How we are gentrified, impoverished and silenced – if we allow it

Momentous change almost always begins with the courage of people taking back their own lives against the odds.

I have known my postman for more than 20 years. Conscientious and goodhumoured, he is the embodiment of public service at its best. The other day, I asked him, “Why are you standing in front of each door like a soldier on parade?”
 
“New system,” he replied. “I am no longer required simply to post the letters through the door. I have to approach every door in a certain way and put the letters through in a certain way.”
 
“Why?”
 
“Ask him.”
 
Across the street was a solemn young man, clipboard in hand, whose job was to stalk postmen and see they abided by the new rules, no doubt in preparation for privatisation. I told the stalker my postman was admirable. His face remained flat, except for a momentary flicker of confusion.
 
In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley describes a new class conditioned to a normality that is not normal “because they are so well adjusted to our mode of existence, because their human voice has been silenced so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does”.
 
Surveillance is normal in the Age of Regression – as Edward Snowden revealed. Ubiquitous cameras are normal. Subverted freedoms are normal. Effective public dissent is now controlled by the police, whose intimidation is normal.
 
The traducing of noble terms such as “democracy”, “reform”, “welfare” and “public service” is normal. Prime ministers lying openly about lobbyists and war aims is normal. The export of £4bn worth of British arms, including crowd control ammunition, to the medieval state of Saudi Arabia, where apostasy is a capital crime, is normal.
 
The wilful destruction of efficient, popular public institutions such as the Royal Mail is normal. A postman is no longer a postman, going about his decent work; he is an automaton to be watched, a box to be ticked. Aldous Huxley described this regression as insane and our “perfect adjustment to that abnormal society” a sign of the madness.
 
Are we “perfectly adjusted” to all of this? No, not yet. People defend hospitals from closure, UK Uncut forces bank branches to close and six brave women climb the highest building in western Europe to show the havoc caused by the oil companies in the Arctic. There, the list begins to peter out.
 
At this year’s Manchester International Festival, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s epic Masque of Anarchy – all 91 verses written in rage at the massacre of Lancashire people protesting against poverty in 1819 – was an acclaimed piece of theatre, and utterly divorced from the world outside. In January, the Greater Manchester Poverty Commission had disclosed that 600,000 Mancunians were living in “extreme poverty” and that 1.6 million, or nearly half the population of the city, were at risk of “sliding into deeper poverty”.
 
Poverty has been gentrified. The Park Hill Estate in Sheffield was once an edifice of public housing – but unloved by many for its Le Corbusier brutalism, poor maintenance and lack of facilities. With its English Heritage Grade II listing, it has been renovated and privatised. Two-thirds of the refurbished flats, reborn as modern apartments, are selling to “professionals” such as designers, architects and a social historian. At the sales office you can buy designer mugs and cushions. This façade offers not a hint that, ravaged by the government’s “austerity” cuts, Sheffield has a social housing waiting list of 60,000.
 
Park Hill is a symbol of the two-thirds society that is Britain today. The gentrified third do well, some of them extremely well, a third struggle to get by on credit and the rest slide into poverty.
 
Although the majority of the British people are working class – whether or not they see themselves that way – a gentrified minority dominates parliament, senior management and the media. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are their authentic representatives. They fix the limits of political life and debate, aided by gentrified journalism and the “identity” industry. The greatest ever transfer of wealth upwards is a given. Social justice has been replaced by meaningless “fairness”.
 
While promoting this normality, the BBC rewards a senior functionary with a pay-off of almost £1m. Although it regards itself as the media equivalent of the Church of England, the corporation now has ethics comparable with those of the “security” companies G4S and Serco, which have “overcharged” on public services by tens of millions of pounds. In other countries, this is called corruption.
 
Like the fire sale of the power utilities, water and the railways, the sale of Royal Mail is to be achieved with bribery and the collaboration of the union leadership, regardless of vocal outrage. At the start of his 1983 documentary series Questions of Leadership, Ken Loach shows trade union firebrands exhorting the masses. The same men are then shown, older and florid, adorned in the ermine of the House of Lords. In the recent Queen’s Birthday Honours, the former general secretary of the TUC Brendan Barber received his knighthood.
 
How long can the British watch the uprisings across the world and do little apart from mourn the long-dead Labour Party? The Edward Snowden revelations show the infrastructure of a police state emerging in Europe, especially Britain. Yet people are more aware than ever before; and governments fear popular resistance – which is why truth-tellers are isolated, smeared and pursued.
 
Momentous change almost always begins with the courage of people taking back their own lives against the odds. There is no other way now. Direct action. Civil disobedience. Unerring. Read Shelley: “Ye are many – they are few.” And do it.
 
John Pilger’s new film, “Utopia”, will be previewed at the National Film Theatre, London, in the autumn 
The Park Hill Flats in Sheffield in 1972. Photograph: Getty Images

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.