Never having been a big fan of racist and misogynist humour, I’m cheered by the rumours that Top Gear may finally be axed. And about time too. Of course, this won’t change the fact that it was a very popular show. Stopping the show won’t suddenly mean that the huge numbers of people who enjoyed being thrilled by bigotry on the telly undergo a revelation, and decide to stop being wankers. No doubt they will find plenty of ways to continue shocking each other with admissions of pretty minded bullying and hatred. Because its so, like, daring to see a white guy making jokes about foreigners and women! What a rebel!!

So it goes. But it would be nice to not have it supported by the BBC.

Jodie Matthews has a brave opinion piece in the Guardian today on the move to drop the show. I say brave because, as the hundreds of comments the article has attracted show, when you point out that “humour” is racist you open yourself up to the braying crowds who try to shout you down by telling you you’re just not funny/intelligent/cool enough to ‘get it’. Pitching yourself into a battle, especially as a woman, with the kind of people who enjoy slapping their bellies and wiping away the tears of laughter while Jeremy Clarkson undermines a century of social progress: well, its not exactly going to be an intelligent debate, now, is it.

Moreover, she’s chosen to use the example of racism against Roma, Gypsies and Travellers – people its considered perfectly acceptable to be racist towards these days. They are the great big blind spot in the country’s multi-cultural dream. (I’ve talked about this before over here.) Ask your average British “liberal” friend about Travellers, and they start frothing at the mouth about dirty gypsies who, everyone knows, are all thieves and violent. All of them. Even the children. No doubt your anti-war, pro-life, organic-food, Obama supporting friend will have known someone who knows someone who once got robbed by someone they knew was a gypsy. Probably because of their beady little eyes or evil gypsy nose or something equally rational. Trying to point out the incredible double standards that permeate this kind of common-placed attitude is surprisingly hard work.

So it was refreshing to read her article. But depressing at the same time, that still – yes still, even though the US has a black president – we have to spell out in such explicit, point-by-point, arguments exactly why laughing at minorities is racist.

(And for those who want to squeal “oh its all about cars, not making bigoted jokes”, I give you: Car Talk. Less venom, more cars. Should suit you fine.)

I (very) recently came across the work of Do-Ho Suh, an artist whose sculptures filled with hundreds of tiny figures pressing up and out at the world conjure up images of pressure and conformity, but also collective space and solidarity.

Do-Ho Suh "Public Figures"

Suh’s Korean origins are a major theme in his work – in particular he returns to the effects of compulsory military service on both an individual and a nation. A giant chain mail suit of armour that seeps out into a carpet: each link under foot is a dogtag, and all there is inside the suit is a mirror. His self portrait is a line of suits, each rigidly neat. Nostalgia for something hated, the memory of having been dehumanised, the trauma of militarisation across generations.

Other works explore the existence of a foreigner, and that thorny issue of where you consider “home” to be after half a lifetime spent as an im/emigrant. But its his works that make use of the tiny figures that have really captured my imagination. There is an obvious reference to communist propaganda iconography, but he’s doing more than shoot at that particular pop-culture fish in a, like, totally ironic barrow.

The figures stand shoulder to shoulder, arms raised high, backs and legs bent under the same weight. Literally holding up the viewer in some cases; in my favourite piece holding up the plinth rather than sitting on top of it. Their faces could be expressionless – or they could be relaxed. Other sets of figures glow, gently melting into sensual pools of light. Somehow they don’t seem to imply repression so much as solidarity, warmth. Suh himself has said he sees them as expressions of the crowd, as a comment on collective and personal space.

And yet… their tiny stature, the sense that they are a collective version of Atlas doomed to stand holding the world for eternity… There is no doubt these are also images of repression, of the endlessly replaceable little people who make world go round but are oh so easily trampled under foot. But is it repression through forced solidarity (collective dehumanisation), or solidarity as a means of pushing back against (resisting) repression? I can’t decide. And I think that’s really the point.

Detail from "Public Figures"

I feel I can’t leave it without mentioning Antony Gormley, given that I already talked about both his “One and Other” plinth piece, and his “Fields” project which makes use of thousands of tiny blobby figures. But I’m actually finding the similarity between the two artists quiet irritating. I always appreciated Gormley’s work, but seeing Suh’s subtle, multi-layered and frankly far more interesting sculptures, I’m starting to find Gormley a little smug. Perhaps its wrong to put two artists next to each other like this. But if we do, say for the plinths, what do we get? Much as I like the idea of selecting people to “become” art on camera and be broadcast live around the world, I can’t help but love the concept of the people taking up the plinth above their heads and carrying it off.

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original here

Tuesday, midday. My usual method of navigation – turn up vaguely in the area of town I think I remember the Natural History Museum is in, and walk around until I find it – is not working. I know its somewhere near the Plaza de Armas. Having got off at the wrong metro stop, walked for ten minutes in the opposite direction, searched every street on, off and parallel to the Plaza and still not found it, I’m hot, bothered and hungry. Time to take a moment out for lunch.

Of course this becomes a whole new realm of annoyance, as I’m now in a pissy mood and can’t decide on anything. Dithering in front of a fried pollo place, pacing past several spots that seem ‘too touristy’, unable to make up my mind if I should just buy an empenada and eat it on a bench. Hunger makes me stupid, hence me wanting to make what ought to be a refueling situation into a comfort situation – I just wanna sit down somewhere that’s not gonna present a whole language/culture problem for half an hour, to drink a coffee and get my equilibrium back.

After another ten minutes walking in circles I notice what looks like a chain patisserie off one of the side streets of the plaza. The patisserie faces onto the street, selling pastries and bread over a counter, while the building behind appears to be a separate cafe area, a little tucked back from the street but still with a glass front facing a small patio area. There’s a big reassuring photo of a giant croissant on the glass windows, and various signs advertising the usual Santiago-style croissant and coffee deals. My feet hurt, I need coffee, it looks reasonable – I head inside.

And… I stop. I walk in the door, and stop up short, though I’m not exactly sure yet why. There’s… something. Something about the place I’m not sure about… A waitress on the other side of the room looks up, and makes a gesture for me to come in. I hesitate, still not sure. But I’m hungry. And damn it, I’m annoyed at myself for faffing so long already. I sit down at the nearest table.

A few days later, I finally worked out that I had just made a rather embarrassing mistake that, if I admitted it to any Santiagoen, would be considered hilarious. But I didn’t realise that at the time. Only… suspected. In a flustered kind of way.

The place looked like any other cafe. Tiled floor, small round tables with easy to wipe surfaces, bright florescent lighting, aforementioned giant croissant pictures on the wall. But it also looked a little odd. There were only two other customers, even though it was the peak of lunch time – the main meal of the day. Two young guys in black faux-leather jackets and short spiky hair, hunched over coffees, making occasional conversation with long pauses while they stared at the large plasma tv. A bored cashier seated on a tall stool in front of her till: middle-aged, a little plump, but neat enough with her carefully set hair, brown trousers and beige cardigan. The tv itself, blasting out what seemed like an MTV medley – all the hits of the last ten years rattling past in an endless mix that only stopped to give you a verse and chorus of each club anthem before lurching on to the next video. Slightly nauseating after a while, especially as the nearest table when I sat down was the one right underneath it.

But most of all, the waitresses. Two stick thin, very young women in entirely matching outfits and make up. A uniform no doubt. But a uniform of skin tight purple lycra mini-dresses, with spindly black high heels, black patterned tights, long pink nails and electric blue eye shadow. As I sat down a little uncertainly, one of them came over, sweeping long black hair over her shoulder as she handed me a short menu.

She acted exactly like any other waitress would. Which just made me more confused about the frankly weird outfit. I asked for a coffee and sandwich. She told me they only had one sandwich left.

Only one? But – but – what about the giant croissant on the door? Sorry, she says. Only one. But she could have it heated up for me.

I order the one sandwich this cafe has at lunch time, and sit sipping my coffee, trying to work out what is going on. I seem to be the only person here confused. The cashier and the waitresses act like there is nothing at all strange about either their attire, or me being here looking at them in their attire – even though this is a cafe with no food. I start to get paranoid about whether the two guys are really looking at Britney Spears above my head, or at me. Are they laughing at me for being somewhere I shouldn’t be? Because by the time I see a guy walk in off the street and deliver a shopping bag full of sandwiches to the waitress, that he’s obviously just brought from the supermarket over the road, I’m convinced that this must all be a front for something.

The waitress comes back and tells me politely that they now have more sandwiches. Perhaps I’d like to chose a different flavour? She lists the new ones just delivered – tripping back to the tiny little preparation counter on her ridiculously high heels when she forgets one. What she’s saying and how she says it is are utterly ordinary for a waitress. But she does have a tendency to lean in so close towards me that I find myself backing away from her in my chair. Towering above me in her heels with that long black hair about to fall on me as she politely asks if I’d like my chicken and avocado sandwich toasted… I’m grinning like a maniac so she won’t notice that I’m risking a broken neck trying to put another few centimetres between us.

While the sandwich is being taken out of its wrapper and put on a plate, I hunker down over my coffee and notebook, trying to look like I’m really busy and not at all confused. My waitress goes to stand by the cashier, leaning sideways against the counter with her arms over her skinny chest, gazing up at the tv. An air of controlled boredom hovers over them both.

Meanwhile, her matching colleague comes out from the back with a mop and a bottle of pungent bleach cleaner. Still mini-dress clad and stiletto heel shod, she gets down to mopping the floor. The whole floor. Working her way thoroughly round all those empty tables, she pushed on to clean under the table of the two guys who both ignore her as much as she ignores them. The bleach smell is putting me off my cheap white bread and mushy avocado sandwich, which I’m gulping down with as much speed as I can politely muster given that its pretty revolting to start with. She eventually makes her way over to me and, following the lead of the guys, I try to ignore the fact that she’s mopping up under my table while I’m still sitting here. And of course the fact that she’s doing so in what looks like more appropriate clothing for a cheap nightclub than the afternoon shift in a centre of town coffee shop.

I can admire a girl for being able to wash a floor that thoroughly. I can admire her for being able to walk in three inch heels. I can’t help but stare like an idiot at someone who is able to do both at once.

Eventually I have swallowed the last mouthful of my lunch, and the nice purple micro-skirt wearing waitress comes over with my bill. I leave a tip, she wishes me a nice day. As I hurry out, I notice that no one is noticing me, only watching me leave with the bored expressions of employees with no customers and hours to go till they can get out of their uniform and go home. The most confusing part of the whole experience is that I’m the only one who seems to think its really bizarre. Either I just walked into a strip joint posing as a coffee shop (in which case wouldn’t my obvious confusion have at least raised the slightest hint of a condescending eyebrow?), or there’s a really odd fancy dress theme going on today that the staff are totally unfazed by.

Half an hour later, when I finally stopped at an internet place to check, I worked out the Natural History Museum is on the other side of town to the Plaza de Armas. An hour later, when I got there and read the hand painted banner on the door, I found out the museum was closed because the staff were all on strike. Three days later, while looking through my guide book, I came across the following that explained the cafe.

It makes them sound so easy to spot.

It makes them sound so easy to spot.

The most annoying day I’ve had so far in Santiago? Quite possibly.

Exchange between my 5 year old Asterix-obsessed niece and her godmother:

“So when you grow up do you want to be a teacher like me and Daddy?”

“No (appropriate level of scorn) of course not. When I grow up I want to be a Roman.”

Sunday. 2pm. Sitting in the multiplex cinema waiting for Emma. On the weekends the whole city closes down apart from a few sparse cafes and the larger shopping malls. Even those are practically deserted. Planning ahead, we arrange to spend Sunday afternoon sitting in the dark somewhere warm, eating popcorn and watching Harry Potter.

Hence here I am, in the big, bright, multicoloured and sticky foyer of the multiplex. Its the school vacation, so there are hoards of kids everywhere. And since the Harry Potter movie only just came out, there’s a small band of moody looking teenage goths in black plastic capes and pointy hats hovering together in a corner.

Bright lights. Sticky yellow and red colours. Bursts of popping, whizzing machine noise. The smell of pop corn, disinfectant, and hot dogs. Plump, bored employees in matching t-shirts and baseball hats. I’m early by ten mins, so find a safe haven on a bench festooned with M+M characters, half hidden behind one of those machines that gives you plastic tat in small round eggs. Next to me on a bench sits a middle aged guy, staring vaguely into the distance with the blank expression of a boyfriend deposited there by his girlfriend while she goes to get the tickets. We sit on opposite ends of the M+Ms bench, a little island of silence.

After a while two young female employees come over with a mop, half a cardboard box folded up, and expressions of resignation. They set themselves up a few meters in front of us, over a tiny splash of something on the floor that that looks sticky. Trying to ignore the kids that rush around them, one mops the floor while the other starts to fan the slops of water with the piece of cardboard. Mop. Fan Fan. Mop. Fan Fan. Both work in a slow, lackluster manner, but while the mopper keeps her head down, the woman with the “fan” stops every few seconds to shift her weight to the other foot, stick her hand on her hip, and cast glances around her. All the while keeping up a desultory stream of chit chat with her colleague, desperate not to draw attention to herself, desperate to make some small act of separation between herself and the utter ridiculousness of what she’s doing. But its hard to look ironic when you’re wearing a bright yellow t-shirt and baseball cap and flapping a piece of cardboard over a puddle.

The guy on the bench and I both stare at them. The moment passes. The kids carry on screaming and running around in a grease and sugar induced frenzy.

The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove…