"Meccano on Crack" Or "Tatlin on Crack" - Stuart Wise


A Psychotic Amalgam of Architecture/Sculpture/Engineering. The unveiling on April Fools Day of Anish Kapoor's The Orbit. Intended to outshine Beijing's Bird Nest, it will be the centrepiece of the 2012 Olympic Park in London.

Submitted by Fozzie on July 9, 2024

Half in jest, it was suggested in A Chorus for Corus that an offensive Gormley colossus might eventually arise on the site of the former Redcar blast furnace to crow over the defeated steel workers of Teesside, (who sad to say, have yet scarcely raised a finger of protest but, following union instructions, strove instead to prick the government's conscience) just as once a monument to the Duke of Wellington was erected on Stoodley Pike in West Yorkshire to celebrate the defeat of the Luddites and Nelson's Column sprang up in Trafalgar Square to ram home the defeat of the French Revolution. Whereas once obelisks and outsize statues of warmongers were the rule, today's displays of naked power increasingly shelter behind the mask of the neo avant-garde and in fact the joke was on us, for we had spoken truer than we ever dared hope.

Appropriately on April Fools Day 2010, a joke was unveiled to the glory of the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the sculptor, Anish Kapoor and steel magnate, Lakshmi Mittal who had just closed the Corus plant in Redcar, copping off with millions from the European Clean Energy Mechanism! Provisionally given a name, The Orbit it is to be the tallest 'sculpture' in the UK standing a gigantic 115 metres and just short of the Eiffel Tower. Built 240 miles further south of Redcar on another industrially derelict site in London's east end and now the Olympic Park, it will stand between the stadium and the aquatics centre. This was also payback time for Mittal and the fact that it took just 40 seconds for him and Boris Johnson to seal the deal during a chance encounter at the Davos World Economic Forum suggests Mittal had a colossus of a bad conscience to deal with (after all he is a big donor to the Labour party) and which was not good for his business reputation either. And so he jumped at the chance of supplying for free 19 million in steel bars weighing 1,400 tons that, for sure, will not be rolled in Redcar. It was a small price to pay for the thousands of wrecked lives on Teesside, for had the steel workers brushed aside set-piece, trade union opposition to the closure and taken the type of imaginative action that would have grabbed the world's attention, Mittal could have been forced to cough up an awful lot more to placate them and also persuade world opinion that he isn't such a bad guy. Thank goodness big art was there to salvage his honour this world class PR coup allowing him to win the first of the games gold medals!

Whereas the lame responses of steel workers passed off virtually without notice when it so easily could have been otherwise, The Orbit instantly attracted worldwide attention that ideally should have been theirs and with a far more meaningful consequence to boot. Articles on the winning Arcelor/Mittal entry, saying much the same thing, appeared in the Chinese and Indian press, and even in a Burmese paper opposed to the military junta, a piece on the orbit appearing below a photo of the president in waiting, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The official media response to The Orbit (and which could well become a brand logo for Arcelor/Mittal) was generally laudatory and that only goes to highlight the shameful depths criticism, never mind critique, has sunk to in the UK. Not one media big potatoes ever made the obvious connection either between Mittal's generosity and the closure of the Redcar plant, the Independents architectural correspondent Jay Merrick (1/4/10) suggesting there was something "not quite knowable about the Arcelor/Mittal orbit's tower design". Too right there was, and especially to a dumb fuk like Merrick, but obvious to anyone prepared to dig beneath the surface and confront capitalism and the realities of class struggle head on. Nor did anyone step outside the mental straight jacket imposed by the forthcoming Olympics to note this candy floss gigantism was also aimed at kick starting the City of London's mega build projects, on hold and in the doldrums since the commencement of the economic crisis in 2007. True, the Independent hinted there was just such a connection, directing its readers away from the front page article on The Orbit to look at a centre piece spread on the man "who plans to tower over London".

The man in question is Irvine Sellars, a developer who hopes he will be able to complete Europe's tallest structure, The Shard, in time for the 2012 Olympics when "the eyes of six billion will be on London". But meanwhile there has been no movement whatsoever regarding the other metaphorical constructs like Land Securities Walkie Talkie and British Lands Cheese Grater and Helter Skelter. In fact The Shard is something of an anomaly and is being backed, almost totally, by a consortium of Qatari investors who, even so, have transferred their investment, now a form of sovereign investment, to their government in Doha, a move that is indicative of the rise to power of state owned sovereign funds throughout the world and an overall increased reliance on the state everywhere. Moreover The Shard is being plugged as "living space" and "the first artificial town" to Joe Public, any mention of office developments occasioning dread and stirring up fears of a resurgent financial trickery the poor will be left to foot the bill for when they haven't even begun to start paying for the present crisis. Sellars, accurately gauging something of the public's mood, reckons the other projected buildings are just "office buildings" (i.e. casinos) though in fact well over a third of the building's floor space will be for offices. But whereas the other buildings are not something "Londoners feel they can own", The Shard "will be owned by Londoners", a phrase borrowed from Ken Livingstone, the former Labour party Mayor of London who was also drugged up to his eyeballs on a building high of high buildings. Of course neither meant nor mean their words to be taken literally and prompt a true act of appropriation. Rather, more's the pity, it is to be hoped Londoners will eventually get round to viewing The Shard in the same way as Lancastrians or Parisians, taking a great pride in what oppresses them, believe Blackpool Tower or the Eiffel Tower to be 'theirs'.

The same arguments are being used to justify the building of The Orbit and so the matter of how Londoners eventually will perceive this addition to the skyline becomes of greater importance than it ever would have been prior to the onset of the crisis. Above all it must not be seen as a financial folly meaning rate payers will be stiffed for in the years to come. At a stroke Mittal has relieved London rate payers of that burden. And so all is forgiven especially by the Labour party and the redundant Redcar steel workers will just have to eat shit and like it. What's more, it must not remotely cross the public's mind that The Orbit is a pilot structure, kicking off a new phase of financial turpitude led by the property sector and deregulated investment banks, empowered like never before to do just as they fucking please because the public has had it well and truly drilled into them they are "too big to fail".

For the past twenty years, beginning with The Angel of the North, big art has been deployed to shift regional economies in the direction of financial services, property values, art and entertainment and away from making things and a passé industrial economy. And the bigger the art, the bigger the risks and financial con, the next financial crises (which of course cannot be divorced from industrial capitalism) threatening to be of such a magnitude in fifteen years time, or thereabouts, that it will dwarf anything hitherto seen. The Orbit, variously described "as beautiful as" a catastrophic collision between two cranes, the forth railway bridge dropped from a great height and scaffolding stuck by a tornado, is a true portent of things to come. Pretending to be a cross-demographic fun tower, this really is not classic pyschogeography but psycho-architecture, Britain's answer to the Eiffel Tower becomes Tatlin on Crack. But whatever else this mangled piece of latticed steel, violence and death, psychedelia becomes, it must be constantly born in mind that it starts life as a truly appropriate symbol for the world's biggest drug fest, the Olympics. (It is to be hoped we are no longer swayed by the naïve drivel the games have anything much to do with fitness, healthy living - and games!)

There is no madness worse than what passes for common sense today and this is where comparisons with the Eiffel tower break down. Eiffel's name inevitably cropped up in several reviews because his tower was the first clearly visible and successful engineering advertisement to date, (in fact from 1925 / 34 illuminated signs from Citroen adorned three of the tower's four sides) easily eclipsing the Brunel's' tunnel under the Thames, which never really caught on. Built as a decorative adjunct to the 1889 Paris exhibition, Eiffel's tower was not designed as a piece of public art, nor was it intended to remain in Paris more than twenty years, part of the original contest rules stipulating that it could easily be dismantled. Eiffel's tower was cutting edge construction, the late 1880s developing iron skeleton assembly to unprecedented boldness and precision. Though appearing to be structurally unviable, its shapes initially modelled from wax The Orbit's "precise balance" is entirely down to computer programs developed by the engineering company Ove Arup's "advanced geometry unit". Though conjuring up ruin and impermanence that is the very last message The Orbit's simulated molten steel is sending out. On the contrary The Orbit is here to stay, and if doubts are raised regarding its future, they only have to do with its post-Olympic role. In fact it gives the appearance of having over ridden the laws of nature, of being built in defiance of them – and chronic capitalist crises. Eiffel's tower was shaped by the forces of the wind, Eiffel having gained much of his knowledge regarding aerodynamic structures from his pioneering bridge over the Douro in Portugal. Kapoor's The Orbit, in contrast, appears more as the untrammelled product of the pure imagination that, unhampered by reality, has already taken power- "imagination au pouvoir" as that rather imprecise slogan from May 1968 put it.

The toppling of global landmarks, especially the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, whose armature was designed by Eiffel, has long been a feature of apocalyptic Hollywood movies functioning as safety valves, their number increasing in the past few years in response to 9 /11 and the deepening economic/ecological crises. Like a deconstructed Twin Towers, The Orbit is an adjustment to apocalypse, the ground zero of an unchanging architecture of unfinished form in the process of becoming something else that will outlast even unimaginable catastrophe, just like the models of capitalism that have factored in crises. A master statement of zombie capitalism, The Orbit, under the guise of daring innovation, promises nothing but the same old shit. Once the Olympics are over, it is designated to become the centre piece of a new Olympic Park and a giant new Westfield shopping centre, a freak wave of their combined wand pulling in businesses, investors and house buyers. It's a forlorn hope because bubble capitalism – no matter how much it tries – cannot easily put its humpty dumpty back together again. An anonymous commentator from the North East - and not before time - adamantly claimed the daddy of all big art, The Angel of the North, is locally "still mostly despised" and that, if his experience is anything to go by, "for years to come, every time the poor and downtrodden of the East End look up, they will see a big Fuck You".

Tongue in cheek in A Chorus for Corus, we had even given Gormley's make believe statue on the site of the Redcar steel work, in perverse homage to Tatlin's Monument to the 111rd International, a name: "Monument to the Multinationals". Surprised, again our predictions hadn't been that far off the mark and Tatlin's name was bracketed in one Guardian newspaper article alongside that of the more frequently cited Eiffel. Of more concern was the fact that the benefactor wanted "The Orbit" to be called the Arcelor/Mittal Orbit: whereas Eiffel and Tatlin had naively lent their names to the cause of liberty, one believing in the USA, the other in the supposed anti-capitalism of the Russian Bolsheviks, Mittal is an unabashed defender of multinational capitalism at its most rapacious and greedy. But at least this renaming has the merit of exposing which side big art is on.

There is another aspect to the dysfunctional, de-sublimated engineering announced by The Orbit that relates directly to the counter revolution in the name of radicalism, launched against the most radical aspects of May 1968 and which has been alluded to above. Eiffel's achievements might be read as a criticism of the Ecole Polytechnique, France's most prestigious engineering institution to which he was denied admission. But what he did subsequently cannot be said to have its origin in a failed revolution, except very indirectly: his tower was erected on the Champs de Mars, site of a critical moment in the French Revolution when Danton and Desmoulins led a charge against constitutional monarchy. So, in a sense, the tower is, in so many words, stating publicly there is now no place for the levee en masse. Basically, however the whole tenor of Eiffel's work is about transportation and getting from A to B in as short a space of time as possible. Like his railway bridge across the Douro gorge in Porto, it is utilitarian, and designed to lower the costs of the circulation of commodities. Not so The Orbit, which is a very different, and treacherous, ball game altogether.

The Orbit is the biggest and most twisted expression of the rage against the machine gone off in the wrong direction inaugurated by the reaction to May 1968. It is the product of decades of counter-revolution posturing as its opposite. The initial blue print is really the book by Gilles Deleuze called Anti-Oedipus and not the provisional structures fed into Arup's computers: eschewing the need for e.g. wind tunnels, (ever the utilitarian, Eiffel was pleased to put his unnecessary tower to use as a wind tunnel in later life), today engineering and architecture increasingly tends in the direction of 'print' engineering and architecture, the software setting the machines that produce the parts awaiting human assembly. Permitting a far greater novel diversity than anything hitherto, this engineered parallel nature and computerized diversity of life is as close to a robotic process, from which every human feature, foible and delinquent moment has been erased as it's possible to get, short of automated replication. Anti-Oedipus - Capitalism and Schizophrenia by two ace wot-sits of counter-revolution came out in 1974 in France. Its first chapter was entitled, significantly, Desiring Machines and in it all that had been challenged six years previously in May '68 is reinstated as subversive from Tingely's auto-destructive machines (the original French edition contains a reproduction of one of them) – Caesar's compressed car bodies cars, Arman's charred violins and so on. Become "desiring machines" and therefore prefiguring and embodying post revolutionary values and society, according to this rubbish these "art as resistance" machines push beyond the limits of capitalism, just as capitalism tends to do of its own accord, destroying traditional hierarchies in its ever expanding cycle of reproduction. A foretaste of things to come decades later, Anti Oedipus is on track to eventually substitute the studio for the factory, claiming "desiring machines are the fundamental category of the economy of desire". Echoing one of the most memorable slogans of May 1968 "I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires" the real aim of Deleuze and Guattari is the renewal of art, not its superseding in revolutionary praxis. Many years later John Jordan's "Laboratory of the Insurrectionary Imagination" and "irresistible machines" that would be used to such devastating effect (ha ha) in COP15 would jump out of this mummified bag of intellectual tricks. But in the last analysis so does The Orbit.

The ultimate chicanery and cleverness of post modernism was founded on its initial ability to closely mimic the momentum of total social revolution spreading bamboozlement in searching, well-meaning but still gullible minds whereby counter revolution would eventually triumph. Precisely because a perspective of genuine total social revolution was posited in the late 1960s, a seemingly grandiose totalizing of 'everything' was needed to counteract this drift if the grotesque system was to survive. An academically oriented post modernism relatively quickly having done its worst could then submissively and triumphantly drift into an acceptance of a decadent epoch of financial wheeler dealing based on debt; in short a bad totalizing amounting to utter bilge. It was in France that this phenomenon had to be the most intensely practiced.....Ah but is it as easy as that. It wasn't as though the first dire murmurings of post modernism were seen by their instigators as 'reactionary', rather the opposite. What condemned them in an instant were mediocre contributions from equally mediocre individuals who had failed to live authentic lives, opting for cushy positions in a moribund hierarchy where no hard-headed choices had to be made. At best they were sympathetic voyeurs of the 'real movement' afraid to say too much or, as Orwell put it in the context of Barcelona in 1936, "always somewhere else when the trigger was pulled". Academic qualifications mattered considerably to them as after all, how else would they have gotten published as they had nothing worthwhile to say?

Moreover, once the hard edge of a resolute critique of art had been vanquished, the stage was reopened to the illusion of artistic "soft subversion" as a born again Fluxus perspective literally took over the world sweeping all before it. So much so that even a Raoul Vaneigem allowed himself to be invaded even giving interviews in 2009 to e-flux's Hans Ulrich Obrist who extols Beuys, Cedric Price, Gilbert & George etc, without Vaneigem raising a murmur and by way of reply even saying he offers "a few texts to artistic friends"! Moreover, the guy is now sympathetic to some kind of low key collaboration with architects when once he (rightly) wanted to string the bastards up....

To return to Anti Oedipus: Attempting to cut through the book's pretentious crap after having chucked Anti-Oedipus to one side in the early 1980s, we became aware how heavy industry and vast assembly lines no longer occupies the place it once did in Europe and America and whose presence is the backdrop to "Anti-Oedipus". Following the publication of Marx's Grundrisse in the 1970s, many of us expected the immanent collapse of capitalism arising out of its inability to extract further surplus value from the industrial working class, modern assembly lines being a transitional phenomena prevailing only so long as machinery was unable to perform operations of its own accord. However, this acted also as a timely reminder to industrial capitalists, who hastened to relocate production abroad where labour was far cheaper, and which offset the higher organic composition capital needed to continue functioning. As art increasingly replaced industry in The West, "desiring machines" became more and more divorced from actual industry, their value, and that of the avant-garde in general, rocketing in value, Britain in the process becoming the studio, rather than "workshop of the world". It was the credit / asset explosion that in addition made Britain the "emporium of the world", the unregulated credit mechanism, rather than the automation of factory production and 'reckless' spending on basic utilities, including health, tending to breach capitalism's limits beyond which it was no longer viable, thus threatening to bring the entire house down. Especially in Britain, Ireland, Spain and America, housing became the driver of the economy. And along with this also went a pitifully failing, conservative counter-revolution of marriage and the nuclear family, plus a bull market in art / therapy, dotcom and creative industries, Anti-Oedipus, in retrospect, just one of the primal fathers of this gory age that pretends to finality and the fulfilment of every desire. The book's formulations are so loose, obscurantist and pitted against the real spirit of 1968, this verdict ought not to shock anyone with a smidgeon of historical sense.

A few comments to end with: As was fashionable at the time, the book ascribes a transcendent role to schizophrenia, viewing it as the chief psychological malady of the age but one that tends toward psychological overshoot, breakdown being also breakthrough as had been outlined by the better part of Laing and Cooper - in a more telling case story way – in the UK in the 1960s. Becoming a catalyst for revolutionary change, schizophrenia is directly homologous to capital's tendency to suppress labour and become fully automated thus cutting its own throat, "capital's self-contradiction in motion" (Marx) eventually leaving it without a workforce to exploit and at which point it will collapse. But really the book's reactionary subtext amounts to little more than an attempt to claw back, in the wake of 1968, arts lost prestige, the expulsion of labour from machine production opening the way to the mass production of delightfully cuckoo 'revolutionary' artists on a scale never seen before. In so doing it is only pandering to a central myth of the crassest aspects of bohemianism, that of the mad genius sporting beard and beret whose shit one day will be worth millions and therefore worth investing in, as also such stereotypes serve the purpose of further marginalizing genuine subversive attempts at alternative lifestyles acquiring a more impressive, coherent and enlightened presence. Instead such lifestyles have been hunted down and are now on the verge of extinction.

But whatever became of schizophrenia? Already by the mid 1970s, depression was beginning to replace schizophrenia as the maladie du jour, the incidence of depression since then vastly out weighing that of schizophrenia. Moreover there is every reason to suppose depression is more directly connected with the continued existence of capitalism than ever schizophrenia was; this increasingly mass malaise likely to become the psychological accompaniment to the dawn of post-human capitalism. At the same time schizophrenia has become mass, though it has not done so in the full blown 'clinical meaning' of the term and must be treated rather as a particularly extreme example of historical irony, when a thing desired becomes the opposite of what actually takes place and everything henceforth becomes split into two. However this typically dialectical contradiction is today stretched to the point of madness because of the defeat of contestation and becomes irreconcilable antinomy instead. Things exist henceforth on mutually exclusive planes, the surface in ignorance of the underneath, the bubble of consciousness oblivious to the sea of the unconscious on which it floats. The malignant product of a divided society and split personality, The Orbit is a Maldorean structure half way to being cyborg engineering that threatens to walk abroad and play fearful tricks, this malformed "desiring machine" turning, in a blink of an eye, into a nightmare of decay, rot and psychosis that owes more to Charlie Manson's mangling of a helter-skelter. The unveiling of The Orbit provoked extreme reactions and gives an indication of the festering social antagonism lurking beneath the run-of-the-mill televisual. On the one hand we have the Mayor of London's bland economism and endorsement of domestic conservatism: "we think we will be amply recouped after the games-time from the proceeds of renting out a very attractive dining facility at the top. It will be a corporate money-making venture (and) an internationally acclaimed family attraction". And at the opposite extreme and from far lower down the social scale came the reply: "this is Meccano on crack". Then, even better - and a wiser response - this then morphed into: "Tatlin on Crack"....

There can be no doubting which is the more accurate judgement......

Stuart Wise: Spring 2010