The first Taboo: ICA's A Journey Through London Subculture

While the show tails off for a bit after Britart, as it goes stratospherically Saatchi, it’s clear the aftermath has left a new generation of artists and designers plenty of room for self-expression despite a relentless tide of commercialisation.

It’s been 12 years since Michael Landy destroyed all his possessions, including many YBA works of art, in the old C&A store on Oxford Street. Now, at another disused venue down the road, you can see more clearly what Landy –who also features here – was getting at. While what came before and after sparks with creativity and subversion, the late 1990s were culturally burned out, if the ICA’s new show is anything to go by. I should know: 1997-2000 were the exact years I was a student in London. For a while, we were all dressed up with very few alternative places to go.
On the first floor of the former Selfridges Hotel, which now aptly resembles a warehouse space, this sprawling survey of the city’s subculture is made up of over 50 wooden vitrines, plus installation and video work. Like a 3D flow chart or family tree, it starts with post-punk in the early 1980s and meanders towards the present, connecting many events and tribes along the way. It covers art, design, fashion, music and nightlife, with each cabinet micro-curated by a different figure or group. Rather than conventional artwork, these contain found objects, club memorabilia, photos – like little visual biographies.
The overall curation is by Gregor Muir, director of the ICA, assisted by others including the DJ and scene legend Princess Julia. There is the sense that this is one particular journey – a canonical version of an underground, many of whose players have become “national treasures”. So, inevitably, there are weaker links in the chain and the occasional question over criteria (why include Zaha Hadid, for example, but not Donald Urquhart?) but the show doesn’t seek to be all-inclusive.
Perhaps because I wasn’t there, it’s the early material that excites me most: the 1980s eruption of flamboyant creatives that takes in Leigh Bowery, Derek Jarman, John Maybury, Boy George, Bodymap, Kinky Gerlinky and others. The first cabinet, which shows Nicola Tyson’s 1983 photos of “mudlarking” on the Thames riverbank, sets the tone. With its broken china and clay pipes, it epitomises a “hard times” DIY aesthetic and is both art installation and something more traditional – a showcase, a cabinet of curiosities, a shrine.
From little acorns: a flow chart of the London Underground, from Leigh Bowery to Vogue Fabrics.
Image courtesy of the ICA
Three vitrines by the collective House of Beauty and Culture are stuffed with badges, champagne corks, tribal art and bones, like something from a voodoo tomb. The sense of memorial continues in a multicoloured, star-spangled celebration of the poetry-laden paintings of David Robilliard, who died of Aids in 1988, and in the DJ Jeffrey Hinton’s wig-stuffed case, with its acetate cut-outs of clubbers both living and lost.
Videos include those of Bodymap’s catwalk shows: joyous performance pieces choreographed by Michael Clark. Another film shows a costumed Bowery pounding a piano in an East End boozer while Clark and co prance amid beer-spitting skinheads. More affecting is Paul Oremland’s Andy the Furniture Maker, following a young carpenter and rent boy who was championed by Jarman, with its images of the Earls Court gay nightlife and scavenging in London wastelands.
As shown in Muir’s YBA display, with its invitation to the epochal “Freeze” show and photos of early Chapman sculptures, the explosion of the grass-roots art scene around Hoxton Square in the early 1990s was a vital time for British art. Alexander McQueen also had his studio there. Seeing the flyer for the square’s “Fete Worse Than Death” in 1994 makes me wistful. Even White Cube has been and gone from the square since then.
But the kids have Dalston now. While the show tails off for a bit after Britart, as it goes stratospherically Saatchi, it’s clear the aftermath has left a new generation of artists and designers plenty of room for self-expression despite a relentless tide of commercialisation. Much of the later work recaptures that early irreverence, such as the alt-drag star Jonny Woo’s display for his Radio Egypt night, with its glittery butt plug and tail; or White Cubicle, the George and Dragon pub’s gallery in its ladies’ loo, which turns its vitrine here into a latrine. What this show represents for a fresh crop of creatives is a kind of wonderfully deranged Who Do You Think You Are?.
Notes from the Eighties underground. Image: Peter Lindberg

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times