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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.

Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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