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Laurie Penny on protesting the Turner Prize: is this the death of irony?

At a swish awards ceremony, the young artists of the future assembled to call out the hypocrisy of the rich.

In the lowlit central hall of the Tate, the great and good have gathered for Britain's most prestigious art award; dealers and society belles are sipping champagne at black marble tables strewn with lilies, dressed in exquisite suits and designer dresses slashed to the thigh. The Turner Prize is an international by-word for gently baffling art, and its promotion of bland iconoclasts like Tracey Emin helped consolidate the self-reflexive iconography of the Blair era. This, believe it or not, was what radicalism in this country used to look like -- but over the tinkle of piped-in piano music and wry discussion of ironic sculpture, a real cry of protest has gone up. Cordoned off behind two ranks of makeshift barriers, the young artists of the future have assembled to call out the hypocrisy of the rich.

Two hundred students from Goldsmiths, the Slade, St Martin's, Camberwell and other world-famous art and fashion colleges are intoning their demands in solemn unison, their voices amplified by the heavenly acoustics of the stone hallway into which they have been shepherded by the police. They mobilised via Facebook and Twitter to disrupt the Turner award ceremony in protest against upcoming government cuts to arts and humanities funding, higher education and public sector jobs. "We are not just here to fight fees!" they yell. "We are here to fight philistinism!"

The sound of their chanting rises psalmlike behind the police line, which has been tastefully boarded off by resourceful staff members. I'm not actually supposed to be here. When I heard that friends and comrades from occupations across the city were planning to disrupt the Turner Prize, I snuck in past the heavy security using the time-honoured journalist method of walking purposefully and authoritatively in the direction of somewhere you're definitely not supposed to be. I dash surreptitiously through the party and then dodge around the modesty screens separating it from the party, too fast for the security guards to grab me.

Suddenly, we're through the looking glass. On one side of this screen, sullen middle-aged people have been made rich beyond their wildest dreams by exploiting popular nihilism; on the other, the age of apathy has ended as the trendy wing of Britain's disenfranchised youth reminds the wealthy that there's more to radicalism than pickling half a sheep in some preserving fluid. They are crammed into an alcove conducting what one dreamy-eyed young hipster solemnly informs me is a "noise protest", shouting down Miuccia Prada as she awards the prize to a more gentle and considered sound installation.

"For too long, we were taught that our art could only reference itself endlessly, like a snake eating its own tail. But this is real," says Margarita, 22, a media student at the Slade school of art. "Ironic art is dead now -- it's undead," she says. "That's because we finally have hope. We have something real, something to believe in again."

"As an artist, this protest is a huge relief," says Simon, another Slade occupier. "That's not just because we have to stop the cuts to arts and the public sector, it's a relief because it's serious -- the issues are deeply serious."

Simon and Margarita belong to the generation that grew up in the apathetic nineties, when passion and idealism were unmodish and an ironic shrug the only authentic response to the rampant banality of consumer culture. But something has changed. For weeks now, the young British artists of the future have been occupying their departments in solidarity with the student riots taking place up and down the country, barricading the doors and abandoning their individual projects to work collectively on more practical art: banner-making and impromptu installations in vinyl and ink on the theme of capital and complicity. Meanwhile, delegates at the Turner Prize party munch on very expensive miniature snacks, cannibalising greasy crumbs of the caustic pre-crash self-reflexion industry.

Behind the screen, the children's crusade is screaming to be allowed some semblance of a secure future. On the other side of the looking glass, as the well-heeled cultural elite of the Blair era drift in lazy pirouettes of ironic self-regard, the prize-winner Susan Philipsz takes a moment in her acceptance speech to defend those pesky kids that everyone had been trying so hard to ignore. 'Education is a right, not a privilege," she says, "So I support what the students are doing, I support the arts against cuts campaign." I peek behind the police line just in time to watch the ironic smiles freeze into a group rictus of dismay.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

All photos: BBC
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“You’re a big corporate man” The Apprentice 2015 blog: series 11, episode 8

The candidates upset some children.

WARNING: This blog is for people watching The Apprentice. Contains spoilers!

Read up on episode 7 here.

“I don’t have children and I don’t like them,” warns Selina.

An apt starting pistol for the candidates – usually so shielded from the spontaneity, joy and hope of youth by their childproof polyester uniforms – to organise children’s parties. Apparently that’s a thing now. Getting strangers in suits to organise your child’s birthday party. Outsourcing love. G4S Laser Quest. Abellio go-carting. Serco wendy houses.

Gary the supermarket stooge is project manager of team Versatile again, and Selina the child hater takes charge of team Connexus. They are each made to speak to an unhappy-looking child about the compromised fun they will be able to supply for an extortionate fee on their special days.

“So are you into like hair products and make-up?” Selina spouts at her client, who isn’t.

“Yeah, fantastic,” is Gary’s rather enthusiastic response to the mother of his client’s warning that she has a severe nut allergy.

Little Jamal is taken with his friends on an outdoor activity day by Gary’s team. This consists of wearing harnesses, standing in a line, and listening to a perpetual health and safety drill from fun young David. “Slow down, please, don’t move anywhere,” he cries, like a sad elf attempting to direct a fire drill. “Some people do call me Gary the Giraffe,” adds Gary, in a gloomy tone of voice that suggests the next half of his sentence will be, “because my tongue is black with decay”.

Selina’s team has more trouble organising Nicole’s party because they forgot to ask for her contact details. “Were we supposed to get her number or something?” asks Selina.

“Do you have the Yellow Pages?” replies Vana. Which is The Apprentice answer for everything. Smartphones are only to be used to put on loudspeaker and shout down in a frenzy.

Eventually, they get in touch, and take Nicole and pals to a sports centre in east London. I know! Sporty! And female! Bloody hell, someone organise a quaint afternoon tea for her and shower her with glitter to make her normal. Quick! Selina actually does this, cutting to a clip of Vana and Richard resentfully erecting macaroons. Selina also insists on glitter to decorate party bags full of the most gendered, pointless tat seed capital can buy.

“You’re breaking my heart,” whines Richard the Austerity Chancellor when he’s told each party bag will cost £10. “What are we putting in there – diamond rings?” Just a warning to all you ladies out there – if Richard proposes, don’t say yes.

They bundle Nicole and friends into a pink bus, for the section of her party themed around the Labour party’s failed general election campaign, and Brett valiantly screeches Hit Me Baby One More Time down the microphone to keep them entertained.

Meanwhile on the other team, Gary is quietly demonstrating glowsticks to some bored 11-year-old boys. “David, we need to get the atmosphere going,” he warns. “Ermmmmm,” says David, before misquoting the Hokey Cokey out of sheer stress.

Charleine is organising a birthday cake for Jamal. “May contain nuts,” she smiles, proudly. “Well done, Charleine, good job,” says Joseph. Not even sarcastically.

Jamal’s mother is isolated from the party and sits on a faraway bench, observing her beloved son’s birthday celebrations from a safe distance, while the team attempts to work out if there are nuts in the birthday cake.

Richard has his own culinary woes at Nicole’s party, managing both to burn and undercook burgers for the stingy barbecue he’s insisted on overriding the afternoon tea. Vana runs around helping him and picking up the pieces like a junior chef with an incompetent Gordon Ramsay. “Vana is his slave,” comments Claude, who clearly remains unsure of how to insult the candidates and must draw on his dangerously rose-tinted view of the history of oppression.

Versatile – the team that laid on some glowstick banter and a melted inky mess of iron-on photo transfers on t-shirts for Jamal and his bored friends – unsurprisingly loses. This leads to some vintage Apprentice-isms in The Bridge café, His Lordship's official caterer to losing candidates. “I don’t want to dance around a bush,” says one. “A lot of people are going to point the finger at myself,” says another’s self.

In an UNPRECEDENTED move, Lord Sugar decides to keep all four losing team members in the boardroom. He runs through how rubbish they all are. “Joseph, I do believe there has been some responsibility for you on this task.” And “David, I do believe that today you’ve got a lot to answer to.”

Lord Sugar, I do believe you’re dancing around a bush here. Who’s for the chop? It’s wee David, of course, the only nice one left.

But this doesn’t stop Sugar voicing his concern about the project manager. “I’m worried about you, Gary,” he says. “You’re a big corporate man.” Because if there’s any demographic in society for whom we should be worried, it’s them.

Candidates to watch:


Hanging on in there by his whiskers.


Far less verbose when he’s doing enforced karaoke.


She’ll ruin your party.

I'll be blogging The Apprentice each week. Click here for the previous episode blog. The Apprentice airs weekly at 9pm, Wednesday night on BBC One.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.