I’m starting my career as a photographer, film-maker and artist over. There have been many false starts but have always come back to the same themes. Cut the bullshit. Know your limitations and work within them. Work bloody hard.
Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency and their Big Brother scheme to eavesdrop on all of us 24/7 365 surprised me. If surveillance really is being installed on the scale Snowden suggests it begs the question: where are we going and who is leading the way? The average conspiracy theorist will point towards the 150 members of the elite Bilderberg Group, a syndicate of shape-changing alien lizards with an evil plan to take over the world. The Bilderberg Group recently met in Watford, which, no offence to Watford did seem like a PR blunder, in terms of image. It’s true though: we do seem to be ruled by an elite few more concerned with living well than solving any of the world’s more serious problems like poverty or climate change.
So, Edward Snowden is my new hero. He chose to enter a world of pain that will be administered by the 1917 Espionage Act. Because Snowden has already admitted to leaking classified information the public interest can not be used as mitigation. They could probably send him to the chair if they wanted to. Yet he fell on his sword for something he believed to be more important: the certainty that his story will make him very wealthy if he avoids execution. Alternatively, maybe he just wanted to tell the truth. It’s hard to imagine that wanting to feel important wasn’t a factor, but we all want that don’t we?
The point is he crossed the line and sacrificed everything to stop being part of the problem in order to be part of the solution. How many people do that? Maybe he’s completely nuts. It wouldn’t matter to me if he was to be honest. It’s enough to know that someone out there wants to tell the truth.
Truth is literally what is true. We should all take interest in the truth for without it we are left with falsehood: untrue things. As an artist, my worry is that if our cultural life is ‘untrue’ our ability to tell right from wrong is weakened. We become exponentially more susceptible to various forms of mind control i.e. marketing, PR, etc. Therefore, the artist absolutely must know what he or she is doing. They must know what important truth they want to put out there, even if that is how they feel about the breeze in the leaves. If they cannot get their message out in a format the masses can understand only marketing and PR will save them, reducing their work to a commodity like any other. Picasso is thought to have defined Art as the Lie that points to the Truth. Perhaps that’s all we can hope for but it still beats cynical deception.
Is Edward Snowden an artist? Well, of course he isn’t. But he may become something just as powerful: that rare individual or event capable of breaking the paradigm and forcing the conventional wisdom to be reassessed and calibrated. These tiny acts of bravery are all that stands between us and the shape-changing lizards and I thank Edward for that if nothing else.
My quest for truth starts with a review of Paul Collier’s “The Bottom Billion”. This incredible book focuses on those at those people living on living on less than a dollar a day. There are seven billion people living in the world. It might appear perverse, but in order to reassess what I sort of work I want to produce, it is vital for me to understand how first world countries manage to ignore the fact that one in seven people are dying from the effects of poverty.
The first world is obsessed with pleasure seeking. The Lamborghini is a potent symbol of that obsession and I am susceptible to its powerful allure. In fact I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about and coveting certain cars and the status ownership affords. After seeing a Chrysler 300C storming across a rough desert road while working in Abu Dhabi a couple of years ago I’ve developed a ludicrous obsession with the lumpy beast. There’s a 3.0 litre example for sale at £8k just five miles from where I’m sitting, 0-60mph in 7.6 seconds. Pathetic isn’t it? That’s the powerful gravitational pull of unimportant stuff for you.
My interest in the bottom billion comes from working in Africa and subsequently reading Martin Meredith’s “State of Africa” and John Reader’s “Africa: A Biography of the Continent”. Those guys love to search for the lies Picasso was talking about as does Paul Collier.
Paul’s book starts with a bit about how the bottom billion are falling inexorably farther away from us. He also mentions that only about a billion of us are living well. Five billion are on the up.
The countries at the bottom are effectively living in the 14thC: “civil war, plague, ignorance”.
What I love about Paul Collier is his quest for answers as opposed to “simple moralizing”. The political right deny poverty traps exist whilst the lefties blame global capitalism (I’ve always agreed).
Then there is some crazy and horrible stiff about how malaria keeps countries poor because the potential market for a cure won’t pay for its development. Sick stuff. Paul identifies his own top four traps as being: conflict, natural resources, landlocked with bad neighbours and bad governance in a small country. The trouble is that even if countries escape the traps the global market is far more hostile to new entrants, e.g. Mauritius vs Madagascar.
One thing Paul doesn’t mention early on is sustainable growth. Maybe it comes later but the idea we can have continue to have a fossil fuel driven economy just seems both nutty and dreadfully self-destructive to me. Then again, 70% of the bottom-billion live in Africa and frankly anything is better than dying of poverty including global warming. Paul then uses the word “coterminous” referring to Africa and the third world. They are not apparently, e.g. South Africa. The other desperate places are Haiti, Bolivia, Laos, Camobodia, Yemen, Burma and North Korea. Camobodia seemed alright to me but then I didn’t see the farmers when the paddies flooded and harvest was wrecked. My other friend called Paul told me it can be grim beyond belief.
In all Paul identifies 58 countries that constitute the bottom-billion. I wouldn’t be able to name that many. It seems incredible but then ignorance always is!
Stigmatizing a country becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is a universal truth for all stigmas surely?
The bottom billion average life expectancy is fifty years whereas in other developing countries it is sixty-seven years. Who knew? 14% of children die before their fifth birthday in the bottom billion compared to 4% in other developing countries. 36% of kids have long-term malnutrition. Shocking. Or is it? Why don’t we all know this stuff? Is that more shocking? Giving to charity obviates the need to care doesn’t it?
That’s the end of my blog for today. I’ll continue to chat through this book and at the end I’ll suggest a project that I’ll work towards on the basis of what I’ll have learnt. I’m wondering if I would get an Arts Council grant to examine the results if any of Tony Blair’s commission on development in Africa.
NB: Lindsay Mills, Ed Snowden’s gorgeous ex-girlfriend, is shown half-naked and heartbroken in Hawaii in today’s Sun newspaper. Ed, where did it all go wrong?