The attacks in Norway weren't an attack on us all

We should not turn Norway's shattered buildings and shrouded bodies into a party political broadcast

Horror, yes. Shock, yes. But also relief. Relief that we had no need for caveats. Calls for historic perspective or dialogue, or remembrance of the fallen innocents on the other side. The massacre in Norway could be condemned unequivocally.

Anders Behring Breivik is the right's Angel of Death. His act of barbarity perpetrated with brutal political clarity. A Labour prime minister, Labour government and a Labour youth camp his targets.

But as the slaughter was unfolding we still hadn't encountered that cold, blue eyed stare. Initial reports indicated an attack in response to Norway's interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Labour MP Tom Harris, responding, predicted on Twitter that "we'll still have the apologists for terrorism saying it was caused by "foreign policy" or by "disrespect to the Prophet."

Harris was wrong about the terrorists' identity and motives. But the apologists rushed forward nontheless. "You have a better chance of a wet floor killing you than an Islamist", tweeted Dr Eoin Clarke, founder of GEER, the new Gender, Environment, Equality and Race think-tank. "Hamas have a mandate better than the Tories", was a follow up intervention. That's the same Hamas that launched a rocket attack on Israeli schoolchildren in April. I tried to find Dr Clarke's condemnation of that attack, but couldn't.

On Utoya people were scrambling for their lives. Across the UK elements of the left were scrambling for their Twitter feeds. "Solidarity", was a favoured response to cold blooded murder. In reply to the initial bombing, author Owen Jones took the opportunity to point out that "working class Norwegians have just been slaughtered". Of the dead and dying of the Norwegian middle and upper classes there was no word. The BBC was condemned for describing Utoya island as a "summer camp". The attack was a "political crime". Not to report it as such was to "diminish" the young Labour members targeted.

By morning, the death toll had risen to 90. And empathy turned to appropriation. We had witnessed a "political act". It would be "madness not to draw political conclusions considering politics". Political points "should be made". The victims had been "killed for their politics by a political activist". It was important to defend "people's right to use the language of solidarity when a right-wing extremist targeted young socialists".

I was in the hall at Labour conference when the relative of one of the victims of the Dunblane massacre spoke of her campaign to introduce a total ban on handguns. It was silent, save for the sound of grown men and women crying. There was no political connection. Or motive to the crime. We cried anyway.

That night I was telephoned by a friend of mine who has no interest in politics. That moment had been shown on the television news. "I didn't think your lot were like that", he said.

He didn't mean he thought we were heartless monsters. Just that we had too often let our politics obscure our humanity.

It's important to put some of the responses to the Norwegian attacks in perspective. Many of those responding on Twitter are themselves still young. And you cannot fully appreciate the horror of a child's murder until you have children of your own.

But there is something wrong when someone's initial reaction to the scenes from Oslo is to reach for an expression of political solidarity, rather than one of basic sympathy. And we have been here before. The shooter of Democratic Senator Gabrielle Giffords and nineteen bystanders hadn't even been charged before some on the left were rushing to place the blame squarely at the door of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.

This isn't just a matter of poor taste. There are massive issues raised by the events in Norway. If we feel a need to tackle the radicalization of Muslim youth then we clearly have to examine the influences that set Oslo's Timothy McVeigh on his own murderous rampage. If we wish to focus on the threats posed by domestic terrorism then we clearly have to ensure our efforts and resources are focused across all our communities. And we need to examine which "preachers of hate" had Anders Behring Breivik's ear.

But none of this will be achieved by turning Norway's shattered buildings and shrouded bodies into a party political broadcast. The dignity of Jens Stoltenberg and his pledge to fight back with "more democracy and more humanity" stands on its own. It doesn't require cheap comparisons with David Cameron or George W Bush.

Nor will it be addressed by retreating into moral relativism. Far right terrorists; barbarians. Palestinian terrorists; freedom fighters. Irish Republican and Loyalist terrorists; folk heroes. Al-Qaeda terrorists; by-products of US neo-conservatism.

The attacks in Norway weren't an attack on us all. They were an attack on 80 children who went on a camping trip and never came home. Let us mourn for them. But please, let's not grasp for the tragedy and the horror, and try to claim it as our own.

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.