For most people, EDL is the acronym of the English Defense League, a far-right group that regularly and vehemently protests in the street against what it considers to be a spread of Islamism and Sharia in the United Kingdom. Over the past two years however, a number of UK residents have started to associate EDL with another movement: the English Disco Lovers. The story started as a joke when art student Chris Alton decided to reclaim the acronym and google bomb EDL so that English Disco Lovers would appear on top of the results for the search 'EDL' and the three letters would, over time, be associated with tolerance, multiculturalism and equality. Another key strategy of English Disco Lovers consists in participating to counter-English Defence League demonstrations across the UK, wearing garish shirts, dancing to disco music and singing "Go! Walk out the door! Turn around now 'cause you're not welcome anymore!" to the members of the islamophobic group.
As the popularity of its online and offline presence demonstrates, English Disco Lovers has grown into a socially-engaged project that is far more powerful than what its initiators had initially envisioned. I talked online with Chris Alton about the EDL adventures, the wrath of the original EDL, the positive changes a humorous campaign can yield and how English Disco Lovers fits into the history of disco music.
Hi Chris! Who's Alex Jones? i keep finding his name rather than yours in all EDL interviews. he seems to have had a Quaker upbringing as well.
Alex Jones is my pseudonym. At first it was a safety precaution, as the English Disco Lovers email account had been receiving death threats from EDLers who were none to pleased about my cheeky acronym-pinching antics. I didn't fancy a bunch of heavies turning up on my doorstep, so I did the sensible thing and used a fake name. If you look at my TEDxYouth@Hackney talk I'm even wearing a mirrorball mask. The name and mask ultimately became a license to 'perform' Alex Jones. I see him as an idealised aspect of myself, given form and amplification.
When i first read about your EDL project, i assumed it was just great fun and pleasant anti-racism but then i read in an interview that some of you actually attempt to discuss with members of the English Defense League? Do you manage to achieve something by engaging in conversations with them? Because they look pretty scary and some might be very annoyed by your own take on the acronym...
Yeah, through running the project that dialogue opened up. I'd get the odd message from an English Defence League member, one said, "hate the idea, but love the badge". He was referring to our logo, so I offered to send him a badge with it on. Those messages would become inroads, which allowed me to speak to them on a one-to-one basis about why I was doing what I was doing and why they were doing what they were doing. On mass they're a pretty scary bunch, but over social media there's (unsurprisingly) less to fear. In some cases the discussions led nowhere, but in others I found that the English Defence League members opened up to the possibility that their EDL could be causing an increase in the radicalisation of young Muslims, a few even left the organisation (or so they told me).
You wrote me that one of your sources of inspiration was your Quaker upbringing. What has the Quaker education taught you that helped you set up and run the EDL?
Since a young age I've been around people who are more actively engaged in changing the world than most. Quakerism exposed me to countless individuals and groups campaigning in various ways for numerous causes. At the age of 14 I met a woman who'd canoed out to the Trident Submarines in Faslane, planted potatoes onboard, then tried to make her getaway before being surrounded by vessels far superior to her tiny canoe. She was in her 60s at the time and at 17, I was present at the British Yearly Meeting where Quakers made the decision to allow same sex marriages and to lobby the government to legalise them.
Those are two examples among many, both of which exemplify the commitment of Quakers to peace, equality, simplicity and truth (the Quaker testimonies), despite the approaches being so different.
I think it's clear that some of the testimonies mentioned above manifest themselves in English Disco Lovers. It's a peaceful alternative to the English Defence League, which supports equality and togetherness over the divisions the other EDL capitalise upon and exacerbate.
You've been working on EDL for two years now. What have been the most surprising moments in the life of EDL?
As you can imagine there have been many! Getting it off the ground was certainly a surprise. When I made the Facebook page I never imagined the idea would move beyond my friendship group. However, after less than 6 months of using social media to generate interest in the idea, I got an email from Dorian Lynskey, a writer at The Guardian. He asked me a few questions via email and wrote a piece on English Disco Lovers, which was featured in The Guardian's G2 in February 2013.
Then in April 2013 I went down to Brighton for a counter-English Defence League demo. I was surprised to find a mass English Disco Lovers presence opposing the EDL march, bedecked in disco gear (I'm talking wigs, sequinned shirts, flares, the lot) and singing along to disco classics like Chic's "I Want Your Love". When they launched into Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" and told the English Defence League to, "Go! Walk out the door! Turn around now 'cause you're not welcome anymore!" the surrounding protesters joined in and danced along. I surprised that people felt so strongly about an idea that I'd brought into the world, and that they were willing to spend their afternoons embodying it!
Why did you chose disco rather than any other type of music?
The choice of disco is fundamental to the ideology of English Disco Lovers, not only because of the genre's positive sound, but due to the history of disco. In the 1970s discotheques were havens for minorities, they brought together people of every colour and sexuality to listen to music that celebrated unity and self-expression. In 1979 there was an anti-disco rally called Disco Demolition Night, which involved the destruction of disco records. It has been said that the event had racist and homophobic undertones and that it played a significant role in the decline of disco's popularity.
It's also significant that, the word discotheque comes from Nazi occupied France, where jazz music was banned, as it was seen as a potential music of revolution. As live performances were deemed to be too obvious, citizens began to opt for underground bars where they could listen to recordings. These places became known as record libraries, which translates into French as 'discotheque'.
I wanted to redeploy this history in opposition to contemporary intolerance and the recent rise of right-wing extremism in the UK. The English Disco Lovers' motto is "Unus Mundas, Una Gens, Unus Disco", so it's also worth mentioning that, in Latin, disco could be understood to mean 'I learn', 'I learn to know', 'I become acquainted with'.
Apart from google bombing the far-right group, what do you hope to achieve with EDL?
Well, English Disco Lovers has already achieved many things beyond google bombing the English Defence League. For example we've been holding disco nights for about a year and a half, where the profits are donated to charities that tackle issues such as racism, HIV and hate-crime. We've held nights in London, Brighton, Bristol and Manchester, so I hope that these nights continue to grow in popularity and that we can continue spreading the "Don't Hate! Gyrate!" message.
What is next for EDL? any upcoming performance or meeting?
Well I'm heading down to Brighton in early January to meet with two stalwart English Disco Lovers about this very question, what next? I intend to step away from the project for a while and focus on new work, so the future of English Disco Lovers is a little uncertain at the moment. We have a few DJ sets booked in the coming months, which will be posted up on our website and social media, but in terms of big plans and aims, we'll all have to wait and see.
English Disco Lovers is part of an exhibition at the Collyer Bristow Gallery in London. The show remains open until Jan 28th, 2014.
Another hasty post as i'm trying to emerge from an intense marathon of moving house, giving talks, crying over irregular German verbs and generally wasting far too much time reading crime books. So here! A quick list of exhibitions i've seen recently but hadn't found time to write about:
My number one recommendation would be to go and check out the black inflatable castle at the Copperfield gallery. Tom Dale's 'Department of the Interior' is a 6.5m high black castle that echoes the towers and crenellations of Parliament with an absurdity that mocks its claim for authority.
The show is up and bouncy until 14 November.
Last year, Davide Monteleone went on a search for the current Chechen identity. Above all he wanted to know which of them, Chechnya or Russia, had emerged victorious from the conflict. The answer is undeniably Russia. But if you look at it from a different angle, the answer is perhaps not so clear-cut.
Arkady Bronnikov collected photographs of Russian prisoners tattoos between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s. A senior expert in criminalistics at the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs for over thirty years, part of Bronnikov's duties involved visiting correctional institutions of the Ural and Siberia regions. It was here that he interviewed, gathered information and photographed of convicts and their tattoos, building one of the most comprehensive archives of this phenomenon.
FUEL present: Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files is on at Grimaldi Gavin until 21 November.
Make Life Worth Living at the Science Museum Media Space presents some of the photos commissioned to Nick Hedges by the housing and homelessness charity Shelter.
Exhibited for the first time, following a 40 year restriction to protect the anonymity of the subjects, the images reveal the deplorable housing conditions and poverty endured by people across Britain in the 1970s. Not that the situation is much rosier nowadays.
A World to Win. Posters of Protest and Revolution at the V&A closes tomorrow. A fairly small but energizing exhibition.
Believe it or not, the Imperial War Museum is my favourite museum in London. There's the Jeremy Deller bombed out car from Baghdad, one of the V-2 rockets my grand-mother used to tell me about and occasionally there's even some exciting temporary exhibition. The IWM has recently been revamped and it feels very crammed and airless in there but the collections are as stunning as ever. Here's a couple of artefacts i discovered during my last visit:
Apparently local people asked British soldiers to take down from a wall the tiled mosaic of Saddam Hussein at the port of Umm Qsar.
I was very taken by this pair of woven straw over-boots worn by German soldiers to cover their leather boots on the Eastern front and in particular in Russia where temperatures fell below -30 degree Celsius.
Right, i'm off to Carroll/Fletcher. They've just opened Unoriginal Genius, a show curated by Domenico Quaranta. Should be a good one.
The WORK Gallery in London has recently opened a fascinating exhibition that looks at the role that photography has played in constructing the public image of atomic energy and 'the bomb'. I was expecting a dark and dramatic show but many of the images on the walls are alarmingly cheerful and wonderful.
The first group of works exhibited are the iconic images of the mushroom cloud. What i didn't suspect is that some of these explosions were accompanied by 'atomic tourism' (which has in no way disappeared, even though we might take contamination less recklessly these days.) Atmospheric nuclear testing in Nevada, for example, drew enthusiastic crowd of journalists and curious. They sat down wearing 'protective' eyewear and admired the explosions from vantage points which were sometimes perilously close to the blasts.
Those were times of faith in science and in particular in nuclear energy. As illustrated by Walt Disney/s 1957 tv episode Our Friend the Atom, the crowning of miss Atomic Bomb, families proudly posing into their fallout shelter, the futuristic architecture of nuclear power structures, as well as streets and venues that celebrate everything nuclear in Richland, a town located near the first full-scale plutonium production reactor.
The exhibition also shows the other side of the nuclear medal: scars on the bodies of civilians injured in Hiroshima, an elementary school built on grounds contaminated by nuclear waste, artistic works that use views of New York to visualize the scale of an atomic destruction, protests that bring to light overlooked issues of safety and security.
Most of the photos on display at WORK gallery come from the archive of art historian and curator John O'Brian. The show also accompanies the publication of his latest book: Camera Atomica.
I'd recommend checking them both. The exhibition and the book. The show is up until 20 December, it's not far away from King's Cross station, i think it would be rude to miss it if you're in town. The book is a gold mine of photos, historical facts, shocking anecdotes. It's also a demonstration of the strength of the image when it comes to shaping memories and imagination. I've mixed images seen in the gallery and photos found in the book in this quick post.
Camera Atomica: Photographing the Nuclear World, edited by writer and curator John O'Brian. Contributions by Hiromitsu Toyosaki, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Blake Fitzpatrick, Susan Schuppli, Iain Boal, Gene Ray, Douglas Coupland (available at Blackdog Publishing and on Amazon USA and UK)
And now for the many photos i promised you:
Check out After The Flash. Photography from the Atomic Archive at the WORK Gallery in London, until 20 December 2014.
Related posts: Anecdotal radiations, the stories surrounding nuclear armament and testing programs, La Cosa Radiactiva / The Radioactive Thing, Book review - Fallout Shelter. Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War,
Photo on the homepage: Michael Light, 100 Suns: 099 Bravo, 2003.
A few weeks ago, i visited the graduation show of The interactive Architecture Lab, a research group and Masters Programme at the Bartlett School of Architecture headed by Ruairi Glynn, Christopher Leung and William Bondin. And it was, just like last year (remember the Candy Cloud Machine and the architectural creatures that behave like slime mould?), packed with very good surprises. I'll report on a couple of them in the coming days.
I'll start nice and easy today with the Eye Catcher, by Lin Zhang and Ran Xie, because if you've missed the work at the Bartlett show, you'll get another chance to discover it from tomorrow on at the Kinetica Art Fair in London.
The most banal-looking wooden frame takes thus a life of its own as soon as you come near it. It quickly positions itself in front of you, spots your eyes and starts expressing 'emotions' based on your own. Eye Catcher uses the arm of an industrial robot, high power magnets, a hidden pinhole camera, ferrofluid and emotion recognition algorithms to explore novel interactive interfaces based on the mimicry and exchange of expressions.
A few words with Lin Zhang:
Hi Lin! I think what i like about the frame is that it is so discreet and unassuming. You can pass by it and not even notice it. So why did you chose to make it so quiet and 'normal' looking?
Yes exactly, it's a really normal static object, which exists in everyone's daily life, so the magic happens the moment it begins to move. I was inspired by my tutor's art work finding "life in motion" - not all motion can provide wonder and pleasure in the observer, but playing with the perception of animacy in objects often does. There are many digital interfaces that have the appearance of advanced technologies and compete for our attention, but I think it is better to develop interfaces that rather than standing out, can sit within our normal daily lives and then come to life at the right moment whether for functional or playful purposes.
How does the frame respond to and communicate emotions? How does it work?
To start with, the height of passers-by is calculated by ultrasonic Sensors embedded in the ceiling. This is remapped to the robotic arm (controlled using the Lab's opensource controller Scorpion) hidden behind the wall which magnetically drives the frame to align "face to face" with onlookers. A wireless pinhole camera in the frame transmits the video footage of onlookers back to our software (built in Processing and using face-OSC) which analyses 12 values of facial expression such as width of the mouth, the height of the eye-brow, the height of eye-ball etc. That information then drives the reciprocal expressions of the frames fluid "eyes", controlled by four servo/magnets manipulating ferrofluid.
Do you see The Eye Catcher is mainly a work that aims to entertain and amuse or is there something else behind the work? Some novel interfaces, interactions or mechanisms you wanted to explore?
The Eye Catcher project is a method to examine my research question, which is to explore the possibilities for building non-verbal interaction between observers and objects through mimicry of specific anthropomorphic characteristics. It asks to what extend can such mimicry be deployed, specifically utilising eye-like stimuli, for establishing novel expressive interactive interfaces. We found that humans perceive dots, specifically eye-like stimuli, automatically as almost a hardwired ability, which develops at a very early stage of human life. By the age of 2 months, infants show a preference for looking at the eyes over the rest of regions of the face, and by the age of 4 months, they get the ability to discriminate between direct and averted gaze. Therefore, the eye is the foundation of human interaction upon which we build more complex social interactions.
What was the biggest challenge(s) you encountered while developing the work?
The biggest challenge is how to make the frame and two dots more animate - to not appear robotic but rather more natural. So we were really exploring how long reactions should take, how to select a suitable behaviour in response to peoples expressions, and how to provide continual unpredictable interaction to keep observers' attention.There's still a lot of questions to be explored, and even though its only ultimately 2 dots we're animating, the limitations are a useful constraint to work within.
Will you modify or upgrade The Eye Catcher for Kinetica?
Yes, we're working on it now for Kinetica Art Fair. We've already built a new frame that moves faster and more quietly. We've updated it with new Wi-Fi camera which provides more reliable facial recognition and smoother behaviour on the wall. The film you've seen is really only a prototype so its exciting to see how the new iteration will perform. We've switched round some behaviour too, to see how the public reacts. For example, at Kinetica we've programmed it to prefer to interact with children which should get them excited when it drops down to see them. In the future we'd like to build a more permanent piece using a 2 axis rail system rather than a robot arm. In theory the frame could then work on a much longer wall which would allow all sorts of new types of interaction.
Check out the Eye Catcher at the KINETICA ART FAIR on 16th - 19th October 2014 at the Old Truman Brewery in London.
Yesterday was the press view of Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age at the Barbican Art Gallery. I eagerly go to those journalist tours because i'm allowed to take photos to my heart's content. The day after it's often strictly verboten.
Constructing Worlds looks at how photographers have documented key moments in the history of 20th and 21st century architecture: the skyscrapers rising up in New York, the remains of an industrial Europe well past its glory days, the glamorous Californian lifestyle of the 1940s, the unstoppable urbanisation of China, the traces of colonization in Africa, the aftermath of the war on Afghanistan, India's enthusiasm for modernity as built in Chandigarh by Le Corbusier, etc.
I was particularly seduced by the photos from the 1930s to 1970s. Their authors looked for beauty and evidences of social changes where most people would have only registered dust and mortar.
Constructing Worlds exhibits the work of 18 photographers only. But that's good enough for me as i'm no fan of those Barbican shows that asphyxiate you by their discouragingly high amount of images and information. I'm therefore going to follow suit and keep my comments short.
In 1929, Berenice Abbott traveled to New York City after having spent eight years in Europe. In her absence, countless 19th-century buildings had been razed to make way for skyscrapers. She decided to stay in the country and document the changing face of the city. By 1940, the photographer had completed "Changing New York," an invaluable historical testimony of a life in Manhattan that has disappeared.
Walker Evans is famous for the work he did for the Farm Security Administration documenting the effects of the Great Depression. I've seen these images several times before but i doubt i'll ever get tired of them. The photos were taken at the same time as Berenice Abbott's.
Guy Tillim's work examines modern history in Africa against the backdrop of its colonial and post-colonial architectural heritage.
Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age is at the Barbican Art Gallery until 11 January 2015.
Over the years, Burnham-on-Sea, a seaside resort in Somerset has been regularly affected by tidal flooding. As a response, a high wall was erected along the coastline, returning waves back to the sea. The 1.6 kilometres long and 3.2 metres high sea wall regulates access to the sea by a series of raised steps and vehicle access points which can be closed during storms.
As part of her BA Design course at Goldsmiths, designer Hannah Fasching decided to make use of that gigantic wall and reacquaint the inhabitants of the town with the intertidal zone, the space between the high and low tide. She organized a screening along the sea wall, using footage shot in the 1930s, before the wall was built. The films shows how people used to ride bicycles and do sport on the beach and how in the past, the seafront functioned as a vibrant cultural hub.
The project, called the Intertidal Cinema, established a conversation with this architecture of control and neutralization. It also looked at how new relationships can be established between humans and the temporary spaces provided by nature.
Can we continue to exist within an infrastructure that seeks to not only resist, but nullify natural forces? How might we approach increasingly fragile sites in a way that challenges the inherited attitude of conquering nature as though it were an opponent? Can the temporary spaces that occur naturally in the environment provide us with a new way in which design can operate?
Hannah has recently exported the project to London. For three nights, she turned the tidal beach of Deptford creek into a social space. I caught up with Hannah to have her talk about the project in general and about the film she projected in Deptford.
Hi Hannah! Could you first tell me again the story of that beautiful vintage cinema sign we see emerging from the water in Burnham-on-Sea?
The first Intertidal Cinema took place in Burnham-on-Sea's intertidal zone, between high and low tide. We stood the sign in the mudflats on the beach at low tide. What we didn't realise at the time was that the speed of the tide coming in depends mainly on the bank of the beach and that the flats being 'flat' submerge within minutes. Thinking we had time to play the film and collect it afterwards, at sunset, just as the film began playing we turned around just in time to see a wave sweep away the bottom rung of letters. And a few minutes later the whole sign was submerged; an unexpected but appropriate demise.
What made you chose Deptford Creek for the second edition of the IC, rather than any other area by the river bank?
Deptford is at a pivotal point in its history, the waterfront that I remember less than a year ago is now unrecognisable. As a former royal dock, it has evolved from an area defined by its natural topography into an area characterised by rapid urbanisation and gentrification.
In Deptford, much like in Burnham, there is an abrupt contrast between the natural and artificial landscape though the artificial is much more dominant here. The tidal river, Ravensbourne runs from the Thames through Deptford and creates an intertidal zone fluctuating 7m in the heart of Deptford.
As a project that explores this relationship by creating social spaces in temporary environments, taking the project to Deptford meant it developing in a new way.
I've never been there but i had a look on google image. It seems to be a radically different from Burnham. How is the tidal creek of Deptford used now? Is there any social activity there?
Things do happen here, but many are not specifically tied to the river. There is a big community of artists along this part of the river, with studio spaces and galleries as well The Laban Dance Centre, which was built 11 years ago.
The creek creates a unique wildlife area which the local authorities are keen to preserve. The creekside centre, an educational facility, provide tidal walks once a month on the creek. The ahoy centre, a charity in Deptford based on the waterfront, encourage water activities and sports on the river. The Ha'Penny hatch bridge, which can open to allow boats to pass, is a public walkway with many commuters passing over every day. The creek runs underneath this bridge.
How did you make the space more comfortable and enjoyable for people?
Holding a cinema in an area where it doesn't normally function instantly transforms it. Using the bridge as a watching platform, we projected onto structures which faced out onto the creek. One of the projections leaned out over the bridge, projecting vertically onto the water. The cinema took place as the tide was going out, as the water emptied from the creek the projection became clearer, until it eventually hit the rocks below the surface. The tide became the factor which focused the image.
Could you talk to us about the Deep Ford film? It seems to be very different from the film you showed in Burnham.
The film in Burnham consisted of archive footage, a window into the history of the seafront before the wall.
In Deptford it's more of a contemporary take on gentrification and how the area has developed relating back to the history of the dock.
The Deep Ford is a reference to the ford on which Deptford developed. The film shows historical architectures and landmarks around Deptford, many of which played an important part in the shipping industry. Voices of people who were interviewed as part of the project are used to animate these architectures, each voice representing a different place, as though the places are talking to you. These people are people who live, grew up and work in Deptford, but also people involved with how it's changing such as redevelopers. The physical space starts to take on the voice of the social.
Why do you think that it is important that humans (re)connect with natural forces?
To use a quote from Wendell Berry, a poet, environmental activist and cultural critic:
"The cities have forgot the earth and will rot at heart till they remember it again."
Wendell Berry, 1969
In its broadest context the project is about climate change, though it addresses in a different way than a project that might involve weather robots and cloud seeding. I think what is required is an increased understanding of the natural environment, but it seems to me that the well documented expansion of cities is fundamentally incompatible with this. A city is essentially a hardscape.
Using an extreme example; Tokyo as a city sitting on a tectonic boundary, is in permanent conflict with it's natural surroundings. The strict building codes in Tokyo mean that the architecture responds the the natural surroundings. Building foundations are built to move with seismic activity. If our natural environment is to be increasingly volatile, a failure to understand and act in relation to it will only ever cause problems.
The Intertidal cinema that took place in Deptford works in direction relation to the tide, using this force to focus the image of the projection.
Your project explores ways for people to "experience the extremes of the environmental conditions'. Is that out of concern for the future of a country threatened by sea rising?
It can't not be. The project began by documenting an area of land artificially lower than sea level, and suffers from flooding as a result (Somerset).
If the sea is rising what will our relationship with it be?
I think this is already happening, this relationship is being configured through sea wall's and flood defences. Whether it's on the coast in Burnham or in the city of London. They both dissolve the relationship with the water and are also potentially apocalyptic because of the risk of them failing.
What's next for the Intertidal Cinema?
Following on from the last answer, I see the project developing towards larger scale responses to the temporary spaces in the natural environment.