the last few rounds of the French Open, but over the last year I’ve made real effort to watch some of the other Grand Slam tournaments. It’s been refreshing to watch tennis outside the context of Wimbledon.

I watched the US Open final last year in which Murray was defeated by Federer. In January this year I watched the Australian Open. I was great to watch a tournament where the crowd were so passionate and partisan, especially when any players of Greek, Serbian or Croat descent were playing. It was an enjoyable contrast to the slightly reserved occasionally stuffy tradition of Wimbledon.

I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that tennis needs to be seen as an all year round sport - not just two weeks in June and July. Kids need to be able to appreciate the game away from Wimbledon.

Secondly we always have the classic argument that tennis in the UK is too elitist and middle class. There's still some truth in this but being middle class doesn’t necessary prevent you from being a world-class sports competitor.

In English Rugby there are many players who have come from very middle-class backgrounds and it didn't stop England reaching two World Cup finals in 2003 and 2007. At last year's Beijing Olympics, Britain won a whole host of gold medals in rowing and sailing, which are hardly, sports that the average person takes part in.

The real problem is still the fact that not enough people play the game and we lack facilities. Having done some research into this, I came across a statistic that said that in France they have 6,000 indoor courts, in the UK we have just under 1500.

Along with the lack of players and facilities, there’s also the cultural view of tennis in this country. As a sport I don’t believe that we take it seriously enough. Tennis is seen as a leisure activity and not a serious competitive sport in which to take up and become a winning professional.

Reading some message board comments on the BBC’s website on an article written last year on this subject, it was amazing to hear the number of people who had previously been members of LTA (Lawn Tennis Association) clubs as juniors but were made to feel unwelcome or forced to vacate courts in order to accommodate middle-aged middle-class members who were only playing the game for leisure.

Is it any wonder that we struggle to produce any decent players when so many juniors are made to feel unwelcome at clubs, and are not given the opportunities to play the game on a competitive basis.

I hope that Andy Murray does manage to win Wimbledon this year, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we think it proves we have the infrastructure and culture to produce top quality tennis players. We don’t!

The LTA spends so much money trying to produce more talent, but fails miserably. It doesn’t matter how much money they spend, if people aren’t really interested or don't have opportunities to play the game we're going to have the same disappointing results.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Knife crime - an issue of upbringing rather than race.

Reading The Sunday Times like I always do at the weekend, I was reading Rod Liddle's comment column entitled ‘Ben’s murder was not racist – just a matter of statistics’. This was in reference to the murder of the North London teenager Ben Kinsella, whose murderers were convicted last week, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

I was slightly surprised by the title of his column, as I was never under the impression that Ben Kinsella’s murder was actually racist. If anything it seemed to be one of those tragic stories of someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

From what I could gather from Liddle’s piece, it seemed that he wanted to raise some honest home truths regarding the nature of violent crime in the UK, particularly in London. He went onto say:

‘The overwhelming bulk of street crime in London is committed by young black men, and in numerous cases against white people..’

Ok, on this first quote I don’t have any statistics to argue against this, but I’m quite confident in saying, particularly from news coverage, that the majority of victims of violent teenage street crime are teenagers from ethnic minorities.

Secondly, when it comes to the issue of knife crime I’ve read many statistics that say the city with the biggest knife problem in the UK is actually Glasgow, where the black population is almost minuscule, so I wouldn’t say that knife crime is something wholly exclusive to Britain’s black community.

In relation to gun crime he said:

‘…and the overwhelming majority of gun crime, most of it black on black violence’…….‘We skirt around this issue, mostly for decent, if deluding reasons - that a proportion of young black males is more likely to commit violent crime than other sectors of the population

I don't dispute the fact that much of today's gun crime is black on black, but I disagree with the statement that most poeple are skirting around the issue. The problems of gun and knife crime are constantly debated within black communities up and down the country, these debates might not always be played out in the mainstream media, but they’re definitely discussed. Secondly, I’m certainly not going to be offended if people, be they black or white want to highlight this point.

Much of Liddle’s column seemed to give the misguided assumption that much of the black community in this country have their heads buried in the sand when it comes to violent street crime, and that white middle class Liberals are quite happy to bend over backwards trying to make excuses for the criminal youth element in the black community. Liddle said further:

The propensity of some young black males to underachieve at school and later commit crimes of violence has been seen for too long as a roguish expression of cultural diversity, exacerbated by our own inherent racism and economic oppression; in other words, it’s not their fault.

Is it? If this really is the case I’m grateful that I didn’t grow up in a culture where this kind of nonsense was actually accepted, either by my own family or schoolteachers. What sort of people regardless of race or background seriously view committing violent crime as an expression of cultural diversity?

Rather predictably, the issue of ‘gangster rap’ was then raised, with Liddle claiming that liberal white culture likes to lap up this ‘edgy’ gangster culture.

What’s far more likely is that gangster rap is actually just part of Western capitalist culture’s obsession with the story of the criminal gangster. If this wasn’t the case, why have Hollywood gangster movies proved to be so popular and enduring over the years? Films such as The Godfather, Scarface (both versions) Goodfellars, to name but a few are regularly voted as timeless classics by film fans.

The truth is, regardless of race many people find the gangster narrative appealing. I certainly do, and I love those films mentioned above, but I don’t aspire to live that type of existence mainly due to my background and upbringing. My main concern with gangster rap is the depressing way that many black and white youngsters assume that this actually represents the only true and authentic black cultural experience.

Returning to the original issue of youth crime, the real problem is not necessarily about race, but more to do with how some children within this country are being raised. The killers of Ben Kinsella are part of what I would describe as a growing number of socially damaged children who grow up to become socially damaged adults. They do not have the skills or emotional intelligence to function normally in civil society.

Whenever there's a teenage murder, the media look to find answers; particularly form those people who have direct contact with some of today’s troubled youngsters. One person who is frequently called upon to provide some sort of insight is Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder and director of the children’s charity Kids Company.

The charity works with many vulnerable, abused and disadvantaged children who require emotional and educational support. I’ve read a number of interviews with Batmanghelidjh over the last couple of years and when you hear the stories of children that she has dealt with, you begin to realise that teenage knife crime in an inevitable consequence of children who have had such brutal and violent upbringings.

The sad fact is that many teenagers and young adults who commit such violent crimes do not feel any sympathy or remorse for their victims. They have been brought up in such a way that they hold very little value on their own lives; so see no reason why they should value anyone else’s.

Children raised in loving families with mothers and fathers, and extended family members will grow up with a sense of value about themselves and other people, along with good levels of self esteem. This is something which I believe many perpetrators of street crime simply do not experience.

This leads onto another issue, which tends to emerge with such crimes; this is the idea of 'respect' within urban street culture. It was reported in the case of Ben Kinsella that one of his killers believed they had been ‘disrespected’ by Ben and his friends. This excuse tends to crop up time and time again in these cases.

Many of these kids do not know the true meaning of the world respect, and actually have incredibly low levels of self-esteem. People with healthy levels of self-esteem do not feel the need to stab someone based on the fact that someone may have looked at them in the wrong way.

This seems to be the sort of trivial reason that many knife attacks are carried out. Again, I think this leads back to the upbringing of the young people involved. In an interview with the Independent in May 2008, Batmanghelidjh talked about the mindset of some of the youngsters she deals with:

If someone is rude to a psychologically "normal" person, that person might become annoyed, but they will probably dismiss it eventually and get on with their day. If one of these children experiences a perceived humiliation in public, it triggers overwhelmingly stressful memories of being abused as a child. There is no limit to how aggressive they might become. They are, unable to rationalise the situation, and are quite capable of murder.

I couldn’t agree more with such a statement, for many ‘normal’ people they will grow up earning respect. The will learn respect from having positive role models within their lives. At school, children will earn respect and gain self esteem through particpating in and achieving in academic studies or in sporting or musical activities. I believe many of these experiences are totally alien to the people who grow up to commit knife crime.

In interviews I’ve read, Batmanghelidjh has repeatedly talked of how she would like the public to view many of today’s violent youth crime as a public health issue. I understand and agree with this opinion. I think this idea needs to be promoted more in our views on street crime.

As for Rod Liddle, instead of trying to present his piece as a kind of ‘harsh home truths’ form of journalism, perhaps he could have made more of an effort to find out the views and experiences of those people directly involved in dealing with the issues related to knife crime.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Brown survives for now, but for how long?

At the beginning of this week, it seemed as if Gordon Brown had managed to hold on to his job despite a disastrous week of cabinet resignations, humiliating election defeats, failed reshuffle attempts, and backbench plots to oust him from power.

I’d originally wanted to blog about Brown’s problems last week, but so much was happening on a daily basis, I thought if I post anything it’s going to be out of date within a day, or I’m going to miss some major development. I think finally, now is an appropriate moment to look back and evaluate things.

I don’t believe Brown has any chance at all of leading Labour to victory at the next General Election, instead his leadership is likely to result in a crushing defeat similar to that suffered by the Conservatives in 1997.

I thought it was a significant moment when the Guardian newspaper came out last Wednesday calling for Brown to go. As a leader of the Labour party, you know you’re in serious trouble when even the Guardian has totally given up on you.

Since coming to power, Brown has failed to put in place a clear vision or idea of what his Premiership is all about. There seemed to be this popular opinion that under Brown, he would return Labour to its more natural political beliefs and values, and move away from New Labour.

The only problem with this, is that Brown was as much responsible for the creation of New Labour as Tony Blair, but Brown supporters have tried to bury this idea. What we now have is government in its third term of office, which is now exhausted and has run out of ideas.

Secondly there is Brown’s personality. I actually believe that Brown is overall a decent and principled politician, but there are aspects of his character and personality, which in power have proved to be a hindrance to him.

At the weekend it was revealed that Peter Mandelson had once written an email to Derek Draper in which he discussed Brown’s character flaws, labelling him ‘insecure’ ‘self conscious’ and ‘angry’.

None of this information is particularly new, these character traits have been well known for years. What I do believe is that in power, parts of his personality have meant that he’s struggled to deliver his message effectively to the public, whilst his relationship with many government ministers has been poor which has resulted in alienating colleagues and driving them towards resignation.

Finally we still have the Blair/Brown split in the party, which has existed since Labour came to power. Having pushed for Blair’s removal for so long, it’s hardly surprising that Blairite ministers are the last people supporting Brown.

Personally I think Brown should be replaced sooner rather than later, a new leader should be installed and a General Election called for sometime in the autumn. This is unlikely to happen now, and instead we’re all going to have to watch the painful sight of a tired, weak government stumble on until next year, happy to hang on to power purely for the sake of having power.

Following the resignation of James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Minister, no leading figure within the Cabinet seemed to have the guts to come forward and take the initiative. That opportunity has gone now, and we’ll have wait and see if another challenge will emerge in the coming months.

For me, although the Tories would be favourites to win any election called today, I don’t believe it’s a complete formality that they would cruise to victory. The Tories still require a significant swing in votes in order to get elected with a healthy majority.

Secondly there are still areas of Tory policy that at best could be described as patchy, and at worst non-existent. Does anyone know what the Tories foreign policy is for example?

Finally, although voters are looking more favourably at the Conservative Party, I don’t detect the same wave of enthusiasm for them in the same way that people had for New Labour under Tony Blair during the mid 1990s.

With a new leader in charge it’s quite possible that we could end up with a hung-parliament at the next election, which would be a fascinating development.

On Monday this week, Brown faced Labour backbenchers and promised that he would try to change, I’m doubtful that he can do this, and interestingly enough I read that this was an opinion that even Tony Blair held during his time as PM. All I can see is Brown and the Labour government stumbling from one problem to the next until we have a General Election.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Federer: One of the all-time greats!

Yesterday's French Open victory for Roger Federer surely confirmed him as one of the all time greats of tennis if not the greatest player to have ever played the game. After Raphael Nadal's shock defeat earlier in the tournament, I along with most other tennis fans wondered whether Federer could seize the moment and achieve the ultimate tennis prize by claiming the elusive Grand Slam.

I have to say that I was really pleased for him. No matter what sports you follow it's always a privilege to know when you're watching one the true greats of that particular sport.

Even after Nadal's defeat you couldn't say with 100% certainty that Federer would go onto to claim the French Open title. Regardless of how great a Champion he is, I was sure that there must have been doubts and anxieties in his own mind as he progressed through the rounds.

Federer even admitted this himself when he spoke about the difficulty in maintaining his focus during the final, and not getting carried away with thoughts of what winning the tournament would mean for him and his place in history.

It's easy to forget sometimes just how difficult it is to complete the Men's Grand Slam in tennis. In 25 years of following tennis Federer is only the second player I've watched to have done so. Andre Agassi did it in 1999 and Federer is now one of only six players in the history of tennis.

It really is something special when you begin to look back at some of the great players from previous eras who couldn't complete the Grand Slam. Names such as Sampras, Becker, McEnroe, Conners, and Borg. None of whom managed to win the French Open except for Borg.

Playing on clay seems to present a totally different set of challenges then grass and hard courts, but it should be remembered that Federer had played in 3 previous French Open finals so he was no 'mug' as they say on the surface, he just happened to come up against the greatest clay court player ever in Nadal!

The question now is that after completing the Grand Slam and equaling Sampras' record of 14 Slam titles, how many more can he win? I think he could potentially reach 20. He's still only 27 and I can see him playing for at least another 5 to 6 years.

Of course we still have Nadal who could quite easily do the Grand Slam as well if he wins the US Open, but there are issues concerning the state of his knees. The way he plays, he puts a huge amount of pressure on his body so we'll have to see how many years at the top he still has left.

Out of the two I think I've always been very much a Nadal fan, as I've always loved his raw power and aggression in his play more so than Federer’s cool, calm, classic style. I did however become really endeared to Federer following his defeat to Nadal at the Australian Open this year.

When giving his congratulatory speech to Nadal he broke down in tears as the pain of another defeat to Nadal began to sink in. At that moment the respect I had for him grew even greater as I thought that's what a real champion is all about. Despite the countless Grand Slams and career wins, he still had that desire to keep winning, to keep breaking records, and the pain of losing still meant so much to him.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Public Art - What is it for?

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been watching a programme on Channel Four called The Big Art Project. It’s a project that the channel has put in place supported by the Arts Council England, which gives members of the public the opportunity to select some form of public art for their local community.

Back in 2005 the channel asked the public to get involved in its Big Art Project. In response to this the channel received over 1400 applications from people who wanted some type of art to be commissioned for a space within their local area.

A selection panel went through all of the applications, travelling around the country, meeting nominators, funders, and local authorities; before eventually deciding on seven sites in the UK which would be put forward for the project. The series which ran throughout May focussed on these seven sites, and how people from each local community worked with curators and artists in deciding what type of art should be created for their particular area.

It’s been an interesting and enjoyable series to watch as it raised the question of what purpose public art actually plays for people. I thought the series highlighted that public art can be something which can help to unite and bring people together, change their feelings and perceptions of themselves and the area that they live in, and work towards regenerating and rebranding communities.

The immediate question that occurred to me, and which was raised during the series was this; How do you get people to join together to produce a form of public art when art can be such a personal, subjective, and controversial subject for so many people?

I really admired the way that many of the people featured were really passionate about what sort of art they wanted within their local area, and what that art should represent and say about the community and the people in it.

Sometimes I think modern art can be perceived by the public as being something that is remote and distant to the lives of ordinary people. You have elements of the art world who at times can patronise the public in regards to their tastes, assuming that many people don’t really know or understand what good cutting edge art is all about.

What I loved about this series was that it showed how the public and artists could work together to produce a piece of public art, whereby on the one hand you have the artists and curators who have their own expert knowledge, skills, and experience of the art world, working alongside the public who have this desire to create something which represents themselves and the area in which they live, and isn't something which is just imposed upon them by artworld outsiders.

By coincidence one programme looked at other examples of public art in cities around the world, one of which was Chicago which I happened to visit during the series.

In Chicago they have a park called Millennim Park which was opened in 2004. The park was designed to be more than just a public space, but for somewhere where sculpture, design and architecture could be promoted and celebrated. The idea of the park was first conceived in 1997 as a way to create a new parkland within the bigger Grant Park and transform what was previously an area of unsightly railroad tracks and parking lots.

The park is now one of most popular and biggest tourist attractions for visitors to the city. The most prominent features within the park incldue the Jay Pritzker Pavillion designed by Frank Gehry which holds a number of outdoor concerts and events, and then probably most peoples favourite attraction the ‘Cloud Gate’ sculpture more commonly referred to as ‘The Bean’ designed by the British artist Anish Kapoor.

The Jay Pritzker Pavillion

As a piece of public art I thought the Cloud Gate sculpture was superb, not only in its design but in the way in which it acted as a real focal point for the park and for locals and tourists to gather around.

The Cloud Gate sculpture

Having done some reading up about the sculpture, I found out that it was supposedly inspired by liquid mecury. That’s not what I immediately thought of when viewing it for the first time, but when you think about it and look at it again, it does make sense and you can see the influence. In explaining his thought process behind the sculpture Kapoor said:

“What I wanted to do in Millennium Park is make something that would engage the Chicago skyline so that one will see the clouds kind of floating in, with those very tall building reflected in the work

I certainly feel that Kapoor achieved this aim, as the sculpture gives you the opportunity of viewing the city skyline and the city itself in a different way. He’s also designed something which takes into consideration what already previously exists, in the form the city skyline. It’s as if the sculpture is an extension of the city itself and for me this is what good public art should be about, it should show some form of acknowledgment of what already exists within the public space and community in which it is set.

I’m certainly not an expert in public art, but in many ways it helped me identify more with those people featured in Channel Four's series. After I came back from Chicago, I had a greater sense of how art can play a role in peoples lives and change and enhance public areas. I think it's really important that the public do get involved in such projects, and have a say in what is displayed in public areas in the name of public art.

Click on the title heading to view Channel Four’s Big Art Project website and find out more about the seven UK sites chosen for the project and their attempts at producing different forms of public art for their communities.

Monday, 1 June 2009

What next for Susan Boyle?

After the final of Britain’s Got Talent over the weekend, it was revealed today that the runner-up and competition favourite Susan Boyle had been admitted to the Priory Clinic suffering from emotional exhaustion. According to reports she was rushed to the Priory after beginning to act strangely following her defeat to the dance group Diversity.

It’s been well documented that Boyle has a mild learning disability, and up until her appearance on the show had led quite a sheltered and protected life in Scotland. Her rise to fame has clearly been meteoric, and the stress and attention focussed on her would be difficult for most people to deal with. Taking all of this into consideration, I’m interested in looking at how the show's management intend to provide the necessary support and help that Boyle will need over the forthcoming months.

I think this poses a big challenge to the show along with other reality TV programmes in terms how they support potentially vulnerable people who have been catapulted into the public eye.

Up until last week I hadn’t watched any of BGT, but I was obviously aware of Susan Boyle. Clearly in her first appearance she was set up as the middle aged, unattractive spinister, who would surely humiliate herself on national television. Instead she shocked everyone with her singing ability and the phenomenon began.

With shows like BGT and X Factor it's not just about contestants having real talent and ability, it’s also about having a story to tell. The stories are usually about achieving a dream, overcoming various set backs in life, trying to realise your ambitions in memory of dead relative. I do get fed up sometimes with the ‘emotional blackmail’ these programmes try to inflict upon you. In Boyle’s case her back-story was brilliant for the show and slightly different from other contestants.

With Boyle’s back story I think it’s going to be interesting and quite challenging to see how the show goes forward in marketing and managing her, particularly as such shows do not always have a great track record of supporting contestants once the cameras have gone, and public interest has moved on.

A couple of months ago I read a feature in the Sunday Times magazine entitled ‘What happens to X factor runners up?’ It looked at how previous finalists on the show had fared, and to be honest it was quite a mixed bag in terms of the stories people had to tell. What comes across is how the first 6 months provide the biggest opportunity of cashing in on their new found fame, but the show’s management company also look at this period as being best opportunity of making the most profit out of the contestants.

Once key management lose their interest, many contestants are left to sink or swim by themselves in the daunting world of the entertainment industry. One previous contestant Andy Abraham (runner-up in 2005) gave his opinion on what contestants can expect following the end of the show.

“They’ll realise quickly, that the industry doesn’t want them.”

Will the industry still want Susan Boyle in 12 months time? A backlash against her already began to emerge a couple of weeks ago, but I wonder whether once people move on from the novelty of her looks and the fact that she can actually sing, will anyone be interested in her story? The way that she looks and her background in Scotland is surely the great appeal about her. If she suddenly received a glossy make-over and began to live a celebrity lifestyle wouldn’t her original appeal be lost?

I have no idea how this story is going to play out in the next few months and even years but it’s going to be fascinating to watch. I’m wondering whether the show’s producers and management have some sort of moral responsibility to ensure that Boyle is provided with the appropriate support necessary, in order for her to fulfil her ambitions and to cope with the pressures and challenges that this new found fame will bring to her. Can they really afford to dump her when she’s no longer of interest or making money in the same way that has happened with previous X Factor contestants? I’m not sure the viewing public would accept that kind of behaviour, but I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.