Thursday November 20, 2008
This morning I stepped off the train in Stoke-on-Trent, where I was paying a visit to the university to give a guest lecture, and I found myself set upon by the BBC. I would like to pretend that this is the kind of thing that happens all the time, that the BBC are accustomed to coming direct to me when they want to pepper their broadcasts with a few words of wisdom… but the reality is that I was just a bloke who was walking past when the man from the BBC was in the vicinity. The exchange went like this.
‘Hello, I’m from the BBC. Can I ask you a few questions?’
‘I don’t see why not.’
‘I want to ask you about this piece of art’ – indicating towards a car that seemed to have run into a nearby tree outside of the University’s Flaxman Building.
‘Oh, OK.’ After four years of studying Fine Arts in Newcastle, I came relatively early to the opinion that “I want to ask you about this piece of art” is never a good conversation opener.
So we went to examine the car. It looked like a car that had run into a tree. And, to be honest, it looked more like a nudge than a collision – a bit of damage at the front, and that was all. ‘What do you think?’ the BBC man asked.
‘It looks like a car that has run into a tree,’ I said. He probably already knew that, but it seemed worth starting from first principles.
‘Have a listen’ – he pointed at the boot (the trunk, for you quaint American readers).
Now he mentioned it, there was something odd about the boot. From the boot of the car came a voice crying for help, as if somebody had been shut up inside. Oh, I thought, it sounds like somebody is trapped in the boot.
‘Some people have been outraged,’ said the BBC man.
Outraged? By a car sitting by a tree that pretended to have somebody in the boot? Of the many possible causes for outrage in the world, a car by a tree in Stoke-on-Trent that pretended to have somebody in its boot was fairly low on my list.
But by this time he was clipping a microphone on me, and adjusting my position so that the DHL delivery van that had parked on the road was no longer in the background of the shot.
The interview was relatively short, and as always with these things, it was interesting to see those things that they kept in and those things that they cut out. The bit that they kept in was the bit where I said that the installation was quirky and interesting and slightly disturbing. What they didn’t put in was the bit where I said that there were things that were much more disturbing every night on television, or clamouring for our attention from billboards on every single street. Picking up on the fact that I said that the piece was slightly disturbing, perhaps, the reporter pushed the point. ‘So,’ he asked, fishing for the perfect soundbite to fit into the final edited piece, ‘would you say that this artwork was an outrage? Some people have said that they are outraged…’ Sadly, they didn’t report my response, which was to say something to the effect that outrage was so frequently invoked that it was a pretty debased currency these days. Anyway, it was just at this point that my friend Douglas appeared from the Flaxman building and started waving, so we wrapped up the interview there.
The news report was broadcast this evening. As it happened, on the final edited news item, every interviewee that they could find seemed to be more or less untroubled by the artwork. Why, then, all the kerfuffle? The answer is that it can be put down to that habitual stirrer-up of fatuous passions, the Daily Mail, who published an article on the art piece under the byline, “Anger as students refuse to take down ‘sick’ car crash installation which cries for help.”
After reading the article from the Mail, I remain puzzled. The claim, as far as it can be coherently discerned (and the Daily Mail’s shrill tone of moral censure often mitigates against the virtue of coherence), seems to be this: that the installation mocks car-crash victims and also (the old Daily Mail fall-back) that it wastes tax-payers’ money. But a closer look shows this to be faintly ridiculous. For starters, the fact that artwork gives the impression that there is somebody trapped in the boot suggests that, whatever else this artwork is about, it clearly isn’t about staging an everyday car-crash. There are suggestions of all kinds of other stories here. Nobody, after all, ordinarily travels in the boot of their car. But when one looks at the wider context, this storm in a tea-cup seems downright perverse. Car-crashes are staged on TV every evening. No action movie is complete without a grindingly tedious car-chase. Car manufacturers sell a vision of speed and self-assertion that borders on the irresponsible. And the Daily Mail complains endlessly about the speed cameras that might, on occasion at least, encourage drivers to go a wee bit slower, and thus render their vehicles a little less dangerous. All these things are arguably much more destructive than the artwork that is supposedly generating such outrage. The problem is not, in the end, with an obscure but passingly interesting artwork that is currently sitting outside a building in Stoke-on-Trent, but with the astonishingly extensive harms – the countless maimings and deaths – that result from our frenzied obsession with the culture of the car.
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