Wednesday, 25 April 2012



Is shale gas the answer to the global need for an alternative source of energy? Over the past decade shale gas has become an increasingly significant resource for America; predictions estimate shale gas will contribute up to 50% to gas production in North America by 2020. The Obama administration believes that it could help reduce pollution output and ease the dependency and potential of energy price rigging from Russia and the Persian Gulf States. North America has a cluster of shale plains (some of the largest in the world) and more have been located in South America, Europe and Africa. However, before you start running the bath and dreaming about buying your next Range Rover, open your eyes to the threats that shale gas extraction poses. 

Josh Fox (Writer, Director and Star) is one of thousands of Americans who have been approached by an energy company to take a lump sum in return for the use of the gas thousands of feet below their land, but he wishes to explore the issue further before committing to a decision. GasLand is a superbly shot, first person activist, exploratory look at the affects of the shale gas industry, namely “frack” drilling technology and its role in the largest and most extensive domestic gas drilling campaign in history, covering 34 states with over 450,000 wells. Fox sheds light on countless first person experiences illustrating the negative side effects that fracking incurs and the institutional and systemic subversive barriers that prevent solving the issue.     

In the global race to secure energy provisions, GasLand paints a bleak picture for the current methods, effects and future of shale gas extraction and the chances of America ever abiding to cut greenhouse emissions dramatically. It is no coincidence that in 2005, Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol and pushed through a new energy bill exempting the oil and natural gas industry from a number of provisions including the Clean Air Act. As the scramble for resources continue and the current European economic conditions prevail, the appeal of shale gas increases and the reality of fracking impinging on new households is very real.

For instance, here is a link to the first European interdisciplinary shale gas initiative - excuse the acronym:

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Francois Hollande – The Unknown President?

The Socialist candidate in the 2012 French Presidential election Francois Hollande received an official endorsement this week from his former rival, Presidential candidate and the mother of his four children Segolene Royal, as ‘official’ campaigning began on Monday ahead of the first round of voting on April 22nd. Yet little is known about Hollande outside of France; if you asked most Europeans what they know about France’s potential leader, you would most likely be met with head scratching and listless shrugs. This is in part because Hollande carries negligible international experience, and as such has been largely ignored by key European leaders on his campaign visits to Germany and the UK. His measured campaign and lack of strong Presidential personality, so beloved in post-Gaullist France, has been criticised by some as a failing to seize the initiative on his significant early poll lead, allowing his more experienced and aggressive opponent Sarkozy to make up ground.

Inevitably, President Sarkozy has relentlessly attacked his adversary on this issue, questioning his governing credentials and lack of political identity throughout the period of unofficial campaigning. Can France be entrusted to a man who has never even commanded a government ministry? Indeed, were it not for the well publicised international scandal that engulfed Dominique Strauss-Khan last year, leading to the initial favourite for the Socialist candidacy having to step aside, Hollande may well have not been here at all. This kind of personal assault has been typical of Sarkozy’s assertive political style, as his campaign has attempted to cover up the fact that he was the first president in the history of the French Fifth Republic to be less popular than their Prime Minister (Francois Fillon) and had a ‘recovering’ approval rating of merely 34% as of November 2011[i]. By comparison Hollande has largely refrained from mentioning Sarkozy at all, most significantly in his keynote speech at Bourget in January.

In times of great political uncertainty for both France and Europe, what one can be assured of is that if Hollande is elected come April, Europe will have to welcome a vastly different character from Sarkozy, the ‘bling-bling president’, to the top table. Hollande has pushed his image as an everyman of considered intellect, in comparison to the flashy showmanship and often erratic outbursts which have characterised Sarkozy’s time in office. Hollande has cast financial capitalism as his enemy and thus looked to capture much of the energy and disaffection of what Occupy would have called ‘the 99%’. In this mode Hollande has also pledged to implement a 75% top rate tax on earnings of over €1m and promised to renegotiate the European Treaty should he be elected.

Controversial as these policies have been, they have been par for the course in what has been a fractious, values lead, discourse light campaign, as neither candidate has been moved to any genuine discussion about the French economy, the countries budget deficit or the loss of its triple A credit rating last year. Hollande still has a 55% 2nd round poll lead[ii] but the gap is narrowing. Sarkozy has now overturned Hollande’s first round lead polling at 29% to Hollande’s 26.5%[iii]. If Hollande wishes to claim victory he may have to take the initiative, as passively allowing the wily Sarkozy and the far right to dominate the current discourse with predictable posturing over immigration and crime may leave him isolated. Unless he can redirect discussion and get serious on the economy, as well as answer some of his opponents and critics challenges by showing some Presidential character and coming out of his shell; Hollande may well find himself left in the wake of the Sarkozy show.

J.P. CHESHIRE                                                                                    

[i] OpinionWay, November 2011
[ii] IpsosFrance, 10th April 2012
[iii] IFOP-Fiducial, Friday April 6th.2012

Saturday, 7 April 2012



‘Damien Hirst’

Tate Modern, London


If you don't understand Damien Hirst, Don't worry... It's Conceptual.
To begin my review of Damien Hirst’s first major retrospective exhibition in the U.K, I would like to draw your attention to that wonderful Hans Christian Anderson tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes. The juicy tale of 18th century deception and arrogance is painfully relevant when trawling the grandiose rooms of the Tate Modern at the opening of the controversial, Young British Artist's huge collection of work. Often derided as "a great pretender" and criticised for having a limited scope and essentially manipulating the Art Industry to his advantage, conning the system and indulging the elite, Hirst recently helmed his own auction, selling an entire collection for upwards of £111 Million and somewhat confirming assumptions that he isn't a particularly convincing artist but that he is instead promoting the idea of art as a product. At last count, Hirst is reputedly worth more than £200 Million and his often outspoken opinions tend to reach headlines quicker than his artistic achievements, recently his strange admiration for the perpetrators of the 9/11terrorist attack earned him considerable criticism, ultimately forcing him to apologise for saying to the BBC about the terrorists, "You've got to hand it to them, really... on one level they need congratulating." However, regardless of his media battles, his actual Artwork often comes under heavy criticism from critics and journalists alike and it's with this in mind that I prepared to join the masses of fascinated visitors, biting the bullet and entering the comic and macabre world of Damien Hirst.

Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that this was not an exhibition that would silence my criticisms and as much as I wanted to have presumptuously underrated Hirst's understanding of Painting, Sculpture, Installation and Conceptual Art, the results of the Tate Modern's considerable collection did nothing to appease my cynicism.

Of course, attempting to create something interesting out of Hirst’s astonishingly limited body of work was always going to be a thankless task for the Tate and the job of curating it is for the most part capably handled, each room designed to portray a specific movement in Hirst’s career, beginning with his early works, sloppily painted attempts at “Spot-paintings,” a photograph of a young Damien Hirst with a dismembered cadaver and a strange contraption that keeps a ping-pong ball aloft using bursts of air. The second room primarily consists of more large, colourful spots, cabinets of pristinely arranged tablets and the occasional vitrine featuring the life-cycle of flys or a formaldehyde sheep. The fourth room continues in this vein, introducing the familiar use of cigarettes as a metaphor for death (of course) and showcasing more spliced animals in vitrines.

One of the most obvious difficulties in presenting a retrospective of Hirst’s work is the fact that these works have been so over-publicised, every new piece greeted with such controversy and criticism, that inevitably nothing about the exhibition feels fresh or original. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that these works are mostly stagnant (literally,) overly-familiar, meagrely-skilled mock-ups of other Artist’s ideas, like the series of paintings behind glass, in the fifth room, which is supposedly a reference to Francis Bacon’s use of glass as an additionally reflective element reinforcing the exhibition process, which in itself was hardly a novel idea. It becomes increasingly obvious as you peruse the exhibits, that these works no longer hold any value beyond that of the financial, a cruel reminder of Hirst’s inability to engage effectively with anything other than elitist auction houses that gobble up his preposterous efforts greedily, grossly over-valuing his work and consequently widening the gap between elitist and accessible contemporary art.

Without a doubt, there are fleeting moments of satisfaction, the obviously highly publicised use of live butterflies in the site-specific installation In And Out Of Love explores the little creatures short lives as a fairly obvious metaphor for the fragility of life, breaking deliciously from various pupae around the muggy sixth room, the site of meandering exotic butterflies uncharacteristically engages with the audience and effectively symbolises the cycle of life and the beauty of nature trapped in an undulating flow of mortality, while the seventh room, entitled Pharmacy transforms the gallery into a sterile environment, the walls lined with huge cabinets packed with mass-produced medication, bleak and overbearing, it nicely illustrates the desperate human tendency to prolong life in the face of impending doom. Of course the irony of mass-produced placebos as a metaphor for the futile struggle to outlive our natural life-span as depicted by the most lingering of Artists goes largely unnoticed, which when considering the general lack of irony in Hirst’s work, should be largely unsurprising. The fact that Hirst always maintained that exhibitions at the Tate were only for "dead artists" is, in hindsight, a fittingly self-fullfilling prophecy rife with the kind of irony that would soar over Hirst's head like a butterfly on a bid for freedom.

The Inescapable Truth
To come full circle and return to The Emperor's New Clothes, that wonderful tale of 18th century swindlers genially leading an arrogant king to his social demise, one is inexorably reminded of the contrasting responses from the King’s loyal subjects to said swindlers handiwork, everyone but the child remained silent, perpetuating the great king’s unfounded self-belief and reinforcing the lies his supposedly trusted tailors had peddled. And as the self-professed ‘Bad Boy of Modern Art,’ Damien Hirst is surely one of Art’s greatest con-men, peddling his smug observations and sub-par talents as if he wields some kind of cosmic, awe-inspiring wisdom, essentially clothing his art in a cloak of invisible bullshit that appears to effectively blind the star-struck, celebrity obsessed masses to it’s utter hollow pointlessness. And yet, as Hans Christian Anderson inferred, responsibility cannot be pinned only on the swindler, but also falls on us as his audience, a crowd of observant subjects, loyal to the concept of Art and beholden to the freedom and diversity of the Artist but too outspoken to voice our concerns over the increasing madness unfolding before us.

If you weren’t unsettled by the obviously tacky regurgitation of one very tired theme or disheartened by the overtly commercial outlook of absolutely everything on show, then you are possibly about as alive as a disemboweled cow, split in half and stored in a glass case of formaldehyde (Mother and Child Divided -incidentally.) All this is uncomfortably reinforced by the fact that unusually but not unexpectedly Hirst has created within the actual exhibition his own personal financial alter, filling the penultimate gallery-room with all manner of Hirst-related merchandise, including “Skull T-Shirts” and “Make-it-yourself” Spin/Spot-Painting sets. The popularity of this bleakly oppressive room, ceremoniously separated from the general Gallery shop downstairs (which incidentally also stocks the entire Hirst range, should you have missed it the first time around) only proves to reiterate the stark contrast between the types of Gallery visitors that flood to these sensationalised events, those that queue and claw their way to the nearest “Do-It-Yourself Spin-Painting Set,” gasping in awe at the sheer audacity of a diamond encrusted skull and nodding approvingly at the supposed profundity of a room packed floor to ceiling with artificially manufactured diamonds and then the rest of us shuffling towards the exit briskly, attempting to differentiate between the final few rooms of the exhibition or trying to remember what was actually in the first room, last seen all those hours ago, raising our eyes cynically to the heavens as we pass yet another formaldehyde-stored corpse, typically positioned to evoke, or more likely mock Christian symbolism, frozen, as always, in the last moments of death, we cast one last despairing glance back at the absurdly self-aggrandising nature of the whole thing, and leave, muttering under our breath… “The Emperor has no clothes…”

(‘Damien Hirst’ runs until the 9th September)

Thursday, 5 April 2012


Act Of Valour

Ultimately, the less said about this hilariously bad ‘Modern-War’ movie the better. However, allow me to briefly dissuade you from two of the most wasteful hours you are ever likely to spend. 

A humorless celebration of the US Navy Seals that apparently draws on actual events and boasts a completely indistinguishable cast of actual soldiers, this follows a series of missions involving the rescuing of a kidnapped CIA agent, the tracking of an international terrorist and the last ditch attempt to avoid world destruction. Of course, the antagonist is a heavily bearded, ill-tempered Muslim with a passable understanding of explosives and a skinny, rat-faced, Russian-Jew, drug-smuggling accomplice who giggles and sneers and leers but actually provides no clarity on the already dubious plot. Marines on the other hand, are a hard-as-nails group of highly efficient, almost indestructible jocks, bound together by dubious sentiment and devoid of any semblance of human emotion. It’s the age-old conflict between good guy and bad guy, between Cowboy and Indian, between American and Muslim, between survival and self-sacrifice. In reality, of course, life is barely this black and white, but that’s of no concern to our dynamic filmmaking duo, first time directors Mike ‘Mouse’ McCoy and Scott Waugh.

The directors main concern is with creating authentic action and impressive technical specs, without the hindrance of attempting to humanise characters, nor are they concerned with the potential pitfalls of aggressive stereotyping or racial characterisation. The natural consequence of which is an utter lack of empathy for anyone on screen, simply because absolutely none of them exist outside of their neat, convenient catagorisation. Lazy attempts to delve deeper into the world of the archetypal modern terrorist go as far as the bad guy playing violin and the suicide bombers being Muslim Filipinos (NOT middle-eastern, don’t you know.) The directors undercut themselves dramatically by chosing to emphasise technical authenticity over character development and individual performance, employing actual Navy Seals in the primary roles lends an admittedly convincing and terrifyingly frenetic air to the combat scenes but unforgivably compromises any scene that requires more than just dead-eyed, thin-lipped delivery.

In the world of Act Of Valour, faceless, American heroes patrol the borders of the great U.S. with steely determination, mumbling incoherent cack about “loyalty” and “honor” while casually enjoying books on poetry and art (which implies more depth than their appearance would have you believe) and quoting literary icons and military leaders like isn’t at all embarrassing. The final showdown pits our angelic heroes against an unlikely combination of mustached Mexican drug cartels (whose interests are strictly withheld) and witless Filipino bomb mules as the last-gasp chance for a humanity we have to assume exists.

If the same gusto that was applied to the often breathtaking action-scenes had been applied to the moments of human interaction between soldiers, their wives and friends, then perhaps there would be something for an audience to invest in, as it happens, there isn’t and so this banal, formulaic disaster of a movie goes by without a hint of emotional resonance.

In Short: A hopelessly inept, exhaustingly jingoistic slice of U.S. Military endorsed propaganda. Completely without irony or humour, leaden with racial stereotypes and utterly forgettable, AOV claims to draw from ‘actual events’ but plays out like the next instalment of the Call Of Duty franchise, it’s greatest crime though, is to inadvertently undermine and ridicule the brave work of many soldiers.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012



The Island President 

Jon Shenk's second feature documentary, after his excellent 2003 film ‘Lost Boys of Sudan,’ explores the complex life of enigmatic Ex-Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, a political prisoner in his own country for much of his adolescence under the tyrannical former regime of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a dictator he later ousted through peaceful protest and via a landslide public vote that instituted democratic reform. During the film we follow the excitable and infallibly positive Nasheed during his first term as newly elected president of The Maldives, a glorious collection of islands located in the Indian Ocean, under the very real threat of extinction due to rising sea-levels and global greenhouse gas emissions.  
Shenk's documentary establishes the importance of President Nasheed's admirable battle against dictatorship, his long-time concerns for his country's future and his loyal band of advisors, a colourful and varied bunch from across the globe who feature in crisply shot talking heads and frantic hand-cam captured moments of panic and organisation. Nasheed himself copes rather well with the building pressure of a country’s expectations, the upcoming Global Warming summit and the continually dire news filtering through from his various environmental experts, all essentially confirming The Maldives’ desperate prospects. Nasheed comes across as an optimistic eco-warrior (except perhaps for his charmingly self-conscious nicotine habit,) calm, considered and intelligent, willing to put in the effort himself, ultimately resolving to make Maldives the first completely carbon neutral country by 2020, proving that it can done, even without the committed support of America or China.  
As optimistic and endearing as this documentary's central subject is, this is not a film that leaves you feeling optimistic yourself, with the final frames abruptly thrusting us from Nasheed's compromised Copenhagen campaign to the fact that he was violently ousted from rule in Feb 2012, by supporters inexplicably loyal to the former despotic regime, potentially leaving the Maldives in a dire situation, with minimal International support and growing environmental and religious problems, the future is bleak for the now exiled Ex-President Nasheed and his environmentally friendly ideals.  
Tragic as this is, surely more disturbing is the fact that Mohamed Nasheed's strangled cry for support has gone mostly unnoticed on a global scale, with a pitiful 1001 supporters on Facebook and a miserable 306 on Twitter, a particularly disturbing statistic when compared to the dubious KONY 2012 campaign that has to date amassed 788,855 supporters on Facebook alone.  
To support Democracy in Maldives visit to sign the petition and bring global attention to the recent coup d'etat and the plight of Mohamed Nasheed.

In Short: A brilliantly directed political documentary following the somewhat futile plight of Ex-Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, possibly the world’s last, great optimist. Stunning, moving, frustrating and disturbingly current, this is one of those hidden, yet utterly unmissable treasures.