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Laurie Penny on why the NYPD are kidnapping books

The dismantling of Occupy Wall Street's library is a metaphor for how our culture is policed.

The dismantling of Occupy Wall Street's library is a metaphor for how our culture is policed.

It would appear that the New York Police Department has finally jumped the shark. One day after the eviction of Occupy Wall Street, the image that has shocked the world most profoundly -- and I mean image in a purely theoretical sense, since a solid wall of state heavies, now part-financed by JP Morgan Chase, stopped the press getting near enough to take photos -- was of police and sanitation workers tearing up the tent of the encampment's extensive library, and reportedly tossing the books into dumpster trucks. I mean, books.

Who destroys books? Is this a Ray Bradbury novel? Is their new tactic to ape the semiotics of fascism to such a point of cliché that comment is impossible?

I mean, books. Thousands of books. Books of politics, books of poetry, rare and precious books, books that the young, the strange and the curious had shared and treasured and pored through for guidance and diversion over the two months of the Liberty Plaza occupation . If police were looking to evict the Occupy Movement with pantomime bastardry, they could at least have done something a bit original. Like, say, pepper-spraying a pregnant woman.

Even in this digital age, where text is cheap and people's movements are orchestrated online, there is something about books. Books are important. Books make us better. Books are about learning, about sharing, about stories. There is something in the lizard-brain of human civilisation, something in the superego of the species that drove us down from the trees and into the agora that abhors the destruction of books. The gorge rises. You know it's deeply, horribly wrong ten seconds before you remember why.

When the news of the vandalism of the Occupy Wall Street library came through, Twitter was alight with outrage. Even the most dribblingly obnoxious right-wing troll finds it hard to argue when people tell him trashing books is bad karma. Such was the uproar that the Mayor's office tweeted a photo of what appeared to be part of the OWS library, stacked in a sanitation department garage, ready for protesters to pick up on Wednesday, if they were polite about it.

The image looks like nothing other than a hostage photo, which is exactly what it is: here is your library, more or less intact. We will give it back if you hand over your collective future without argument. Just leave it in the trashcan on the corner of Wall Street.

It occurs to me that the impounding of books is a subtler and more appropriate metaphor for how culture is policed in modern times than the burning or destruction of books. Across the developed world, as austerity programmes kick in to finance the cataclysmic self-indulgence of the super-rich, it is libraries, schools and universities that are being priced out of the reach of ordinary people.

Higher education fees are soaring, public funding of universities and schools is being gutted, and the private sector is being invited in to place more branded locks on the doors of our institutions of learning. In Britain, even the libraries are being closed down. They're not burning books; not precisely. They're just tossing them where no one without means can get to them. They are kidnapping books.

When the Occupy Wall Street librarians went to pick up their books, as promised, they found that several thousand appeared to be missing, and many reportedly had been destroyed, along with personal belongings and the library's reference section. Appeals went out online to re-stock the library. The NYPD, however, have been hovering with menace around the fledgling collection in Zucotti Park, where anything that looks even vaguely like an occupation is now forbidden by order of the city. They have already confiscated a second load of books, and a third is being accumulated

As it happens, however, I visited the Occupy Wall Street Library about six hours before it was dismantled, and I talked to the librarians, and I borrowed a book. In the process, I inadvertently saved the volume from Brookfield's dumpster trucks. The book is Martin Luther King's Where Do We Go From Here?. In it, the great civil rights leader writes that:

One day the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.

I shall be returning the book to the Occupy Wall Street Library with the suspicion that the social imagery of this people's movement has very nearly jumped the shark.

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

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.