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Occupy the media: Laurie Penny on the freedom of press

Dissatisfaction with mainstream journalism is leading to a profound change in the way that protest is reported.

Of all the many outrages, anticipated and unanticipated, that I have seen perpetrated by American police against peaceful protesters and members of the public this week, perhaps the most chilling has been their harassment of journalists on the job.

As law enforcement cracked down on Occupy encampments around the country, a pattern began to emerge whereby officers moved in the small hours of the morning, held members of the press in police "pens" away from the evictions, and arrested them if they stepped out of line.

Supporters of the movement were quick to cry "censorship", and to point to a possible co-ordinated media blackout when the Oakland Mayor, Jean Quan, let slip in an interview that she had discussed how to deal with the protests on a conference call with other city leaders. The issue at stake here, however, is not merely the freedom of the press, but the role of the media in a time of profound cultural and political change.

In all, 26 journalists have been arrested while covering the Occupy movement to date. As New York State senator Eric Adams and attorney Norman Siegel put it in a strongly-worded letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Commissioner Ray Kelly this week:

Whenever a government interferes with the role of the press in reporting the news, questions pertaining to the appropriateness and legality of these actions arise and evoke extreme concern.

Holding the police to account has always been one of the toughest and most crucial roles of the fourth estate, and in New York, the path to honest reporting is particularly thorny, as the only press passes recognised by the New York Police Department are issued by the department itself to individual journalists, who are required to submit their work and attend police interviews in advance.

In Britain, press unions and employers provide accreditation -- but one of the first things I was taught in journalism school was to "be very, very careful what you say about the police. They can and will sue you, and they rarely lose a case."

Across the west, journalists have learned deference to police forces just as they have learned deference to the political establishment -- but over the past year, the objectives of the police and the press have been, for once, decidedly at odds.

Not so long ago, it was easy to tell at any given protest who were the demonstrators and who were the journalists. The latter stood well apart from any action taking place, smartly dressed and coiffed, and they would be the ones with the cameras and recording gear. The people made a noise and the press wrote it up -- or not, deciding between themselves and their editors what did and did not get to be reported as fact.

Now, journalists are just as likely to be young people in casual clothes, running in and out of the crowd, tweeting and blogging from smartphones and broadcasting from handheld recording devices. They look, in other words, just like the protesters.

Many of the members of the press arrested over the past month in America match this description, and a significant number of those harassed are members of small independent outlets, or freelance reporters broadcasting directly to their online followers.

The changing role of the press in an age of digital empowerment and civil unrest has been drawn in bold colours over the course of the Occupy movement around the world.

Not only is much of the best, fastest and most accurate copy and footage being produced by journalists who are not accredited -- and who therefore have to fear for their safety on demonstrations just as much as the protesters who have been pepper sprayed and beaten bloody this week. Many of them are not even journalists in the traditional sense. Increasing numbers are bystanders, interested amateurs, or members of the occupations themselves, shooting footage on phones and pocket cameras, writing up eyewitness reports on Twitter and Facebook.

There's another problem for the authorities: not only do more of the journalists look like protesters, more of the protesters behave like journalists.

You can bar every reporter from the scene of a camp eviction, you can pen them way away from the action and rip off their credentials when they complain, you can arrest every single person with a press pass, and there will still be recording, publishing and broadcast technology beyond any 1990s news editor's most nicotine-addled fantasies right there in the sterile zone.

The most striking thing about what look increasingly like co-ordinated media blackouts around the crackdown on Occupy protests -- staging evictions in the small hours of the morning, closing down transport routes and banning and arresting journalists -- is how roundly they have failed.

We still had images of an elderly woman in Seattle with her face red and streaming after being pepper sprayed by police; we still had video records of students screaming as UC Davis campus police officers tortured them with chemical spray during a peaceful sit-down protest.

The fact that law enforcement agencies were so obviously reluctant for such footage to be collected, even before they moved in, makes the crackdown on Occupy movements look really rather suspicious -- but it also shows that police no longer feel they can rely on a tame press to report their version of events.

The kids don't have to wait any more for traditional news reporters to spin their message for them. A hostile tension has long been maintained between activists and members of what Americans call the "mainstream media" and the British term the "corporate press", who are seen to be fostering stubborn editorial bias under a veneer of "objectivity".

Natasha Lennard, a former freelancer for the New York Times who was arrested during the Brooklyn Bridge kettle on 1 October, wrote in an article for Salon that:

If the mainstream media prides itself on reporting the facts, I have found too many problems with what does or does not get to be a fact -- or what rises to the level of a fact they believe to be worth reporting -- to be part of such a machine ... I want to take responsibility for my voice and the facts that I choose and relay. I want them to instigate change.

More and more journalists, reporters and citizens sane enough not to write for a living are finding themselves facing a choice: do we accept and perpetuate the line handed down to us, or do we take responsibility for our own voice?

Distrust of the police, dissatisfaction with mainstream media bias and dissidents' hunger to control their own messaging is leading to a profound change in the way that protest is covered and reported.

Members of the public can record and upload their own footage without waiting for it to be collected by the mainstream press, and the network moves fast, leaving traditional media outlets rushing to keep up with the story.

The first videos of police violence against demonstrators at Occupy Wall Street in late September were recorded by a bystander and uploaded to YouTube. They went viral, changing the narrative around the fledgling occupation and forcing the mainstream media to respond to the public outcry.

Control of the agenda is no longer in the hands of the police or of the corporate press, and digitally enabled young people are forcing honest, capable journalists to up their game.

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.