New Model Weird Britain (part two: Brighton via Anaklia)
Initially the aesthetic deployment is as exhausting as it is exhausted – recirculated street-art, the endless noughnties of the mind and the city, where graffiti acts as a territorial marking signifying only: ‘this is gentrifiable space’.
But I can’t help loving something about this building site hoarding, lying on the way to a haunt I’ve been working up recently, covering up a handy but insufficiently profitable college car park undergoing the latest inevitable transformation.
The albatross of providence
The city’s native animal totem is enjoying the local delicacy, perched on a brick among historic buildings and ruins from the city’s ever-present past. Because Brighton is Brighton, the featured landmarks are both sites of pleasure. The proud Pavilion, the black skeletal remains of the pier, both designed as machines for enjoyment, built first by and for royalty, then the bourgeoisie and working people – manifest beacons of desire evolving through history and changing class compositions, as capital’s immanent ability to shape space broke out from its crowning central point into many wider hands.
The accidental poetry there – that the once-royal palace still stands (and soaks up regular public investment to keep it proud as the the national political econonomy re-feudalises), while the popular tourist destination of the industrial age is abandoned, burnt, then hastily rebranded as picturesque ruins for sightseers and connoisseurs of ongoing collapse – is secondary to the mural’s more deliberate critique:
The use of widely-recognised local iconography is pretty standard, but becomes remarkable with the representations of the building contractor’s logo hovering over the city. Like ominous alien monoliths, these redevelopmental UAPs radiate the corporate intent, administrative codings and material logistical support onto the city below, pinning the city’s new physical fabric to a flat surface atop a multidimensional plane. On adjoining panels these sinister Willmott-Dixon brands are embedded in the geological strata itself, subterranean Quatermass machines waiting to be disinterred, their uncovering threatens nothing less than an entirely new way of understanding ourselves.
The artist, Glimmer Twin, whose personal, semi-anonymous commentary and artistic influence on the local character, environment and development trends should not be overlooked, demonstrates an advanced and critical understanding of the contemporary refashioning of English urban living space.
The presiding master of the territory, the development brand in all its pyramidal, post-Masonic symmetry, is a radically non-human entity. Multi-somatic, inscrutable, unreachable, hanging unseen in a dimensional space of codes and contracts above and beyond the physical city. Its ability to quietly vampirise the landscape while dictating its uses and evading recognition, except through playful artistic intuition sprayed on a temporary hoarding, is the surest sign of its unchallenged power and presence. In the new city, the priorities and perspectives of the human are effectively removed, irrelevant. The ground itself is transformed a machine for generating corporate returns, controlled by distant and discarnate alien intelligences.
I can’t help connecting this transformation of coastal territory on my doorstep to this fascinating story of a fraught project on the Black Sea port of Anaklia. One of many vaunted nodes on the New Silk Road, the port’s primary potential functions are of course ones of trade and industry, but it is still a container for human pleasure: hope and longing for there to be something, where now there’s only nothing.
The essay studies the complexity of today’s mega-scale engineering projects, blowing my mind with the sheer number of moving parts and effects composing the abstract idea, which mobilises the purpose and precision of vast quantities of human and physical materiel until it reaches the desired shape. The impossible god’s eye view needed to make sense of an unquantifiable entity on its journey to becoming real.
To take all the necessary in potentia flows and components of such a strange, big beast and make them cohere into a concrete form, a functioning deep sea harbour which changes the fortune and destiny of nations and continents, is clearly only conceivable through a process identical to magic. The millions of tonnes of concrete, steel and exotic alloys that will make the eventual body of the object must first be manifest as a plan, an idea, a vision. It all starts with storytelling, the spinning of a myth powerful enough to compel reality to mimic its shape.
Unsurprisingly, this magical kickstart is even more difficult and even more necessary when the land to be built upon is not yet there. The story is the first tool you need to both make the ground then break the ground.
‘The making of Anaklia into a global logistics hub began with a semi-mythical story of [Mikheil] Saakashvili sailing with a small crew on a Maritime Security Cutter in waters alongside Ochamchire, Abkhazia, sometime in the early 2000s. According to Saakashvili’s story, which he told to different media outlets in 2010, their cutter broke down somewhere around Anaklia, and they were rescued by its local fisherman. It was in this moment of salvation from the sea that Saakashvili first saw the “beauty” of Anaklia’s shoreline. Saakashvili’s story echoes that of the Argonauts, whose leader, Jason, was also saved by fisherman to discover the Kingdom of Colchis, a land rich with gold, iron, and honey, that was modern-day Georgia. With his story Saakashvili places himself in the mythical history of Georgia as a pro-western president, who, similar to his Greek predecessors, was also awakened in this moment of danger to the “beauty” and infinite potential for economic growth of the space. The introduction of mythological narratives into the national imaginary is not uncommon to former socialist countries at the turn of the twenty-first century, serving as a way to transform their physical, social and economic landscapes.’
(The section quoted in bold above included simply to note that some form of this myth-making process is common to all large scale human endeavours – one of those few species-wide behaviours. Whether the ‘former socialism’ piece makes it more-or-less necessary, more-or-less easy, is an interesting subject for future anthropologists.
I would bet… no change.)
Mikheil Saakashvili is a fleetingly interesting character of a particular type likely to become less familiar in the coming decades – a US-backed water carrier cursed with the very turn-of-the-aeon gig of bringing his birth-home into the NATO-EU orbit. For a while he obviously had some heavy friends – getting as far as being immortalised in Hollywood via the oleaginous charisma of Andy Garcia – before things went bad.
It’s unclear how much of this is due to the Anaklia deal stalling under his stewardship, but at some point in the middle of the last decade he got crunched by some big stakeholders, lost the mandate of heaven and became a genuine 21st century homo sacer, bouncing between citizenships for a few years before being welcomed back (to Ukraine, not Georgia) by the new president there, who as a TV guy and ex-comedian is as thoroughly modern a political figure as you could want.
On paper Saakashvili’s Jason and the Argonauts turn, backed by his Hollywood dream machine friends, was spot on. As a foundational myth to build a platform of action, it was a tried and tested one with just the right amount of sparkle. It should have been sufficient to convince the (inter-)national will towards delivering the Anaklia project on schedule. The golden maritime explorer and culture hero, seeing the land from a rarefied perspective and falling in love with her coastline as if she were a beautiful woman, the vow to give her a home, clothes and purpose befitting her qualities…
The State Department guys who once sprinkled their fairy-dust over Saakashvili are past masters of this formula of the mobilising narrative to productively influence key populations. These populations are less and less restless natives or even precarious indigent labourers, but essentially the global economic institutions who wing-in the early investment and underwrite the risk for such mega-scale projects of mass transformation.
Which is interesting in itself, because if this act of sorcery failed, it means maybe things are changing. So how do you make a myth to inspire something that isn’t human, just an invisible logo hovering over a seaside resort?
Entering a new period of fascist gigantism
Before answering that question, there is another less intangible aspect of these projects which feeds into the same initial problem of clearing and reclaiming coastal outlands. A quick comparative case-study for how ubiquitous the myth-making recipe is for organising big national projects: the 2012 London Olympics.
(Apologies are necessary for writing a blog mentioning the 2012 London Olympics, an event which permanently altered the psychic landscape of the UK and which no-one anywhere else should ever bother to care about, and which is a tedious, apparently endlessly confounding topic of concern for British people of my cohort. Unravelling the mysteries of this pantomime extravaganza is, many are convinced, the only way to understand the way the events of this century have affected the weird isles.)
There are five significant parallels between Saakashvili’s vision of Akalia and the London festival of running and jumping:
- A foundational myth imported wholesale from Greek antiquity
- Divisive public sculptures (these are important – see below)
- Large scale infrastructure projects building on reclaimed land
- Timing i – global time: the early 2010s
- Timing ii – imperial time: the high watermark of post-Bretton Woods reality. The cash injections of 2008-9 start to run out of steam, austerity begins to bite, Russia and China start to like what they see and stretch their muscles. One of the ritual intentions of London 2012, opaque at the time but revealed subsequently, was to commence Britain’s unmooring from the previous 60 years of international arrangements, to place itself somewhere simultaneously equidistant from all the new power centres of the multi-polar world. (The current prevailing wind is subsequently revealed to be an Easterly, blowing the island further out into the Atlantic.)
There is more similarity between the two project sculptures than just the complicated, tryhard modernist vibe. It is doubtful much of this is taught in architecture school, but it is at least something that appears to have become a necessary and understood instrument of the planners’ art.
They only look like absurd and hateful vanities. They in fact have a real use. On a very practical level, these sculptures absorb, embody and appease the non-human presences who used to call these coastal domains their own. The shared style, all those looping vortical curves, fractal bubbles and algorithmically precise yet organic-seeming waves, is a deliberate appeal to non-human ergonomics that has, presumably, arrived at this aesthetic point through centuries of iterative development of architectural practice.
(If you want to interpret their technical function at a psychological, human-centric level that’s fine too: they encapsulate and communicate the meaning and purpose of the underlying visions their respective capital projects seek to realise. Anyone onsite, investors, inspectors, visitors, contractors, cleaners, critics and admins alike may all look at the sculpture and know that there is something there instead of nothing. Those individuals’ personal opinion of the sculpture, their liking, loathing or indifference makes no difference to that intended purpose.)
In the old myths, the warrior-shaman or sailor-champion arrives at the untamed land and slays, outwits or makes pacts with the monsters he finds there so the subsequent processes of colonisation and conversion – or integration and evolution, if your #London2012 damage runs really deep – may commence in safety. The purpose of these totemic structures is the same: taming the strange things that live in the wild so that something else may arrive and be present here.
This isn’t just about the decline of the Western empires’ hegemonic ability to get shit done unchallenged. It’s about the base ingredients for the formula for creating inescapable myths strong enough to do the lifting for you . The perspectives, the iconography, the audiences, the moving parts and effects – becoming something different. Magic is often spoken of as moving in ‘currents’. It’s one of the few fields of human endeavour that has such an in-built, dynamic model of change, that understands its own periodic obsolescence. The sense is of the waters swirling around the mouth of the deep sea port, of course, but also in ‘what is current’. Seas change, seasons change, stars change – and so the way you bring them to your side changes too.
It isn’t the people that need to be inspired. The loci of power and agency have long since left the collective bodies of working men and women. It is the institutions who must be made your allies, and beyond them, the digital swirls of number and relation that constitute not just capital’s potential power to create, but its will and interest to do so – the potential mass of profit, the inverse smallness of the risk.
But what has any of this got to do with the building site hoarding down the road from me?
Here’s a new formula for getting building projects done, inspired by the unidentified presences in Glimmer Twin’s mural, uncovering and putting into language its implicit telos, it’s revealed desires and annihilating destiny. If the result is one that sounds fascist as fuck, like the prophetic ravings of a death cult leader – that’s because it is what it is:
It was a fine day in the warm sunshine, so I took my son and daughter out on an inflatable dinghy we bought from a smiling couple who ran a small shop in the beautiful Georgian resort of Akalia. As we rowed out the tides seemed to greet us and we drifted further out than I had planned. My daughter seemed afraid but I told her not to cry, for the sea is salty enough already! I looked back to the shore and above the old harbour I was surprised to see a golden disc hovering high in the sky, just below the clouds. It glowed with warmth to rival the sun, turning white and back to gold, before darting in an impossibly rapid figure-of-eight and flying off to the West at an impossible speed. I looked to my children, but if they had seen it they did not like to say. Moments later the sea beneath us turned and we made our way gratefully to the beach, where my wife stood waiting to welcome us ashore. I mentioned my strange vision of the flying disc to no-one.
That night I had a dream. I was back in the dinghy. Instead of my children, an impossibly great crowd was with me, smiling and pointing back toward the shore. The old harbour was transformed into a great gleaming port, where goods and cargo from all over the world were loaded and unloaded, as mighty ships laden with all the bounty of the seas made their way to Akalia to share their gifts. In the skies above were busy cranes towering like mighty giants, and drones zipped between them like great birds, taking precious packages off to their new homes in the heart of beautiful Georgia and beyond.
In the magical coding of now, the anthropocene, the capitalocene, the dwindling, the churn, the weirding, the jackpot, the dithering, whatever word we settle on – things have changed. Signals lose acuity, human patternings become less relevant. The critical entities are digital and dispersed. Out with the classical allusions and in with the evocation of clean, mantic symbols understood by the zeroes and ones of technocapital deliverance.
So for virile Greek heroes we have humane statesmen-entrepreneurs. For a loyal crew of adventurers we have a nurtured family nucleus. For a beautiful woman demanding gifts and pride for love, we have a pristine scene of potential posthuman industry inviting strong leadership and ROI at 15% . All to achieve the same historic transformation of the bleak and empty into the bright and active.
The appeals to nationalism, you keep intact from the source, of course. The disavowed and sublimated psychic effect of digital mass-deterritorialisation is the paradoxical generation of nationalism to feed the blasted remnants of human interest. Nationalism is more important than food, and in more ready supply, in the world of changing tides.