Category Archives: Sky News Online

Art for Bank Workers

Tucked away in a soulless building in Islington’s Upper Street is the unexceptionally named Business Design Centre – home to the 21st London Art Fair.
Look on it as the Ideal Home Show for the art world.

Not as slick or suave as Frieze, nor as flea market as the Affordable Art Fair.

Of all the art fairs that vie for Londoners’ attention, this one is an unashamed melting pot of 112 galleries from Europe and the UK showing (okay, selling) 20th and 21st century art from the likes of Marc Chagall and LS Lowry to Banksy’s Bristol nemesis, Nick Walker.

The work ranges from £20 “high-quality, editioned video art” to a Henry Moore for a cool one million pounds – although when you start talking figures that sound like mortgages, the ticket on the label always reads “price on application”.

Jonathan Burton, London Art Fair’s director, insists that the art market is still relevant despite a looming recession. He takes the phrase “art fair” quite literally.

“Art is not for a wealthy elite. The reason we have such a mix of galleries, styles and projects is to prove you don’t have to spend a fortune to own something unique,” he says.

He also suggests that a downturn could be the best time to start collecting: “Galleries are more flexible with price, something they wouldn’t have been a year ago.”

The heaviness of economic uncertainty seems to waft away as the serious collectors stream in for the buyers’ preview – an art world convention or condescension depending on which end of the black you’re in. The conversation drifts from “hmm” to bandying numbers while omitting the words “thousand” or “million”.

Polite nodding-a-plenty coupled with saccharine smiles and power-handshakes.

But what of the art? Modern masters and the contemporary canon. Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Sir Peter Blake for the former. Gavin Turk, Jeremy Deller, Rob and Nick Carter for the latter.

Art that appeals to buyers who work for banks.

Of this, Burton is unashamed: “City buyers are very important to us. They’re our best repeat customers.”

The art school idea of using creativity to challenge and reflect the world you experience goes straight out the window here. That is, until you ascend a few staircases, meander through a few corridors and ascend a final set of stairs to Gerry Judah’s work.

Gerry’s work stabs you. Destroyed cityscapes turned on their side on paper and canvas – meticulously modeled down to inner stairwells and water-tanks.

A passing electrician commented “It’s Gaza, innit?” Or anywhere wrecked by man or nature.

Despite the obvious sculptural effect that harks to his Hollywood set design days, Judah calls these paintings.

“They’re directly influenced by war zones from the Middle East to eastern Europe. I’m Jewish and my family comes from Baghdad. I set out to address a feeling, not an issue – I don’t like leading people by the nose. It’s political with a small ‘p’.”

Your eye, your body, your mind – all wander through the monochrome of Judah’s deliberate destopia. Repulsed at the grotesque yet magnetized by the beauty of detail.

After spending the best part of two hours despairing that the word ‘art’ had gathered the unwelcome suffix ‘market’, seeing the fragile power of Judah’s work renewed a sense that art exists beyond art’s sake.

:: The 21st London Art Fair is open to the public until 18 January 2009 at the Business Design Centre, Upper Street, Islington, London.

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This article was first published on Sky News Online on 14 January 2009. All rights reserved.

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Smoke For Free, Die For Nothing

Publicity surrounding the link to cancer has left US tobacco firms so desperate to recruit new customers they have started giving their products away.

I was “hit up” by one of Chicago’s “cigarette fairies” – a promotional vendor who has routes throughout urban bars and clubs.

“So what brand do you smoke?” she asked. “You seen the British Camel Lights? They call them Blues because some legislation said it was deceptive to call cigarettes ‘light’.”

She scanned my passport and asks me a few vitals – name, number, address and so on.

“Why do you need my phone number?” I asked.

“Something like 2% of the people we hit up get a phone call in the year and they have a chance of winning like a carton or something,” she replied.

Her job is to collect details about smokers (what they smoke, how much and so on) and then give out two packets of Camel-branded cigarettes. For free. Cancer on the cheap.

Their performance rating is gauged on how many cigarettes they manage to hand out… and how many they convert to the cause of administering lung disease to the American population.

“We’re all over the place… all over America. It’s a sweet job,” she told me.

“I’ve got this brand called Crush – there’s a little pellet in the filter you break so you can have a menthol smoke if you want one.

“I’ve also got chewing tobacco that’s been pasteurized so you don’t have to spit it out. You can just swallow what you chew.”

Gross. “Don’t you feel a bit guilty about handing out what is essentially an addictive and unhealthy habit to people?”

“They always have a choice. And usually the choice is to take it up.”

Ever since Chicago’s smoking ban kicked in at the start of the year, cigarette companies like RJ Reynolds have had to play a devious game in order to lure in more nicotine addicts.

From handing out free cigarettes in bars and parties – usually to the hip and trendy types who dictate style – to edible chewing tobacco (“there are different strengths and flavours depending on your taste”) Camel and other cigarette brands are frantically and aggressively marketing their wares in increasingly innovative and arguably reckless ways.

There are “gift packs” that include your two packets of cigarettes, a lighter, a mint-flavoured sweet, a condom, and a moist towelette.

Having been previously exposed to chocolate-flavoured cigarettes and ones with designer packs that indicate my level of “cool”, I’ve known the dark arts of cigarette marketing.

They got me hooked at the age of 14. I’m one of those smokers who say they should quit because it’s socially acceptable to do so but never follow through because that inner teenager fears being shunned by my peers (the umbilical cord of carcinogenic chemicals notwithstanding).

RJ Reynolds, the company that oversees the Camel brand, advertise for “highly motivated and principled university graduates with strong communication skills who can build win-win relationships”.

The ideal candidate will become a “passionate tobacco expert” and a “valuable business consultant”. Essential skills include “a willingness to take responsibility, honesty, integrity (and) trustworthiness”.

RJ Reynolds offer a “comprehensive” health and welfare benefits package, a “generous” annual bonus, and a company car.

As ever, the “free choice” card is played. But the temptation can’t be negated. For the sales rep, a low-effort decently paid job with fringe benefits.

For the punter, two free packs of smokes – a saving of just over £9 – and the glee of getting something for nothing (apart from handing over your personal details).

You save a bit of money and you may get a phone call somewhere down the line.

In exchange, you hand over your personal details to a major corporation with the power to lobby governments.

So stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

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This article was originally published on Sky News Online on 14 October 2008. All rights reserved.

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Banksy Sets Up Shop In Big Apple

Banksy, the Scarlet Pimpernel of the art world, is in New York. Or was.

Whoever Banksy may be, he’s opened the Village Pet Store and Charcoal Grill in New York’s West Village.

It features animatronics developed by “some Hollywoodish company”. Set in a shopfront Sweeny Todd would own if he were into animals, a rabbit paints its nails, chicken nuggets feed from a dish of sauce, fish fingers swim in a bowl, hot dogs burrow and frolic in terrariums, CCTV cameras look after their young, a leopard print coat perches atop a tree, and a bald, caged, suicidal-looking Tweety swings back and forth in his cage.

Banksy is no stranger to installations. In 2005 in London’s Notting Hill, he filled a shop front with live rats and his painted reworkings of the sort of thing you would see in the National Gallery and called it Crude Oils.

The difference here is that nothing is for sale. Nothing is signed, nothing is commodified. The actors manning the shop play every bit the New York pet shop owner.

One of the pet shop owners is a tutor at the School of Visual Arts, Marty Abrahams. His son was approached by Banksy’s people with an offer of a short term job for Marty with some “acting involved”.

Reaction from the natives has been anything from asking to buy the entire show (nothing is for sale, but the “souvenirs” will probably end up on eBay) to befuddlement to “it’s a metaphor – we start off as chicken nuggets, graduate to hot dogs then turn into the masturbating monkey”.

Banksy gives his own reasons for the show. “New Yorkers don’t care about art, they care about pets. So I’m exhibiting them instead. I wanted to make art that questioned our relationship with animals and the ethics and sustainability of factory farming, but it ended up as chicken nuggets singing. I took all the money I made exploiting an animal in my last show and used it to fund a new show about the exploitation of animals. If its art and you can see it from the street, I guess it could still be considered street art.”

Banksy stalkers and “those in the know” have been chattering about “something big” by Britain’s favourite vandal for months. However, his publicist and anyone “official” will only say that there is a new pet store in New York.

The Village Pet Store and Charcoal Grill is open to the public until 31 October on 89 7th Avenue, New York City and can be viewed any time day or night, inside or out.

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This article was orginally published on Sky News Online on 10 October 2008. All rights reserved.

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Rape As War In Burma

Burmese soldiers gang-raped and mutilated a 15-year-old girl, fryingpanfire sources have said.

Schoolgirl Nhkum Hkawn Din was set upon and killed on her way to delivering rice to her brother, who was working in a paddy field in July.

“We are aware of these reports. We are investigating these reports. No one has been officially arrested,” Burmese authorities said, under promise of anonymity.

The teen’s brother raised the alarm after returning home to find his sister was not there.

Friends and family searched for her until they reported the teen missing later that evening.

Her body was found three days later – she was naked, had been repeatedly stabbed and 200 metres from an army checkpoint.

Searchers first found her clothes, then her slippers together with the basket she carried that day.

The girl’s body was so badly mutilated, her family was only able to identify by her clothes and accessories.

“This is a horrific attack and should remind governments and the United Nations of the true nature of this regime,” said Nang Seng, campaigns officer at Burma Campaign UK.

“Local people are very angry that these rapes happen again and again and no action is taken.

“There is no justice or rule of law in Burma. People are hoping that the United Nations will take up this case.”

According to Burma Campaign UK, local army commanders admitted one soldier carried out the attack and a senior colonel has been transferred.

Also, the army has offered the family £250 compensation in addition to a bag of rice, some cooking oil, five cans of milk and some sugar.

In a dangerous act of defiance, posters calling for justice have been put up in the local capital Mychina.

“Cases of sexual violence against ethnic women are rife. There is a culture of impunity and the Burmese army have been getting away with this for years,” said Dave Mathieson from Human Rights Watch.

“This is something that should be investigated seriously by the international community, ideally through a high level commission of inquiry on abuses by the military.”

Over 1,000 cases of rape on the part of Burmese soldiers against ethnic minorities have been documented.

Burma’s military junta faced harsh criticism for failing to allow international aid workers access to the hardest hit areas of the country following Cyclone Nargis in May.

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This article was originally published on Sky News Online on 21 August 2008. All rights reserved.

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Frolicsome Foals at Dour Festival

“Bonjour!” A hearty French greeting delivered in a Flemish accent.

With stages like “Le Petit Maison dans la Prairie” and notice boards in French, Flemish and English, you’re a long way from Glastonbury.

Punters, bands, staff and food vendors deftly skip from one tongue to another.

Just the sort of thing to make you feel like an inadequate, monolingual English oaf.

It’s the 20th Dour Festival.

The what festival? Dour.

Four days, 85 euros, and over 200 bands on six stages.

A rainy field in Belgium where tens of thousands of young men gave their lives in the First World War.

Now 36,000 young ‘uns stomping along to the likes of Goldfrapp, Wu Tang Clan, Foals and The Notwist… and a few others you may or may not have heard of.

Dour is proud of setting more established acts alongside more ‘discoverable’ bands across many genres.

The site boasts a large NGO village that boasts everyone from Oxfam to anti-capitalist groups that still believe the revolution is coming in our lifetime.

Organisers stress that it isn’t just lip service but offers a “social dimension to having a great time watching your favourite bands”.

To this end fryingpanfire hooked up with one of the UK’s more progressive acts, Foals, to ask what these Oxford boys thought of the big wide world beyond the stage.

Affable young men. University dropouts (bar one).

Musical influences from Talking Heads to Steve Reich.

Haircuts to drive geometry teachers wild.

“We’re not overtly political but we’re products of politics,” begins the Oxford University educated frontman Yannis Philippakis.

“If you make music it’s always something political even if you make vapid glossy pop music, because that proliferates materialistic culture.”

Guitarist Jimmy Smith goes further.

“In America the news media lacks any real dialogue. It’s too isolated and a bit self-obsessed.”

“In the UK you get a broad spectrum of media from left to right, and you can consume it as you please. Online, newspapers, television.”

“There’s an objectivity and a sense of the wider world that you don’t really get anywhere else. And with the internet you can bypass all the jargon and choose the news you want.”

“We try to read as many newspapers as possible.”

“(US Presidential Candidate) Barack Obama is great. He will change the world,” continues Yannis.

“If he doesn’t win it’ll be a catastrophe.”

“What it would mean for America to have a black president will be amazing.”

“Blair changed nothing but the Labour Party. He shifted it centre right and took all the socialism out of it.”

A band with interests beyond groupies and hard drugs?

“Oh, they’re nice too. But what matters to us are our friends who don’t care what we do for a living.”

“And the music.”

“”We’ll be making music in some capacity for the rest of our lives. It’s what we were made to do.”

Tomorrow, we’ll be speaking to Dreadzone… remember them?

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This article was originally published on Sky News Online on 18 July 2008. All rights reserved.

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Mexican Hitmen Offer Services Online

Police in Mexico City are investigating online classified ads posted by people selling their services as assassins for as little as £3,000.

Between listings offering gas fitters and modelling agencies, a post reads: “Gun for Hire – $6,000. Professional. International. Discretion guaranteed”.

Another reads: “former soldier with 10 years experience in the private sector, very professional and discreet”.

A hitman called Jorge leads with: “Problems with someone? Would you like a solution? Write to me. 100% professional – we do not charge an advance”.

As drug cartels and organised crime gangs step up their tit-for-tat murders by leaving bodies and severed heads in Mexico City streets, police are taking these ads seriously.

At least 1,700 people have been killed this year in the battle between warring cartels and the raids by soldiers and federal police sent out to stop them.

Paid assassins are often used by gangs due to their relative anonymity and high-calibre weaponry.

Demand for such services has stretched further into Central and South America.

A Mexican cartel aired radio ads in Guatemala this year looking for former soldiers to work as smugglers.

Another hung banners in towns near the American border advertising “lucrative opportunities”.

Fryingpanfire contacted a man based in Chile who offered a professional hitman by assignment, promising to “work in arranging scenarios” or to “fix it like a robbery, accident, etc”.

An ineffective justice system means very few killers get caught.

Police spokesman Miguel Amelio Gomez said the problem of hitmen was real and was one they were “facing all over the country – people offer their services to kill someone for a price”.

He has not ruled out the idea that the ads were faked, but is “investigating all possibilities”.

Mexican police are not immune from threats – in May this year Edgar Millan, the acting director of Mexico’s Federal Preventive Police, was killed by an assassin’s bullet.

It is believed that the so-called Sinaloa Cartel with interests in transporting cocaine and other illicit drugs to the United States was behind the attack.

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This article was originally published on Sky News Online on 14 July 2008. All rights reserved.

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Life In Gaza

The first impression a foreigner gets upon entry into Gaza via the Erez crossing to the north is the smell of a desolate landscape.

Following that is the stark contrast between the lush greenery and ever-constant agribusiness on the Israeli side and the bombed-out patch of land that greets you upon entry into North Gaza.

You enter via a concrete barrier tunnel that intermittently shields you from the sun with patchy tarpaulin.

You come out into what seems like the smash and burn ruins of war.

Greeted by taxi drivers who run their cars either on diesel (petrol is an unattainable commodity here) or on potentially explosive calor gas canisters, you cruise into Gaza City past long-closed shops, houses teetering on their foundations, and mountains of rubbish.

You’ll find the odd family trawling though the rubbish for something useful or edible and the odd scrap metal merchant gathering rusty springs or corrugated iron in the hopes he can sell them on when/if the borders open.

Around 4,000 factories have been forced to close due to the lack of raw materials.

“Welcome to our open air prison!” Ramzi greets me with a smile tinged with that ‘Palestinian resilience’ often spoken about and far too often seen.

“This man here makes the best foustouk and simsimiya in all of Gaza!”

Foustouk is a sticky peanut snack joined together with generous amounts of syrupy sugar. Simsimiya is its sesame-based cousin.

Staple food items such as flour, sugar and rice are allowed into Gaza – but only enough to ensure that Gazans don’t completely starve.

Ramzi works for Save the Children. With nearly half the population of Gaza under the age of 15, he’s a busy man.

I get the usual VIP treatment – tours of sewage lakes where three boys drowned, a zip past the raw sewage pipe flowing into the sea, a show and tell of where four boys in Jabaliya were killed by an Israeli airstrike while they were playing football.

The father of one of the boys killed in Jabaliya has become a local media celebrity. Every news camera pounded their way to his door in the days after the death of his son.

I declined to see the T-shirt he keeps with him to remind him of his boy. That’s war porn.

I caught the woman making my coffee scraping the bottom of a tin. She’ll find some more when the next foreigner comes in bearing chocolates and the like.

She shows me a picture of her grandson…he’s wearing a shahada bandanna and posing with a toy gun looking no different to any other boy photographed wearing his best cowboy outfit.

In a place where a hunt for constructive and educational toys led only to the odd colouring book and red marker pen, its hardly surprising.

Gaza’s a marketing disaster – the adverts on show are old, faded by the sun or blasted by dirt and airstrikes.

The images kids have to look at are either contained in a black plastic box filled with moving pictures or the paste-ups of martyrs in the street.

And the Islamic graffiti. I pull out a tester can of spraypaint and daub “Banksy is dead” on the side of a building.

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This article was originally published on Sky News Online on 17 March 2008. All rights reserved.

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