Skin – i-D

Give Me Some Skin

In March 2011, five people volunteered to be part of an art project involving some of the biggest, most revered names in the contemporary art scene. Its stated aim was to ask serious questions about what, exactly, constitutes art.

The five volunteers – Jack, AJ, Leaf, Shauna and Conrad – gave their skin as a canvas for the likes of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Raymond Pettibon. They were to become a walking original; a permanent, mobile gallery piece from the hands of artists who routinely charge hundreds of thousands for their creations to hang in a frame or sit in the corner of a room.

Along for the ride was Stamp London founder and director Ryan Hope. The result is this achingly stylish documentary film. “What the film asks is how you classify fine art,” Hope told i-D. “Who decides that? Damien Hirst is probably the best known fine artist in the world, and he considers that tattoo his work. The guy at Christie’s told me that, even by making the film, we’re affecting the value of the tattoos. What he was ultimately saying is that there’s no distinction between art, advertising, production and product. But the thing is, these tattoos have no value, because they can’t be sold.”

Skin is the first film from a clearly talented, occasionally audacious director. It’s seamlessly cut, frequently inventive, with a throbbing score from Amon Tobin. But, for every flash of beauty, there’s a scene that feels posy and preening, unsure of when to hold off and when to show off, when to be serious and when to slyly laugh.

“Our body has its shelf-life, but so does everything else,” Jack says as he stands under a hose, beads dripping down his inked torso as he stares off into an imagined future – like the off-cuts of a Take That video. He talks of working hard to leave dead-eyed suburbia behind, to move to London and be around like-minded people. “Because everyone moves to Hackney don’t they?” he says dejectedly. AJ talks of being “uncomfortable in the suburbs. The death of a comfortable, conformist life moving in on me. I knew I would have to escape before it was too late.” “No-one else will ever give birth through a piece of Damien Hirst art,” Shauna says proudly. Leaf, an American-Chinese dude, is in a band called Drug Dealers “which I’d guess you’d describe as chill-wave.”

Skin invites criticism – no doubt. It almost wants you to accuse it of a Nathan Barley self-emulation. But it stands tall, rides the punches, keeps on going and eventually stays standing. It succeeds because it refuses to bow to the artists behind the inkwork. Pettibon, Koons et al never appear on screen, and Hirst only fleetingly. If Skin deals in hagiography, it’s for those who chose to be a canvas.

“I let their characters dictate the visual style,” Hope says. “I interviewed the people first off and then I hung out with them, and whatever came to the forefront led the way for the film. I wanted a snapshot of their lives that was true. That was the most important thing to me. That was the vibe, the point, the idea of the film.” And that core authenticity is the source of its strength. Because this writer has a tattoo from David Shrigley on the inside of his left bicep. He’s had his card declined on dates in restaurants, more than once, because he decided as a kid that the process of sharing art and creativity was somehow worth the effort and the sacrifice. For all its faults and sometime pretensions, Skin invokes that feeling, that excitement, that determination.

As Conrad says to sum up the film: “I think the fine art scene, or the gallery scene, or whatever you call it, has become annul and somewhat incestuous. Do you think the average person gives a shit about a $750 million piece of art? But tattoos aren’t like that. Someone looks at a tattoo and it’s direct, experiential and understandable, even if they don’t know why you got it. People are able to understand it by common terms, because the tattoo was made for common people.”

Original article here:


Cardiff’s Favourite Smell

Just to prove I can write light news:

There are many lovely smells in the world. A loaf of freshly baked bread being taken from the oven, a garden on a cool evening just after the lawn has been mown, flowers on the windowsill, roast chicken or fresh coffee brewing.
Of all these contenders, a recent poll has revealed Cardiff’s favourite smell. What is the clear favourite? Disinfectant.

A third of Cardiffians voted for the sweet scent of bleach in a poll carried out by National Car Parks Limited who are trying to offer a new initiative to deal with that mainstay of delightful smells – the stairwells of Cardiff’s multi-storey car parks.

Cardiff car parks have traditionally given the phrase Eau De Toilette a whole new meaning, and the delightful smell of other people’s bodily fluids has been enough to drive a third of people away from using Cardiff’s busiest car park.

The poll showed that almost a third of car park customers in Cardiff (31 per cent) are unlikely to use a car park again if it smelt particularly bad. In addition, more than two in three people (65 per cent) named and shamed stairwells as the worst smelling area of car parks, with almost half associating this area with the smell of urine (49 per cent).

So, instead of urine and vomit, NCP are working out a way of pumping smells into their multi-storeys that we consider to be far more pleasant.
In the survey, Cardiff voted for disinfectant as their favourite smell (33 per cent), followed by mint (16 per cent), cut grass (15 per cent) clean laundry (13 per cent) and fresh bread (9 per cent).

NCP chief Executive said: “For many of us car parking is the front door to our jobs, favourite shops, cinemas or theatres. Smell is an important part of the experience. We know there’s work to do, so drawing on new and innovative technology as well as public opinion, we will improve all aspects of our car parks.”

“We are committed to offering our customers a pleasant and positive experience in our car parks and we fully recognise that unpleasant smells could drive customers away.”

Cardiff University Professor Tim Jacob, who is an expert in the psychology of smell, said: “Smells have a massive impact on our mindset and can influence the way we feel. Pleasant smells tend to put us at ease whereas bad smells warn us of something unpleasant or even dangerous. To a degree, smells can even control the way you behave in certain situations, probably more so than you may realise.

“For instance, it has been reported that citrus fragrances can have an antidepressant effect, helping to improve symptoms of depression. Certain odours such as rosemary and peppermint have been shown to increase alertness while driving and the impact of smells even has an effect on our subconscious, with some influencing the quality of our dreams.”

Wales Pupils Judged on Happiness

Just to prove I can write hard news:

The way in which Welsh schools are inspected is going to go through a “fundamental change” and put a new emphasis on child welfare when the new inspection cycle begins in 2010, it has been revealed.

Although the final draft of changes will not be announced until April 7th, it is known that the Welsh Inspectorate intend to follow the lead of Education Secretary Ed Balls and judge schools on a whole raft of different criteria, most notably ways of judging schools on their pupils happiness, rather than just exam results and academic progress

The new inspections will now include “learner well being” as a central aspect of the way they judge school’s effectiveness. After a series of public consultations on proposals for the next cycle of elections in 2010, a document produced by the Inspectorate for Education and Training in Wales (ESTYN) outlining the changes said: “Learner wellbeing may include arrangements for the safeguarding of children, the implementation of anti-bullying policies and include benchmarking rates of pupil attendance and exclusions”

“There would also be a focus on pupil participation and healthy living.”
This new framework comes after a number of media reports about the level of misbehaviour in Britain’s schools. This week, a teacher was found guilty of professional misconduct and suspended for a year after she secretly filmed shocking scenes of misbehaviour on behalf of both pupils and staff in four comprehensive schools round Britain.
ESTYN also intend to make inspections substantially shorter, focusing on “core” aspects, but underperforming schools will be subject to “follow up” inspection activity: “We aim to simply the way we inspect. The new inspection framework will focus clearly on giving us the information we need to target support where it is needed most.”

ESTYN also intend to give shorter periods of notice to schools they intend to inspect, saying: This would increase public confidence that inspections are based on provision that has not been stage managed.”

It remains to be seen how ESTYN’s proposals will be accepted by Welsh head teachers. The National Association of Head Teachers have condemned the Ed Balls’ similar plan in England as “fundamentally flawed” saying it is “absurd” to try and judge a child’s happiness on a series of criteria: said: “We are disappointed that the Government is spending time and money developing indicators which will indicate nothing of any substance.”

Eating With a Local

It’s not every day two perfect strangers invite you into their home for an evening of wining and dining, but that is exactly what happened to me.

I was travelling across Cardiff to interview Vicki Edmunds and her niece Lauren Jones who have begun a joint venture called Eat With a Local. The project is, at its simplest, a social networking site on which people can volunteer to cook for others from different cultures, ages and backgrounds.

Despite myself, I had reservations. “Eating with a local is all good and well,” I thought, “but can people really be bothered to socialise with strangers for one-off evenings.”

It quickly became apparent that my cynicism was horribly misplaced. Safely inside Lauren’s University halls with a glassful of wine and a plate of Vicki’s own chicken curry, naan and rice laid in front of me (“It’s been in the family for twenty years,” she said), I asked them where the idea had come from.

“Whenever I have travelled anywhere,” Vicki said, “the most memorable experiences I have had have always revolved around meeting people that are native to wherever I am, and I’ve found the best way to do that is share a meal together.”

The inspiration for Eat with A Local came from such an encounter. Talking about an experience in Fiji, Vicki said:

“I didn’t really enjoy it for much of the week. The place was like a picture postcard but I was stuck in a hotel for almost the whole time. I knew there was this whole island to go and explore and for some reason I wasn’t doing it.

“Then, on one of the last days, we went to the other side of the island on a trip and this Fijian woman somehow managed to cook a meal for the six of us using a single frying pan, and we sat round on our knees and ate it together. It was wonderful.”

My hosts were passionate about travelling and relating to the world around them, and felt strongly against the guidebook, tourist-trail form of backpacking that is so easy to fall into.

Eat With a Local would offer a way out of this. By signing up people across the world, the objective is to have a member in every city of every country willing to take in a traveller and give them a taste of authentic, local cooking and an insight into the realities of their culture.

“I don’t think there is a better way to really meet someone and get a sense of them than over a plate of food,” Vicki said.

She hopes Eat With a Local will allow people to build relationships across borders of culture, age and space. “If this takes off,” she said, “I think it could make a difference to a lot of people.”

For now, “if” is the operative word. The program is in its gestation period. The website Vicki has developed is just a few weeks old and only a score of people have signed up as members so far. Already, though, members range from Cardiff and Bridgend to Warsaw, Melbourne and Tokyo.

Vicki’s next trip is to Vietnam next month. From my own experiences, I told her the place would suit her.

When arriving in Hanoi, Vietnam, last summer, I had to cross the Cau Thang Long bridge. An old guy on the bus told me with impeccable English how, during the war, the American’s had bombed the bridge every day for years in the hope it would disrupt the steady stream of supplies being sent from the city to the North Vietnamese army. Every night, without fail, the people of Hanoi repaired the bridge enough to get supplies out before the bombers, like clockwork, returned again.

As I got to know the city, the story seemed to embody the Vietnamese approach to life.

On my first evening, I committed a serious faux pas. Weaving my way through a jostling pavement in Hanoi’s old quarter, I walked over a rug that everyone else seemed to be avoiding. A volley of irritated cries accompanied my swift departure.

After a few days of acclimatization, I realized I’d trodden all over the Vietnamese equivalent of a dining table during someone’s evening meal.

One quickly realises that in Vietnam, as in many third world countries, people share stuff. Every evening, the air is thick with chatter as people come from their home to share their food, drink rice wine and tell each other about their day. 

George Orwell writes in Being British:

“A British man’s home is his castle.”

In comparison to the Vietnamese, our culture is built on the notion of privacy, ownership and possession. For all our strengths and attributes, we are not a sociable society and we suffer from chronic mistrust.

When my prospects would likely have consisted of takeaway chow mein and the TV, Eat With A Local provided me with a warm evening of flowing conversation and shared anecdotes. I faced the Cardiff evening with my belly full of home cooking, embarrassed by my English restraint, reminiscing about Hanoi, and glad I’d eaten with a local.

Understanding the BNP

A Party From Your Parent’s Day


After a long, gin-soaked Friday night the grind of the proceeding week had almost been forgotten. At four in the morning, with the sweat of the dance-floor hanging off me and lurid ideas spawning about possible combinations from the fridge, I was probably not the most receptive to fuel for my next blog.  Inspiration chooses its moments.

There’s that brilliant Peter Kay sketch when he talks about getting into a taxi and can’t resist getting into the conversation with the driver. I seem to have embraced this when taking the 5 minute journey from the centre of Cardiff to my place in Splott, always starting the conversation with the classic “busy night mate?” before comfortably going through the motions.

On this particular occasion, I ended up sat in the taxi outside my house for about 10 minutes trying to understand why my driver was going to vote for the BNP at the next election.

I never got my driver’s name, but for the sake of this blog I’m going to refer to him as Geoff. I think (although, due to the 20 or so units, I can’t be sure) the conversation was sparked by me saying how quickly Cardiff seemed to be changing and my own city, Sheffield, was going through a similar thing.

As we drew up by my house, Geoff told me he had grown up “just round the corner” and now lived in Ely. His Dad had worked at the East Moors steelworks in Splott and was made redundant when it closed in the late 70’s. “He’s still waiting for his pension,” he said. He told me about the Miner’s Strike: “These men, who were fighting for their way of life, were painted as yobs and criminals.”

Despite his father’s experiences, Geoff himself had worked in the steel factory run by ASW until it went into receivership in 2002. “I went into work one morning, the boss called me to the office and there was a cheque on the table for £16,000. They told me it was mine if I accepted voluntary redundancy. It was very difficult not to, I had kids at home that needed feeding and we all knew the place was going down the tubes. Turns out it was about half of what I was owed, but I took it.

“Labour’s done nothing to help me. I’m never going to get what I earnt. My Dad is almost 70 and he’s still working. I’m probably going to be stuck doing this until about the same time,” he said, cuffing the steering wheel with the flat of his hand as he did so.

I asked him about the Splott of his upbringing, and he told me of the sense of community that was held together by the shared identity and shared destiny that the steelworks provided. He talked of the way this community fragmented when the steel industry died, and of the social and demographic transformation that has gone on since.

Finally, he told me that he’d received a knock on his door from a couple of guy’s canvassing for BNP votes. They said they stood for a Britain that existed in our parent’s day.

So there it was. This amenable, personable guy not only felt intimidated by the sheer force of change that had swept through his community, it wasn’t just that the BNP provided him with a sense of belonging (although these stereotypes were to an extent accurate with my driver), it was that he felt betrayed and dismissed by successive centrist Governments.

Geoff argued well, and the anger and the sense of helplessness at how he and his family had been treated by men in Westminister was almost tangible. He gripped the steering wheel and didn’t take his eyes off the road whilst he spoke, as if he was talking to himself. Deep scars that may have scabbed over, but hadn’t healed.

I thanked him for the conversation, went inside and switched my laptop on, and what was the leading article on the Guardian’s website? The rise of the BNP is politicians fault.

In response to the leaked BNP membership list (my erstwhile colleague Sean expands on this on his own blog) which showed that people from all over Britain and from a broad range of professions signed up to the BNP, Cabinet Minister Hazel Blears wrote a forthright piece investigating the causes of the BNP’s rise to uncomfortable relevance:

“We must recognise that where the BNP wins votes, it is often a result of local political failure. Estates that have been ignored for decades; voters taken for granted; local services that have failed; white skilled working-class voters who feel politicians live on a different planet. In such a political vacuum, the BNP steps in with offers of grass-cutting, a listening ear, and easy answers to complex problems…Shouting Nazi is not the answer.

I grew up in a suburb in Sheffield and I went to the local comprehensive school. Each member of my family works in some capacity in the public services. After I graduated from University I went back to Sheffield and, without a lot of consideration, found myself working with people with learning disabilities. As a result, the left is a very natural place for me to occupy.

There is also, from my reasonably sanitised point of view, a defined distinction between the left and right wing. I find opposing Thatcherism (and, by extension, any Conservative government) about as difficult as drinking beer. But, to Geoff, the distinction between left and right have ceased to have, or maybe never had, any meaning.

 Do you know what the worst thing about talking to Geoff was? I could see exactly where he was coming from.

To conclude, I want to show a clip from a wonderful film which, as cinema has the tendency to do, illustrates what I’m attempting to say far more articulately than I ever could. This Is England, by Shane Meadows; if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to. I just wish that, late that Friday night, I’d had the presence of mind to recommend it to Geoff.  


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