Essay Thought
1998 Forever

'Berlin is a city that never is, but it is always in the process of becoming.'
Karl Scheffler, 1910.

'You have a different hairstyle every time I see you,' a friend said yesterday, looking at my new experimental 'shave plus pinned tangle' style. The thing is, I never 'got my hair right' and stopped. My hair, like everything else in my life, is stretching up and away from the actual towards the possible. It's an unfinished project.

Things that are finished have no changes left to make in themselves. Motivated by smugness or by despair, they 'got it right' or 'gave up' and stopped. The unfinished, on the other hand, constantly seeks new shapes.

I vastly prefer the scaffolding to the stuff it's preparing. I prefer the demo to the final release. I like holes in the road better than smooth roads, and temporary exhibitions better than the buildings that contain them. I like unvarnished wood and stuff that's been hastily patched together with scotch tape. I enjoy not knowing the city I'm in more than knowing it like the back of my hand. I never, ever read handouts before watching the film. My favourite of my own albums is always the next one, the Work In Progress, still unfixed, still changeable and improveable. I like uncertainty and irresolution.

That doesn't mean I'm a procrastinator, afraid of drawing a line under something and wrapping it up. I can do that. It gives me the pleasure of plunging into projects even more nebulous, even less finished.

And I do like the reckless moment of decision. Especially the decision to finish something in an unfinished-looking way.

Ripped Backsides

Whole cities can feel finished or unfinished. Edinburgh, my hometown, is finished. There's not much left to do there. They got it right. They slapped conservation orders on all the buildings. Voila, bring on the tourists! Park the coaches! Paris, where I was living earlier this year, is finished. Don't litter, don't spoil it! Admire the Baron Haussman's vistas! Build new stuff only on the outskirts! Bring on the tourists!

Tokyo is totally unfinished. A flux, a blur. My favourite cafe, Scala-za, disappeared this year. I was dismayed, of course, but I know that what I loved about it was its expression of a certain spirit -- baroque, playfully formal, ivy-clad, peaceful -- a sensibility that will reappear somewhere else, in some new form. It'll be fun to track it down and find it in some new hiding place.

Berlin, where I live now, feels unfinished to me. I think that's why I came here in March rather than staying in Paris. Berlin has been a huge building site for much of the last ten years. A new city has taken shape, the centre has shifted east, new people have arrived here, old boundaries have been erased and replaced by new ones. My flatmate Ayako recently found an old map of Berlin. I say old, in fact it was from the 80s. We were startled to find that our local subway station had a completely different name just twenty years ago, and that a nearby avenue was known as Ho Chi Minh Allee.

I drove through Berlin last night on the way in from Tegel airport (which will close soon) and I'm damned if I knew where I was, or what anything was supposed to mean. There didn't seem to be any landmarks. (There are landmarks planned, of course. Like the Iggy monument, a ripped backside made of solid granite set in a bright sky of halogen stars. I'm lying, of course. The real Iggy monument is the new Peaches album.)

Last night Berlin was all spread out and unsure of itself. There was work to be done, decisions and definitions to be made. This unfinished quality was exciting and inclusive. The city really needed me -- not as an applauding audience to its eternal greatness, but as a co-creator, brainstormer, contributor. Berlin wanted me to help it find an identity -- to help define itself and myself. The city didn't assume I was finished, and didn't assume it was finished either. I liked that. This was a place I could get work done.

The city paid me for my work as its image consultant and co-creator by charging me very little rent. I liked that too.

Lisbon Forever

The reason I was travelling through Berlin, late at night, wondering where the hell I was, is that I'd just arrived from Lisbon. I spent a week in Portugal playing my finished songs (the ones on records that've come out, rather than the fragile and confused ones that I'm making with Anne Laplantine -- and did I tell you that this is the best album I've ever been involved in?)

Lisbon strikes me as a finished city. It's intriguingly confused, though, finished in the manner of a mosaic, cluttered like a junk shop. It has seven hills like Rome, a big suspension bridge like the one in San Francisco, a small wrought iron tower designed by Eiffel of Paris fame, a big Jesus statue with outstretched arms like the one in Rio. It has a fake fortress built by a recent fascist dictator and a huge quantity of very old, very lovely ceramic-tiled buildings. It has South American-style boulevards called things like Avenida da Liberdade, 70s air-conditioned 'prestige' hotel towers, slum blocks on the outskirts and gross new sports arenas in green and yellow. Like other finished cities, Lisbon is mostly old; the new architecture is in designated development areas -- virtuoso iconic stuff, jazzy, gimmicky, a bit dated, a bit big. But that stuff doesn't change the essential, fixed, finished character of Lisbon. It arrived too late for that. Lisbon knew by then what it was. I mean, it knew what combination of other cities it was. They finished Lisbon, got it right back in the 19th century and then it was just a question of cleaning up the stone and pedestrianising the shopping areas. Voila! Bring on the tourists!


The night I arrive I chance, with my supernice hosts Miguel and Sylvie, upon a design exhibition called S*Cool. It's open late, totally empty of public, manned by skate-chic art school kids. It's up on the first floor of a charmingly crumbly building in the Baixa district, all tiny ruelles and steep climbs, witty graffiti and shady guys trying to sell hash. The display area is all lit up with fluorescent boxes shining up from the floor. Each box contains a couple of art school-designed objects combining traditional crafts with futuristic shapes. A basketwork chair with 'orgonic' curves, a carrier bag made of recycled plastic fuse covers.

I learn that the show is part of a biennale event happening all over the city, called Experimenta Design 2003: Beyond Consumption. Now this appeals to me much more than the museums. It suggests Lisbon as a hub of creative activity, a hot molten city capable of accepting new shapes and forms. A young city rather than an old one. Of course, it's terrible hype, lavishly funded by the Portugese government to boost the city's image. And of course it's not 'beyond consumption' -- it's about industrial design, mostly, completely compatible and complicit with capitalism. I doubt it's even very experimental. What I fail to see, as I visit the event's many sites over the next few days, are any conspicuous examples of risks, hazards, anomalies or failures, all necessary parts of any true experiment. In fact, what I mostly see is a finished style of slick, groovy, retro-futuristic 'orgonic' design made up of the successful elements of all the things considered cool back in1998.

Fancy Seeing You Here!

Although I'm scornful, and wouldn't accept '1998' as a substitute for innovation in my own city or my own work, to encounter it here on holiday, and so well preserved, is strangely comforting.

My home from home becomes the Lounging Space at the Cinema Sao Jorge on the Avenida da Liberdade. This fabulous art deco cinema has been tranformed into a space that is just pure 1998. There are those exact Arne Jacobsen chairs I had in my London 'space age bachelor pad' back in 98. There are 98 typefaces galore and a DJ playing lounge muzak and film themes. There are big white leather 'experimental' sofas straight out of the Future Systems style book. There's nice food and good coffee and airport chic and a programme of 'experimental' films like the ones I used to see at Lux on Hoxton Square, before it closed.

In fact, what this 'lounge' reminds me of is stuff that existed in London in 1998, then closed because nobody could give a fuck about it. That cool iMac-equipped Japanese-style internet cafe I used to go to on St John Street, Islington. The Crow Bar on Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell. (Even the name 'Clerkenwell' smacks totally of 1998.) Quiet Revolution on Old Street, the 'orgonic' whole food cafe with molded plywood chairs and acrid little wheatgrass shots. The Lux Cinema. Blow Up. Shows about airports at the Photographers' Gallery. English people saying 'L'Histoire de Melody Nelson' is a totally under-rated album. Chairs, chairs and more chairs at the Design Museum.

At the time, it seemed like a greener, kinder, more sophisticated and cosmpolitan sort of capitalism might be emerging, a more liberal consumerscape which would characterise the 21st century itself. How wrong we were! The enlightened businesses I found on my return to London from Paris in 1997 had all closed down by the time I left for New York in 2000, replaced by bricks and mortar, pricks with mortgages, normality, business as usual, mass marketing, chains, sincere guitar bands, grubby pragmatism. And then something worse happened. Hijacked civilian jets. Cataclysmic horror right on my New York doorstep. Nationalism, terror, flags, security, pride, timidity, wars, evil, empire.

It was nice to run into 1998 in Lisbon, as nice as running unexpectedly into an old girlfriend. God, you were beautiful! We were younger then, innocent dreamers. Let's bathe, amnesiac, in the amniotic fluids of 1998! Let's forget all supervening time! Let history end here!

Knowledge of the Chair

The story so far. Here in Lisbon it is still 1998. Capitalism, not 'terror', is the enemy. But it's only a mild enemy. It can be refined, tamed, reformed. We can leave it up to capitalism to ameliorate capitalism. We can go 'beyond consumption', tinker and experiment and play. Here in Lisbon's hallucinated 1998 there's a conference featuring addresses from David Toop and Matthew Barney and Hedi Slimane and Rick Poynor. There are courses aimed at 'widening knowledge of the chair.' There are workshops on digital design like the dot com bubble never burst. There are avant garde shop window displays throughout the city pushing consumption 'beyond' by throwing in references to Mersault in Camus' 'The Outsider', as if 'killing an Arab' weren't what we really were doing. And at Benetton, the original 'beyond consumption' brand, the top floor of the store has been made a branch of their Venice art college Fabrica. I leaf admiringly through back copies of Colors, deciding that, here in 1998, it's the best magazine in the world.

'This style is finished,' I remark to friends (Miho from United Bamboo and Rusty Santos! What are you doing here?) I meet in the Lounging Space. But maybe what I mean is that it's simply polished-finished, normalised, generalised. 'Baroque' is an old Portugese word originally meaning 'a mis-shapen pearl'. As a style it was quickly over in Europe, but persisted in Brazil for centuries. Perhaps the Europeans quickly tired of the Baroque when its intriguing irregularities became orthodoxies, whereas the Brazilians just saw it as an eternal style, permanent elegance.

I suppose it depends on whether you see 'finished' as an insult akin to 'so over' or as a compliment, close cousin to 'finesse'.

Years ending with an 8

1998. The near future as conceived by the near past. We know now we got it wrong. The future wasn't airports and globalism and 'the long boom' (copyright Wired magazine circa 1996). The future was more like 'bang bang'. But that doesn't mean that 98 isn't lovely and poignant and all that. Just because the future didn't turn out like that, it doesn't mean that we can't wish it had. Maybe, somehow, it still will.

Why do years with an 8 at the end of them always seem to define the decades they figure in? Maybe because it takes eight years to determine what a decade has been 'about'. It takes eight years to write the style manual. By 1968, 1978, 1988 or 1998 you knew what the master narrative of that decade was. You knew that decade's chosen way to be 'modern'. By year eight, the decade's style was finished, finessed, defined. Even uncool people got the message about how to be cool. They just needed those little back glasses, that cow-lick fur cap haircut, and they were safely 'modern'.

Too late, normal cool modern people! The decade turned, your finish just finished! Now you have to plunge yourself into a new decade, and it's all going to be messy and uncertain again until 2008!

The tone of the Noughties got set early. On September 11th, 2001. A tone of fear, paranoia, aggression, uncertainty replaced that whole utopian retro-futuristic Panton-Kubrick-Eames thing we'd been doing. It's finished, defunct, terminated, deceased, dodo-dead. What is now replacing it is, I don't know, fill in the dots. This style, which still has no name, and will define a decade which still has no name, is still up for grabs. That's the scary beauty of it. There will be conformism and convergence by 2008, but for now it's all up in the air, and anything you say might turn out to be true.

I like to put neo-medievalism on the suggestions form, amongst other things. I've been planning this since 2000, when I released a neo-medieval Kahimi Karie mini-album called 'Journey to the Centre of Me'. The 2003 Matmos release 'The Civil War' triangulates my trend and confirms my prescience, or doesn't, as you wish. The current geo-political atmosphere of crusade and jihad might make the medieval style relevant, or just fucking depressing, depending on your point of view.

The big summer show this year at Kunst-Werke in Berlin (curated by Klaus Biesenbach, a man whose style tips I'm inclined to trust, though I might be wrong) was Territories, a look at the hyper-paranoid, security-obsessed conception of space in Israel and the Occupied Territories. A kind of psychogeography of the new medieval paranoia. I'm the only person who seems to have liked that show. I thought it got the unfolding, unfinished zeitgeist absolutely right.

Something else that gets it right is Vice magazine, whether you like it or not (and I write for it from time to time). Vice is confused and funny, still young enough to take big risks. (You know that by the fact that it can still make big mistakes, like publisher Gavin McInnes' recent political posturing.) Vice is unfinished. All those 90s style mags like Dazed and Sleaze and Wallpaper*, they seem pretty finished. They won't really survive the transition to this decade, just like Blitz didn't survive the transition to the 90s. Vice is, like it or not, setting the tone.

But let's wait and see. We won't really know the final scores until 2008.

First Things First

I'm sitting in the Lounging Space at the Cinema Sao Jorge, eavesdropping on a bunch of designers preparing a panel. The big man amongst them is Rick Poynor, author of 'Obey The Giant', a cultural study of visual culture and one of my book picks of 2001. 'Obey The Giant' didn't really say much new about marketing, design, visuals. But just by making a clean, clear sweep through recent 'megavisual' tendencies, it stuck the near past in a glass case and turned it into history. It finished it. Rick Poynor is one of my favourite finishers. What's more, he's a British public intellectual in the manner of Paul Morley, Christopher Frayling, Simon Frith, Matthew Collings... bright yet accessible, a story-teller and a thinker, asking good questions.

Poynor, introducing himself to his fellow panellists, tells them he was 13 in 1970 and is still very marked by the spirit of the 60s -- the utopian design ideals of people like Buckminster Fuller. In 2000 he launched First Things First, an ethical design manifesto vaguely related to the No Logo movement, which aimed to make capitalism more responsible. I suppose that's what the 'Beyond Consumption' part of the conference label means. Let's make capitalism sustainable by making it nice. Let's build moral perspectives into our work as designers.

Poynor admits that this reformist tendency suffered a heavy blow after 9/11, when any kind of criticism of capitalism suddenly seemed like alignment with Bin Laden. I have to leave before I get a chance to hear his prognosis for the future. But one of the other panellists has an alarmingly Nostradamist take on things. 'We used to work, as designers, towards a better future. Now we can't even count on there being a future at all.'

A permanent1998 of the soul

On my last day in Lisbon my hosts take me to the site of Expo 98. We sit on the waterfront on stripy benches, sheltered from the wind by the vast white elephants of late 90s iconic architecture.

Some cities close down their expo sites when the show is finished. This summer I visited the site of Osaka's Expo 70 only to find closed gates, a monorail, and a huge statue of a penguin, standing there like a remnant of some forgotten religion. Just as Montreal renamed Expo 68 'Terre des Hommes', Lisbon has decided to soldier on with its now-retro futurist utopia, dubbing Expo 98 'Park of Nations'. It's like sitting in a gigantic Peter Saville sleeve. Knotting fingers around my face, gazing out at the bay, I fall into contemplation, running through my head the questions the week has raised.

I wonder if there's some permanent 1998 of the soul, and I wonder if designers, to stay sane, are condemned to live there forever? Do they need vaguely utopian visions to sustain their sense of the rightness of what they're actually doing? Is design the disco of the 90s, and is 1998 its 1978? Will design now go underground until clement, utopian weather returns to the world? Is 9/11 to design what AIDS was to disco? Will 9/11 force design to retreat back underground to a little clique of torch-bearers and initiates, until the design equivalent of Daft Punk comes along to brush it off and rehabilitate it? Is 'experiment' just a question of rehashing and reheating the successful experiments of yesteryear, or might it involve the possibility of real mistakes, outrages, mis-steps?

I've enjoyed my week in the near past. It reminded me of a future that, surprisingly, didn't arrive. Maybe it still will. Maybe 1998 isn't finished after all.

There's a good account of a Rick Poynor lecture at CreativePro.

Essays Index