Aug 13, 2019
My parents have been friends with the Czech photographer Marketa Luskacova since shortly after my father first started teaching in the United Kingdom. They met her when she was a young single mother living in exile. It was the early 1980s and she was a political dissident who had fled the Communist East for the relative freedom of the West. While she was not a fan of the Marxist-Leninist Stalinist regime in her own country, she was no advocate for Thatcher’s Britain either. She spent most of her time making photographs of working-class people who were on the edge of British society and threatened by neoliberalism.
Her most famous photography from the 1970s and 1980s is her series on the performers, hustlers, street people, and vendors who made up the community of Spitalfields Market. Her photography of them earned her praise from, and friendship with, John Berger. It also provided an important document, an artifact of historical memory, that attested to the diversity of human culture under threat from the neoliberal vision—musicians who made their own eccentric instruments, cobblers who handmade quality shoes in their shops not as luxury goods but as necessities for workers, and people regularly creating, rather than consuming, their own culture around rubbish can fires and wooden crates.
It was fitting, then, that we met Marketa for dinner at St. John Bread and Wine opposite Spitalfields. St. John’s might be my favorite restaurant anywhere. I will write about our meal in my London restaurant round-up. For now, I’ll focus on the conversation. Marketa is always illuminating. She is always thinking, feeling, trying to understand her own aesthetic, considering what it means to be an artist, how her medium enables her to see the world, always seeking the spiritual dimension—which for her always has a deeply political element to it, even if the politics are never explicitly stated. They’re there in her subject matter and her framing.
Marketa brought perhaps a fifty test prints from her ongoing series on a Czech carnival that she’s been shooting for nineteen years. Here was her first insight, there is much to be gained by returning to a subject and community year after year—depth of relationship, sensitivity to change over time, and not a bit of self-discovery. And that’s where she offered a second insight, there’s often an emotional disconnect between when she does her strongest work and how she’s feeling. She confessed that she didn’t particularly enjoy this year’s carnival. Over the last two decades it has grown from perhaps eighty people to over five thousand. Going this year was, for her, kind of a miserable experience—too many people observing, not participating, not wearing masks, making a spectacle of the whole thing. And yet, when she started to review her test prints, she realized that she had taken some of the strongest photographs of the carnival yet. Conversely, she confessed, that when she is feeling euphoric, carried away by the joyous feeling of the crowd, she often takes photographs that are not particularly good. Her own internal euphoria often causes her to misjudge what she’s doing—to think it is better than it is.
I can relate. I usually hate my sermons before I preach them. Often, it is the texts that turn out to be my best work—texts that get anthologized, republished in magazines, or assigned in college courses—that I have most negative reactions to prior to preaching. I suspect that is because that when I do my best work, I am deeply emotionally connected to it and this makes me aware of its flaws rather than its strengths just as I am about to put it out in the world.
I know that I am not alone in this. Not only does Marketa’s experience resonate with mine, but I have had a few conversations with my friend Titonton Duvante over the years on the subject. Titonton has been a techno innovator for almost thirty years. When he is really on, really connected with what he is doing, he is amongst the best electronic musicians out there. I have listened to a few thousand DJ and live sets over the last twenty-five plus years and some of Titonton’s are among the most memorable. But here’s the thing, he’s told me that there’s an exact relation between how nervous he feels, how anxious he is, and how good his performance ends up being. If he’s really nervous, on the verge of losing it nervous, then almost he inevitably offers a masterful performance. If not, then not.
Clearly there’s something about the emotional investment an artist has in their art—and preachers are, amongst other things, artists—that is closely correlated to their artistic production.
Back to Marketa... While we were together, she talked a bit about her recent show at the Tate and her upcoming show at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol. She and my parents had an extended conversation, which I won’t relate, about the various economic challenges artists face. And she shared that last year she received the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal from the Czech government. Of course, Marketa had a story about Jan Masaryk.
Her grandmother loved Jan Masaryk, thought he was a humane, sensible, and cultured leader. When the Stalinists seized power, they threw Jan Masaryk out of a window. He died. Marketa was four and she remembers her grandmother being completely distraught, sobbing, over and over again, “They’ve killed Masaryk. They’ve killed Masaryk.”
She told me that when she received the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal she thought of her grandmother. She imagined her smiling down from heaven on that day, proud of her granddaughter who had resisted the Stalinists and was now being honored with a medal named for a political leader who she had admired.
Spitalfields has changed. The street culture that Marketa photograph is entirely gone—washed away by upmarket shops and good. The cobblers who handmade shoes for the working poor have been replaced by boutique stores that sell fancy shoes, still handmade, to the affluent. Neoliberalism has succeeded in destroying so much of the vibrancy and power of the working-class throughout not just Britain, but the world. And yet, there’s something about Marketa’s story of her grandmother and the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal. It isn’t about anything as quaint as triumph of good over evil or the inevitable collapse of totalitarian regimes or anything else that I might find truly comforting. It has more to do with the power of perseverance and the truth that the future is always unwritten and that resistance, in some for another, continues. And that there is great power to be found in preserving, through stories, through photographs, in all the forms we can. We create records of resistance, memories and stories, so that, even after its defeat—for Jan Masaryk was certainly defeated—our resistance might continue to inspire future resistance to tyranny.
Aug 7, 2019
London is the city that looms largest in my childhood. I spent almost every summer of my youth here and have many memories about time in the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, Camden Town, and so many other places. I remember going to the theater and seeing Dustin Hoffman in the Merchant of Venice and both Starlight Express and Les Miserables with the original London casts. I remember staying in a flat several summers in a row near Michael Palin’s place on the edge of Hampstead Heath. I never saw the Monty Python member, but I did pass by the Laurel and Hardy statues he had outside his home on numerous occasions. And I remember playing in parks with my brother and enjoying British television—Doctor Who and Rowan Atkinson’s Black Adder on the BBC—and, most of all, British comic books.
My brother and I were huge fans of the fortnightly 2000 AD. When we were kids, we could get it at almost any newsstand. My parents bought us copies to keep us happy while they spent time with their friends at the local pubs. Each summer when we would stock up on as many copies as we could before we went back to Michigan. Through 2000 AD we were first introduced to writers like Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore. We also became familiar with the comic’s tradition of dystopian political critique and techno skepticism.
I was excited to introduce my son to 2000 AD when we arrived in London. I went to look for a copy in the Gatwick airport only to discover that newsstands don’t carry it anymore. When I was a child it was so ubiquitous that many of the longstanding comic book shops in London refer to it in their store names. Camden Town’s excellent shop Mega City Comics is a direct reference to 2000 AD’s disturbing vision that in the future the vast majority of humanity will crowd into a handful of urban conglomerations. But now Marvel and DC seem to have largely pushed out the independent, and political, 2000 AD. So it was to Mega City Comics that I ultimately had to go to buy a solid set of 2000 ADs. I bought a run of the most recent issues and another run of issues from the early 1990s.
On my way out of the store the clerk told me, “Many Happy Future Shocks to You.” The phrase is a reference to the short vignettes that appear throughout the comics—brief stories with surprise endings. They are creative and often push one to imagine a horrifying, totalitarian, future, as something that might be on the horizon. When I was a child, the comics usually celebrated the plucky bands of misfits and outsiders who struggled against thinly veiled illustrations of futuristic version of Thatcher’s Britain.
The clerk’s invocation of the classic phrase got me to thinking about how much London has changed since I was a kid. In many ways, the future of environmental degradation and rising totalitarianism that some of those 1980s comics warned about appears to have arrived—perhaps partially in the form of a corporate monoculture that won’t stock subversive comics. In other ways, London still feels like a familiar city in a familiar world. Pock marks from German ordnance still line the edge of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Tube is still way too hot in the summer. Double decker buses are still a really fun way to travel. A bits of Victorian, or even Roman, Britain keep popping up in unexpected places. I suppose that’s the way cities, and countries, are, the shocking future comes but often it overlays, rather than entirely replaces, whatever existed before.